On the Monday after Easter, Pastor Gerald Toussaint made another trip to what was left of his Mount Pleasant Baptist Church in Opelousas, Louisiana.
The navy suit, blue tie and dress shoes that Toussaint wore to preach during two Easter Sunday services had been replaced by a work shirt. His pants and steel-toed work boots were now covered in ash as he rummaged through charred pieces of wood, salvaging what little had not been damaged by fire or water.
With the help of one of his deacons, Toussaint removed a small podium, then went back to retrieve a larger, blackened wood podium, still fixed where the pulpit used to be. It was the original, Toussaint said, built when the church was founded 145 years ago. It stood where generations of families gathered to praise and worship every Sunday. Where his father had preached for 21 years, the longest stint of any pastor, until Toussaint, 56, took over 14 years ago.
Toussaint looked up for a moment to admire the beautiful blue sky with perfect, puffy white clouds, a stark contrast to the red brick structure crumbling in the background. The sky reminded Toussaint of the day two weeks ago when he learned that the 21-year-old white arsonist allegedly responsible for setting Mount Pleasant Baptist ablaze was arrested.
“When Jesus died on the cross, the heavens opened,” Toussaint said. “It got very dark and it started raining. That’s how it was when he burned the church down. It was pouring down raining. But when they found him, it was pretty like this. A beautiful day.”
On April 4, Mount Pleasant Baptist became the third historically black church to go up in flames within a 10-day span in St. Landry Parish. The first fire was reported on March 26 at St. Mary Baptist Church in Port Barre, Louisiana. The second fire occurred on April 2, less than 10 miles away at Greater Union Baptist Church in Opelousas.
The suspect, Holden Matthews, the son of a local sheriff’s deputy, was arrested and charged with two counts of simple arson of a religious building, one count of aggravated arson of a religious building and three hate crime counts. He pleaded not guilty to all counts and is being held without bond.
Despite the chaos and mourning, Toussaint and parishioners from all three churches remain optimistic and hopeful for the future. It’s something that Toussaint wants to encourage among his congregants, which is why he chose the theme “Only Believe” for his Easter sermon. Toussaint found the story of Doubting Thomas from the Gospel of John to be fitting under the circumstances.
“Thomas said, ‘Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I shall not believe,’ ” Toussaint said. “Jesus came back to him and said, ‘Here, Thomas. Put your finger here. Reach out your hand and put it to my side.’ He said, ‘You believe because you’ve seen, but blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe.’ Stop doubting and believe.
“We know that we, as a church, we’re going to restore. I knew that God was going to reveal the guy who did it. It didn’t take but six days. I told them at church that the Lord created the Earth and the heavens in six days and on the seventh day, they rested. The first day, [Matthews] burned the church down. On the sixth day, they caught him. On the seventh day, we all just sat down and relaxed because they already had him. We didn’t have to worry about nobody burning another church down.”
Ten miles down the road at Greater Union Baptist Church, member Florence Milburn battled a wave of emotions. Milburn, 52, looked at the dilapidated structure that still holds fond memories of her upbringing.
“This is the only church I’ve ever belonged to,” Milburn said while staring at the rubble. “The first night, I was devastated, bellied over, crying like I’d lost my mom. It was an awful feeling, like someone had just stolen everything of value to you. The first two days, my sisters and I cried a few tears. But we’re so prayerful that we know that God is in the midst of everything, so we got our hope back and think about the memories we’re still holding on to.”
Milburn comes from a family of 12 children who all grew up in the church. It’s where she was baptized as a child and where her children were baptized. Both of her parents, who were married for 69 years and died three months apart in 2018, are buried behind the church. All three churches that burned have cemeteries that hold generations of families directly behind their structures.
It will take time for Milburn to forget what it was like to get the call that the church was on fire and watch helplessly as the blaze engulfed the entire structure.
“I live about 15 to 20 minutes away, but the drive felt like an hour to two hours,” Milburn said. “We were coming, and we were hopeful that maybe it was just one little part or a corner. But [on the road leading to the church], you can smell the burning. Immediately when I smelled the burn, I started wailing and crying. I couldn’t breathe.”
The black church, particularly in the Deep South, has been the heart and soul of the community for centuries. It is a place to worship and praise freely, speak to God without restrictions, gather with family, whether you were related by blood or not. Black churches were one of the only places where anyone and everyone were meant to feel welcome and safe.
Until they started burning.
Black church arsons in America date back to the 1800s, experienced an upward swing in the 1950s and ’60s, and caused waves of terror in the 1990s. Racists and hate groups used the burnings to instill fear and paranoia within black communities, taking away one of the most constant safe spaces residents had. Before the St. Landry Parish church fires, the last reported church burnings in Louisiana occurred between February and June 1996. On Feb. 1 that year, four churches were set on fire on the same day in Zachary and Baker. After six months of investigation, it was determined that the churches were targets of hate crimes. Three other churches in Baker, Paincourtville and Shreveport also burned that year.
Although the history of church burnings is well-known to those in black communities, the most recent fires were another painful reminder of the past that many history books, and those in denial, attempt to bury under the guise of progress.
Toussaint questioned the actions of Matthews as he continued to dust ash from church remnants.
“What’s going through the minds of people these days?” Toussaint asked. “He’s a young man. Where would that come from, from a 21-year-old young man? He should know nothing about racism. But he knows what he’s been taught. You can train a child to shoot a gun, but if you fill it with hatred, he’s going to use that gun [for evil]. You can train a child to light a campfire, but when you fill his heart with hatred, this is what you get.”
Toussaint pointed to the unstable structure, which continued to collapse days after the fire.
“That’s the results.”
There were, however, uplifting signs and hopeful gestures from not just the communities in Opelousas but from around the world.
Before the Notre Dame Cathedral fire in Paris on April 15, donations to the GoFundMe page designated to help the three churches had barely reached $100,000 of their $1.8 million goal. Former New Orleans Saints tight end Benjamin Watson was one of the first to announce his pledge to help rebuild the churches, and he spread the word about the fires through his Twitter feed. After the Notre Dame fire became a trending topic on Twitter, others joined in to spread the word about the fires in St. Landry Parish. Today, the donations continue to pour in and sit at $2.1 million.
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As Milburn continued to talk about church memories, a silver car pulled to the side of the road and slowly approached the church. Two elderly white women rolled down their windows, greeted Milburn with a smile and offered their condolences.
“We’re so sorry to hear about your church. We’ve been praying for you, and we hope you all are able to rebuild soon,” one of the women said. They rolled their windows up and continued on their drive. Those are the signs of hope that lets Milburn know the community can only grow stronger from here.
“I guess you can call it a crazy kind of faith, but we just feel untouchable,” Milburn said. “God has just been so good to us. Ain’t nothing gonna happen to me, because God got us. My faith never wavered.”
Down the road, Toussaint approached a storage shed where he placed items from the church that he plans to restore in the future. In the middle of a folding table was a Bible that seemed to be in good shape, save for mild water damage due to the rain.
“The Bible was opened when we picked it up. This is the page it was on. Psalm 23,” Toussaint said.
Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.
“Joshua says, ‘Be strong and courageous. Do not be terrified,’ ” Toussaint said. “That’s what you’ve got to do. The future is bright. God said, ‘I’ll make your enemy your footstool.’ He sure got a footstool comin’.”
There’s no denying it at this point. If Quavo, Offset and Takeoff, collectively known as the hip-hop supergroup Migos, woke up tomorrow and decided they were done with rap, they’d already have more than enough material for a greatest hits album. We’re pleased to report they aren’t, but that doesn’t mean we can’t have fun with their extensive catalog anyway.
Sports and Migos go together like the Jheri curl and Soul Glo in Coming To America. Look no further than LeBron James’ Instagram Stories, Kevin Durant giving Quavo a game-worn jersey during the Golden State Warriors’ annual Atlanta stop, Los Angeles Laker Lonzo Ball’s playlist and, most importantly, Quality Control’s trophy case featuring Quavo’s All-Star Celebrity Game MVP award that he deservedly won last month in Los Angeles.
With the Sweet 16 tipping off this weekend, it’s only right, with the Three Wise Migos themselves, that we unveil the “Skrrrt 16.” It’s exactly what you think it is too: a March Madness-style bracket curated by us (The Undefeated) and them (Migos). And just like the actual NCAA tournament, there are a plethora of snubs — “John Wick,” “Say Sum,” “Slippery,” “Too Hotty” and more — but Migos just has too many dope records.
We need your help with narrowing down these 16 into the ultimate one. The conversation is happening at Twitter. Have your friends get with our friends and we can fill a bracket before the weekend. Without further ado, let’s get to it and break down the regions …
— The Undefeated (@TheUndefeated) March 20, 2018
Culture I Region
- “Bad and Boujee” (2016) — This is the top overall seed of the bracket — and for good reason. Despite all the surefire hits the Migos have to their name, “Bad & Boujee” is the only one that went to No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100. The dynasty the track sparked all began in August 2016, when Quality Control got out of a deal with 300 Entertainment. “The rest,” the label’s chief operating officer, Kevin “Coach K” Lee, said recently, “is history.” The record took off and catapulted the group into another stratosphere of influence, complete with countless memes and an iconic shout-out from Donald Glover on the Golden Globes stage. “Bad and Boujee” is the undefeated heavy favorite to win this bracket.
- “T-Shirt” (2017) — This was a tough one for the selection committee. We had to decide between making “T-Shirt” a No. 1 seed (which it probably should be) or placing the track as a No. 2 seed in the Culture region, with an epic matchup against “Bad and Boujee” in play for the Elite 8. Not to get ahead of ourselves, but “B&B” vs. “T-Shirt” in the second round would settle an often debated question that even the greatest of hip-hop connoisseurs have failed to settle: Which one is the best track on Culture? Perhaps its stunning The Revenant-meets-the-trap-themed video will give “T-Shirt” the slight edge.
- “What The Price” (2017) — You can’t tell me Takeoff yodeling, “WHAT THE PRIIIICE” doesn’t sound like Mufasa from The Lion King. This is hip-hop opera, if we’re being honest with ourselves. It’s such a classic Migos cut, and superstrong 3-seed, setting the stage for a huge matchup with “T-Shirt” in the opening round of Skrrrt 16. Is a potential upset brewing? We shall see.
- “Bando” (2012) — Fun fact: The Migos and the 2017 NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year, running back Alvin Kamara of the New Orleans Saints, all grew up together in Nawf Atlanta. And one story that Kamara always recounts is his memory of the then-up-and-coming rappers going to nightclubs every weekend to perform one song, and one song only, hoping to catch their big break. That song? “Bando,” which is where it all really began for the hip-hop trio. You’ve gotta respect how far Quavo, Offset and Takeoff have come since this early banger.
Culture II Region
- “Stir Fry” (2018) — It’s a No. 1 seed for a reason. In what will likely go down as Culture II’s biggest hit, the Pharrell-produced number was also their third-highest charting single — No. 8 on the Billboard Hot 100. The wide appeal of “Stir Fry,” while still remaining true to the group’s eccentric dynamic, is undeniable; it was the NBA’s official theme song of All-Star Weekend. Hard to deny that résumé a No. 1 seed.
- “MotorSport” (2018) — Cardi B’s aggression blended with her simultaneous public displays of affection for Offset. Nicki Minaj’s follow-up that (temporarily, at least) quelled rumors of long-standing beef between the two rap stars. The three Migos crafted a futuristic trap monster that set the stage for Culture II.
- “Walk It Talk It” (2018) — The most intoxicating music video of 2018 has arrived, and we’re only three months into the year. On March 18, while teams in the NCAA tournament were fighting for spots in the Sweet 16, the Migos dropped the visuals for their Culture II track “Walk It Talk It” in the form of a Soul Train-themed masterpiece, which features Jamie Foxx as the Don Cornelius-inspired host of the fictional program Culture Ride, the hip-hop trio as a swaying band swagged out in ruffled suits on top of platform shoes, and the song’s featured artist, Drake, coming to the stage rocking a Jheri curl. Co-directed by Daps and Quavo, the video even features a version of a Soul Train line, down which Offset pops and locks. Everybody and they mama surely took a break from hoops to watch this when it was released Sunday. Foxx, Quavo, Offset, Takeoff and Drake — that’s a starting five right there, boy.
- “Handsome and Wealthy” (2014) — Catch this in the club, day party or cookout and it instantly becomes a choir rehearsal that your church aunts and grandpas would likely not approve of. One of the group’s earlier smashes, it still goes, and bless Offset forever for his closing spiritual: I know why you came in this club tonight / Looking for a n—a that’s gon’ change your life. Those bars leading directly into Quavo’s hook? Glorious. Simply glorious. “MotorSport” might be in trouble.
- “Fight Night” (2014) — Seven months before the drop, and ensuing success, of “Handsome and Wealthy,” the Migos delivered an absolute smash with the certified gold “Fight Night” — the group’s highest-charting pre-“Bad and Boujee” single, which spent 16 weeks on the Billboard Hot 100, peaking at No. 69 in September 2014. Also, if you had any doubts about Takeoff’s abilities in the booth, he squashed all of them by absolutely floating on the intro, hook and first verse of “Fight Night.” He opens with four masterful bars — If you know me, know this ain’t my feng shui / Certified everywhere, ain’t gotta print my résumé / Talking crazy, I pull up, andale / R.I.P. to Nate Dogg, I had to regulate — and carries the track the rest of the way. Don’t sleep on “Fight Night,” which has all the components of a deep run.
- “Freak No More” (2014) — And now for the biggest sleeper in the pool: 2014’s club anthem “Freak No More.” This trap ballad, which never truly got the mainstream play it deserved (likely because of title and content), is the perfect combination of rapping and singing, with the choppiness of verses transitioning into Quavo’s suave crooning on the chorus. This is an early example of the now-proven fact that Quavo can carry a track not only as an MC but also as the ultimate hook man. You can’t tell us that you’ve never caught some twerk — or, for the of-age crowd, thrown some ones — while this served as the soundtrack to the moment. Watch out, “Fight Night” … “Freak No More” is a borderline No. 1 seed, coming for the upset.
- “Wishy Washy” (2014) — If you go back and look at the video, in particular at Offset, here’s something you’ll never be able to unsee: He looks like a regular-height Joel Embiid. Same hairstyle and everything. True story. Regardless, this standout from the 2014 project Rich N—a Timeline didn’t get much radio play because, well, you hear the subject matter. But let’s just say it lived and thrived in the ecosystem of Atlanta’s (strip) clubs without a hitch.
- “Cocoon” (2016) — There’s a prophetic aura that surrounds the Migos’ non-album single “Cocoon,” which dropped on May 5, 2016, before the August release of “Bad and Boujee” and the group’s magnum opus Culture in January 2017. Be myself at the top like a cocoon (aye, like cocoon) / … We the wave, we the wave, typhoon (wave, aye, typhoon), Quavo spits on the track’s hook as a quasi-prediction of the rapid rise to superstardom the three rappers would soon experience — and their need to protect themselves (like a cocoon) once they reached the top. Obviously, in the end, the Migos back up these braggadocious bars. While “Cocoon” might be a forgotten track that some consider a throwaway, it’s definitely worthy of a Skrrrt 16 bid.
- “Versace” (2013) — The most incredible aspect of this song is its staying power: The song’s flow influenced the entire game. A Drake feature, in 2013, was like the Bermuda Triangle. He annihilates the feature so effectively that the song becomes his, and the original artists are left to wonder where they go from here. Drake undeniably put the remix in the figure-four leglock with one of the standout verses of his career — and one of the better features of the decade, if we’re really keeping it a bean. But Migos absorbed the publicity and became stronger. They really are the rap Voltron. If that’s not No. 1-worthy, then nothing is.
- “Hannah Montana” (2013) — If you’ve ever seen them perform this song live, especially at a festival, then the reaction this still gets a half-decade later is nothing short of amazing. Miley Cyrus (aka Hannah Montana) has since handed her struggle-twerk card in, giving the title a different context now. But the allusion to “Hannah Montana” as a drug reference was brilliantly cunning. The fact many outside of rap didn’t get the reference was the closest (and most unintentionally funny) hip-hop magic trick since Dave Chappelle’s revelation about “skeet skeet” in the early 2000s.
- “Pipe It Up” (2015) — “Look at My Dab” didn’t make the cut in the field of the Skrrrt 16, but “Pipe It Up” (which actually dropped first) is certainly puttin’ on for the Migos-created dab — the hottest dance in the past decade. It even inspired the group’s own brand of potato chips. Back in 2015, it was hard to find a highlight during Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton’s MVP-winning season without the second single off the group’s debut studio album, Yung Rich Nation, playing over top of it. That’s a winning formula from the song that features the refrain “Pipe It Up” 92 times. Far from lyrical genius, yes, but the track sure does make you wanna dab.
- “One Time” (2015) — A strong 2015 for the Migos brought us the culture-shaking dance records “Look At My Dab” and “Pipe It Up,” but it all began with “One Time,” which features a repetitive party hook: Smoke one one time (smoke one) / Drink some one time (drink, drink) / Lemme f— some one time (smash) / Tear the club one time (turn the club up). Opening with all three members of the group passed out on the couch after a night of Lord knows what, the music video is definitely inspired by 2009’s The Hangover and brings a similar infectious energy.
Editor’s note: This story contains explicit language.
NEW ORLEANS — At the kitchen table of his split-level downtown condo, a hop and skip from the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, Alvin Kamara scrolls through the video call log in one of his two iPhones. “I can FaceTime him right now,” he says. “He’ll probably pick up.”
It’s Christmas Eve, and four hours have passed since the New Orleans Saints beat the Atlanta Falcons, 23-13, to clinch the franchise’s first playoff appearance in four seasons. For Kamara, the Saints’ 22-year-old running back and the NFL’s runaway favorite for Offensive Rookie of the Year, the moment calls for some reminiscing about the journey.
Back to when he was juggling Division I offers and chasing league dreams. Back to when he was dominating on high school football fields in and around his hometown of Norcross, Georgia. After games, three of his childhood friends who aspired to be big-time rappers would show up at local clubs. “They’d come in with 100 people, perform and walk out,” Kamara remembers. “Just tryna make it.”
A music executive everyone calls “Coach K” is the man who gave the trio a chance, and to Kamara, Kevin “Coach K” Lee is his uncle. Coach K — who has managed the careers of Young Jeezy and Gucci Mane, and who is credited by The New York Times as taking Southern U.S. black culture global — is about keeping family close, and keeping it winning.
Kamara is the first and only athlete to be represented by Solid Foundation, a sports management division of Coach K’s Quality Control record label. And with a strong and close-knit support system, Kamara, a Pro Bowler and seven-time league Player of the Week, has revitalized the culture of the Saints, the city of New Orleans — and perhaps, in a tough year, of the NFL itself.
And those high school homies? They’re now known around the world by their rap names — Quavo, Offset and Takeoff, aka the No. 1 hit-making, Grammy Award-nominated Migos. “It’s dope to see the growth,” Kamara says. “Seeing them come up from nothing.” In 2017, the Migos emerged as the world’s most influential rap group, perhaps the best since OutKast.
“I was talking to Qua yesterday,” Kamara says before tapping on Quavo’s contact to initiate another FaceTime. “He was like, ‘Man, I’m proud of you. You just been ballin’. I remember when shit was bad and you stayed true to it.’ ”
True indeed. In his first season in the NFL, Kamara has averaged 7.7 yards per offensive touch, more than any player in league history (minimum of 200 touches). Not since Gale Sayers in 1965 has a rookie scored five rushing touchdowns and five receiving touchdowns in a single season — until Kamara. And Kamara’s ballsy, fake-kneel, 106-yard kick return for a touchdown in the regular-season finale is the longest play in Saints franchise history.
No other NFL player in the league is doing quite what he’s doing, and no other player looks quite like him either. In addition to wearing his hair in twists, he rocks two nose rings and a shiny gold grill in his mouth — on the field. And off of it, Kamara has plenty of gold around his neck, Louis Vuitton on his wrists and Alexander Wang on his feet. In a season polarized by protests, and missing star New York Giants receiver Odell Beckham Jr., Kamara brought swag to the NFL. He might even mean as much to the culture as the Migos right now.
Nine long rings on the call to Quavo, and no answer.
“I don’t know what he doing,” Kamara says. “He might call back.”
The recruitment of Alvin Kamara resulted in offers from just about every powerhouse college football program. On national signing day in 2013, with his mother, Adama, and Coach K beside him, Kamara decided to roll with the Alabama Crimson Tide, the school that once sent him 105 letters in a single day. He made the announcement during a crowded news conference at Norcross High School.
“Of all the kids I’ve ever recruited, I probably got closer to him and his family than any kid,” says Georgia head coach Kirby Smart, the former Crimson Tide defensive coordinator who secured Kamara’s commitment. “I don’t know why. He took a liking to me, I took a liking to him. We respected each other.” The two keep in touch via text and FaceTime. Kamara ends those calls with, “Love you.”
Kamara was poised for playing time despite a loaded depth chart — future NFL backs Derrick Henry, T.J. Yeldon and Kenyan Drake — at his position. But a knee injury requiring surgery forced him to redshirt. “Alvin got put down with the scout team,” Smart says. “I can remember Nick Saban having to kick him out of practice: Hey, if you’re not gonna run the ball with the scout team, get out of here. Alvin didn’t like the idea of that, and I think he’d be the first to admit he didn’t handle it well. We didn’t handle it well. He ended up saying, at the end of the semester, ‘I’m gonna transfer.’ ”
Kamara called Coach K to help him pack up his dorm room, and his uncle dropped everything he was doing — the Migos were just months from releasing their breakthrough hit, “Versace” — to be there. “Don’t even look back,” said Coach K. “We good. Whatever the next move is, we’re gonna execute it. We just gonna be A1.”
But on Feb. 13, 2014, at 19 years old, Kamara was arrested in Norcross for driving with a suspended license. “I’m sitting in the back of a cop car, like, What the f— am I doing?” He had enough pocket money to bail himself out, but police made him wait hours in a cell for his mother to come get him. “That was my sign,” he says. “Things had caught up to me.”
— Blue Dragon Sports (@bluedragonsport) November 12, 2014
Kamara decided to stop dodging calls from Hutchinson Community College and boarded a plane to Kansas. He says he essentially “disappeared” for a year into his version of Last Chance U. It took one super productive, conference-offensive-player-of-the-year season — 1,469 total yards of offense and 21 touchdowns in only nine games — to make him a five-star junior college prospect. Kamara returned to the SEC, this time to Tennessee. “AK is a good dude,” says Hutchinson recruiting coordinator Thaddeus Brown. “He just had to figure it all out.”
It may have helped that somewhere along the road from Tuscaloosa to Knoxville, Kamara embraced who he is, especially with regard to his personal style. His middle school classmates had called him, as Kamara puts it, “weird as f—.” But ever since, he’d run from himself. It was time to return.
It started with a stud in his left nostril that he’d always wanted. When Kamara noticed too many others with their noses pierced, he one-upped them with a septum piercing. At Tennessee, he began wearing both, and, instead of the usual plastic mouthguard, he wore a grill during games. Kamara: “I was just like, ‘Bruh, I’m about to be me.’ It’s gonna be real hard for y’all to make me not be me.”
“He’s so unassuming,” says David Raymond, Kamara’s day-to-day manager. “If you just see him on the street, you wouldn’t be like, ‘That’s a running back.’ ”
At the 2016 NFL scouting combine, Kamara, who had declared early, topped higher-profile running backs — Dalvin Cook now of the Minnesota Vikings, Leonard Fournette of the Jacksonville Jaguars and Christian McCaffrey of the Carolina Panthers — in both the vertical leap (39.5 inches) and broad jump (10 feet, 11 inches). He ran a 4.56-second 40-yard dash. Yet his history at ’Bama, coupled with his arrest, and even his choice to leave Tennessee early, made some skeptical. “You see the gold teeth,” says Raymond, “and the nose rings, but you don’t see the young man.”
Kamara notched a 24 on the Wonderlic. It was the highest score posted by any Division I running back prospect. And Kamara says that while he was training in Miami with former Hurricanes strength coach Andreu Swasey, he “never took one m—–f—— practice Wonderlic. I don’t know if people look at me and think, ‘He just plays football.’ I can chop it up on anything you want to talk about — from football … fashion … current news … history. We can do all that. I don’t just play football. I’m Alvin. Alvin Kamara. I happen to play football.”
Kamara’s stylish singularity, he feels, caused him in many cases to be condescended to, and in other cases to be racially pigeonholed. Kamara chooses not to reveal the name of an NFL owner who talked to him through a sneer. “You like fashion,” the man said. “Your friends are rappers. You got the look. You got the nose rings. You look like you could probably do something else … like you don’t need football.”
Kamara pondered: Just because I know some people? I’ve not made one song. If I wanted to be a rapper, I would’ve been doing that a long time ago. After the interview, the team’s running backs coach approached Kamara and confirmed what the prospect already suspected: The owner didn’t believe Kamara “loved football.” And that it was unlikely Kamara would be listed on the team’s big board come draft night. The interaction begged questions: Does a person have to “need” football in order to love it and play at the highest level? And can one love football and possess a full identity outside of it?
Kamara says at least three other teams tossed up similar red flags. “If somebody feels a certain way about the way I carry myself, or the way I dress, the way I talk, I don’t know what to tell you … because I don’t hate nobody. But if you don’t like me? I’mma keep it moving.”
Kamara’s flair may have been lost on some owners and front-office executives, but not on JR Duperrier, a sports marketing manager for Adidas. He had gone to the combine to sign former Michigan star Jabrill Peppers. When he got to Indianapolis, he found Kamara.
“My first impression of Alvin,” says Duperrier, “was he’s kinda swaggy. … He looked like he could dress a lil’ bit, and I could dig it.” Duperrier is quite fashion-forward himself, having been named by BET as one of the 25 most influential people in sneakers last October. “Given a platform, Alvin can excel. He’s his own person. He doesn’t follow what other people do.”
Adidas announced the signing of Kamara on Twitter, 17 minutes after the New Orleans Saints selected him in the third round of the 2017 NFL draft with the 67th overall pick (63 spots behind Fournette, 59 behind McCaffrey, 26 behind Cook and 19 behind Cincinnati Bengals running back Joe Mixon). For Kamara, his pre-draft gathering was a blur. Just a simple chat with head coach Sean Payton and running backs coach Joel Thomas. “They weren’t pressing me,” Kamara says matter-of-factly. Something about the Saints just felt right. When he reported to the team’s training facility for the first time, he noticed it again.
Maybe it was how defensive end Cam Jordan, a three-time Pro Bowler, greeted him for the first time. “This man got a nose ring! You f—ing millennials!” And the first time he met Drew Brees, the future Hall of Famer knew about Kamara’s skills, and recognized the potential. “ ‘I wanna work with you,’ ” Kamara recalls Brees saying. “ ‘Let’s grow together.’ ” Brees and Kamara have found common ground and channeled it into a rejuvenated winning culture in New Orleans.
“He always seems like he’s having fun,” says Brees, “and he definitely has a swagger to him. He fits in great with our locker room.” Throughout his first months in that locker room, Kamara won the rookie Halloween costume contest. He treated his offensive line to surprise rib meals in their lockers for helping him win FedEx Ground Player of the Week. And he sat on a throne of Airheads, a candy partnership Kamara had in his sights on since the draft. He always carries a pack of the taffy with him, offering some to anyone who crosses his path.
Most notably, Kamara has established a playing and personal relationship with the veteran of the backfield, Mark Ingram. The rookie has become what New Orleans calls the “zoom” to Ingram’s “boom” in games, after which the pair conduct hilariously informative postgame interviews together in front of their adjacent lockers. This season, they became the first running back duo in NFL history to each record 1,500 yards from scrimmage.
“This guy has so much on his plate,” says Ingram, “where he has to line up, how many different ways we wanna get him the ball. It says a lot about him as a professional. He deserves all of the success that’s coming his way.” Ingram calls Kamara not just a special player but also a special human being. “Offensive Rookie of the Year … we got it.”
And contrary to popular belief, which Kamara dispels any chance he gets, there’s no animosity between him and Adrian Peterson, whom the Saints traded to the Arizona Cardinals before Week 6, just as Kamara’s stock began rising exponentially. The rookie soaked up as much knowledge as he could from the future Hall of Famer. “Keep playing,” Peterson told Kamara once in practice. “Keep being you.”
He took the advice to heart: 1,554 total yards from scrimmage through 16 regular-season games. He also owns the highest yards-per-carry average (6.1) for any first-year rusher in the Super Bowl era (minimum of 100 carries) and broke a 36-year-old franchise record for most touchdowns by a rookie, with 14. Simply put, Kamara got all he could ever ask for in his first NFL team. Because the Saints let Alvin be Alvin.
It’s a party in Suite 354 at the Superdome — jam-packed with Kamara’s people. “I just got here,” says Coach K, fresh off a private jet to see his nephew play. “All he had to do is play ball when he got here. Be young. Bring the swag. Do his thing.” Quality Control co-founder Pierre “Pee” Thomas is there, along with David Raymond and Duperrier. New Orleans rapper Young Greatness is rocking a custom Alvin Kamara hoodie, created by the designer/stylist Tvenchy, who’s responsible for many of the rookie’s day-to-day outfits and is in the suite vibing as well.
It’s hard to miss the boisterous Tonee, who played high school football with Kamara before becoming Atlanta singer 6lack’s official DJ. Or JAT, a friend from Tennessee who runs her own hair business. Saints superfan Jarrius Robertson even pops in. Along with his mother (who watched from home, although she hates to see her son take hits on-screen, or in person), this is Kamara’s foundation. “I kind of try to block it out when I’m playing because it’s distracting, but at the same time … my friends are here, so you wanna do good,” Kamara says later. “Not only for me, but for them.”
After the playoff-clinching win that Kamara finishes with a solid 21 touches for 162 yards, he and the crew partake in his season-long tradition. They make the 1.1-mile journey from the stadium exit back to his apartment — on foot. Along the way, he’s stopped every five steps by curious Saints fans, wondering, Is that really Alvin Kamara? Yes, it’s him. And he’ll take a picture with anyone who asks. “If I sign an autograph, somebody will be like, ‘Put Rookie of the Year,’ ” he says. “Do I want to be Rookie of the Year? Of course. … You can only do it once. But I can’t put it until I win it.”
Hours after the walk home, New Orleans is abnormally quiet, save for the few packed restaurants. A Kamara and Quavo FaceTime happens, as the Migos’ genius sits in a glowing Atlanta studio and chops it up about jewelry and such — “Show me the ice!” he says — with the NFL’s most explosive offensive weapon. After the call, not even the star rookie running back of the Saints can secure a last-minute reservation downtown on the night before Christmas.
So it’s into his black Audi S7 V8T and on to a chicken wing joint on the outskirts of the city, where he’s perhaps even more heralded as he places a food order fit for an army. It’s apparent that the stone-faced cashier sort of recognizes him, though she can’t fully put her finger on the exact identity of the nose-ringed, beanie-wearing figure before her.
“We need that Super Bowl!!!” a middle-aged man shouts.
“Off rip. I got you,” Kamara responds with a dap. “A hunnid.”
A moment of clarity overcomes the cashier, who looks at her customer with a warm smile. “Alvin Kamara?” she says. “I thought that was you.”
A few days before Cameron Jordan rejected five passes that helped lead his team, the New Orleans Saints, to a 31-9 victory over the New York Jets, he’d visited a high school in the Louisiana area “on the West Bank.”
It’s his Tuesday ritual — going into the community to visit high schools or hospitals, or showing his face and lending a hand to any community event — something he’s faithfully done since his rookie season. Giving of himself to serve or encourage others is a habit Jordan learned from his father, six-time Pro Bowler Steve Jordan, who instilled great values and work ethic in him on and off the field.
Cameron Jordan is now up for the Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year Award, and he is elated about the possibility of ranking No. 1 out of the 32 nominees. The NFL recently announced the nominees for the award, which gives honor to a player who exemplifies the league’s commitment to philanthropy and community impact. Finalists will be announced in January.
Giving back comes naturally to the 28-year-old. Since being drafted by the Saints in the first round of the 2011 NFL draft, he has participated in at least one but sometimes multiple weekly community events as he has evolved into a defensive starter, captain, Pro Bowler and nationally recognized player.
Whether his participation has been team-related or sponsored by a community partner, a teammate or a fan, he’s remained selfless. For the past four years, Jordan has been the face of the Saints Kids Club. He spends several hours during the summer working with kids who take part in the Saints Community Patrol Summer Camps. He also delivers several motivational speeches to youth and high school students.
Each Man of the Year nominee will receive two Super Bowl LII tickets to give away to fans and community heroes. The five current players who have won the award are Drew Brees, Thomas Davis, Larry Fitzgerald, Eli Manning and Jason Witten. All 2017 nominees, including Jordan, have donned a Man of the Year helmet decal since the announcement was made in early December, and they will sport it through the end of the season in recognition of their accomplishments on and off the field. This tradition will continue for future nominees and winners of the award.
“NFL players are outstanding, generous men of character who give back to their communities,” NFL commissioner Roger Goodell said in a press release.
“Walter Payton represented the very best on and off the field and this year’s Man of the Year nominees exemplify his legacy of philanthropy and leadership. We are proud to support players as they use their platforms to drive positive change.”
In between practice and community events, The Undefeated caught up with Jordan about the driving force behind caring for the community.
What inspires you to donate your time and effort on a weekly basis to the community?
You know, if anything, I give credit to my dad. For as far back as I can remember, he’s always gave back to the surrounding community of Minnesota when he was playing, and Arizona, where we moved to after, where he’s from. He’s made an emphasis in his life just to give back just as much as he’s gotten from life. That’s a lot.
It’s easy to go to the pros and be able to try and give back to the next generation. What’s more motivating is not the fact that I’m doing it because my dad’s doing it, or I’m doing it because there’s some recognition part. If anything, I don’t want any of the recognition for it.
At the end of the day, I’m doing it because it’s the right thing to do. It’s a thing that can help a kid, will come back to me.
I’m not saying I’m the foundation — just a brick.
What’s your most meaningful cause to give your time to?
At this point, it’s almost a ritual to go out to a different school every Tuesday. Whether that be for New Orleans, whether that be New Orleans East, or whether that be the West Bank, you go out to as far as Houma and Boutte. It doesn’t really matter. Just the inclusiveness, the inclusivity of being able to show that there’s an NFL player that cares about these kids.
How do you balance being such a prolific football player and contributor to the team, and such a wonderful role model and community member?
I don’t know. That’s a great question because in terms of everything I do, I always want to feel like I can do more. We talk about there’s guys who’ve started a foundation, and as much as I talk about I could start my own foundation, is that also that, if I start my foundation, this is what you sort of have to stick to.
I guess it completely makes my possibilities limitless. … Me and [Saints wide receiver] Mike Thomas are doing this event Friday for the battered women’s shelter, where we’re going to take a whole bunch of families out there. It was basically just coming to each other, like, ‘Hey what can we do?’ This is an event that the Saints have helped people in the past. This is something that we can pick up and make it our own. Just whether that be going to Target and giving out gifts. Whether that be … whatever we can do, whatever we so set our minds to, that’s what we can accomplish.
What’s the hardest thing you’ve ever had to see in the community?
Anytime you do a hospital visit, anytime you talk about seeing an intensive care unit. It’s one thing to go and talk to kids, be able to see that life force, that active, vibrant energy in all aspects of life. Then you go around and you turn to a hospital visit. You see kids that are super young, months old to a couple years old, that haven’t even had a fraction of a life that you have. The empathy that you feel toward that family is just that much more genuine.
What’s the best piece of advice your father has ever given you about philanthropy?
He never did it for any recognition as well. It’s just something that you assume upon yourself.
There’s so many moments to be proud of that, as a kid, you just don’t pick up on that. As a man now, I realize how much he did. So it’s just easy enough to assimilate into the role of ‘What can I do for my community?’ As much as I try to say I’m my own man, I was molded by a perfect situation. I had a loving mother. My mom was like … she believes in the golden rule. She believes in Jesus. She believes in showing God’s light through a person.
Then you talk about my dad, who of course believes in always trying to teach the next generation, whether that be my first cousins, or my second cousins, or the random kids from our high school that just look like they may need some help. My dad was always there for that.
For more information on the nominees and the award, visit NFL.com/manoftheyear.
Week 13 in the National Football League, at least since last season, is all about creativity, customization and cause. Through the “My Cause My Cleats” campaign, which the league started in 2016, players can bend uniform guidelines and wear cleats designed to represent a cause of their choice.
Typically, players are only allowed to wear custom-painted kicks during pregame warm-ups. Then switch to uniform footwear while the game clock is rolling. But in Week 13, flashy cleats in vibrant colors, featuring unique illustrations and messages, are the norm. Athletes all across the NFL, from every position group, commission the hottest designers in the sneaker game to create the perfect pair of cleats for their cause. This year, around 1,000 players reportedly took part in the initiative, and after games ended, select cleats were sold at auction, with 100 percent of the proceeds benefiting causes such as the #BringBackOurGirls campaign, Colin Kaepernick’s #KnowYourRightsCamp, Habitat for Humanity, autism, POW and MIA families, anti-bullying, social justice and criminal justice reform, the Trayvon Martin Foundation and more.
“This weekend, you’ll really see the impact art has had on the NFL,” Los Angeles artist Troy Cole, aka Kickasso, tweeted before Sunday’s games. Last season, he designed every pair of New York Giants wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr.’s anticipated pregame cleats. “Art is a powerful way to tell a story #MyCauseMyCleats.”
Here are The Undefeated’s top 24 “My Cause My Cleats” customs, along with the players who wore them, the causes they supported and the artistic geniuses who brought charitable creativity to life.
Chidobe Awuzie, Cornerback, Dallas Cowboys
In 2014, 276 girls were kidnapped in Nigeria.. 2017 & more than 100 still in captivity. In Africa, issues rarely get attention or resolved. W Libya slave trade going on and girls still missing, I wanted to bring awareness & honor efforts for change in Africa. #MyCauseMyCleats pic.twitter.com/py4HrI7IDt
— Chido (@ChidobeAwuzie) December 1, 2017
Cause: #BringBackOurGirls campaign
Joe Barksdale, Offensive Tackle, Los Angeles Chargers
Cause: Fender Music Foundation
Designer: DeJesus Custom Footwear Inc.
Michael Bennett, Defensive End, Seattle Seahawks
— Michael Bennett (@mosesbread72) November 28, 2017
A.J. Bouye, Cornerback, Jacksonville Jaguars
At an early age, @AJBOUYE21 lost his mother to cancer.
— #Sacksonville (@Jaguars) November 28, 2017
Cause: American Cancer Society
Antonio Brown, Wide Receiver, Pittsburgh Steelers
Designer: Corey Pane
Kurt Coleman, Safety, Carolina Panthers
— Carolina Panthers (@Panthers) November 28, 2017
Meet the kid designers behind Kurt Coleman's #MyCauseMyCleats
— Carolina Panthers (@Panthers) December 1, 2017
Cause: Levine Children’s Hospital
Designer: Ryan Bare, SR Customs
Mike Daniels, defensive end, Green Bay Packers
A lot of kids experience being bullied; with #MyCauseMyCleats I want to raise more awareness on this issue. I'm asking you all to join me in putting an end to bullying!#GoPackGo pic.twitter.com/JsXpjysPQU
— Mike Daniels (@Mike_Daniels76) November 28, 2017
— Green Bay Packers (@packers) December 2, 2017
Stefon Diggs, Wide Receiver, Minnesota Vikings
— Minnesota Vikings (@Vikings) December 1, 2017
Cause: American Heart Association
Designer: Mache Customs
DeSean Jackson, Wide Receiver, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Cause: Brotherhood Crusade
Malcolm Jenkins, Safety, Philadelphia Eagles
— Malcolm Jenkins (@MalcolmJenkins) November 28, 2017
Cause: Social Justice and Criminal Justice Reform, Players Coalition
Eddie Lacy, Running Back, Seattle Seahawks
National disasters leave families homeless, helpless, hopeless & in poverty. I’ve been there & it’s not fun. It took us yrs to rebuild from Hurricane Katrina & that’s why Sunday, I’m rocking my cleats for the millions fighting to restore & rebuild #MyCauseMyCleats #GivingTuesday pic.twitter.com/4NQnH5ItUY
— Eddie Lacy (@Lil_Eazy_Ana_42) November 28, 2017
Cause: International Relief Teams, Hurricane Katrina
Designer: Bizon Customs
Jarvis Landry, Wide Receiver, Miami Dolphins
Cause: Cystic Fibrosis Foundation
Marshon Lattimore, Cornerback, New Orleans Saints
— New Orleans Saints (@Saints) December 1, 2017
Cause: Social injustices and honoring close friend Dayton Williams, who was shot and killed in 2010 in Euclid, Ohio.
Rishard Matthews, Wide Receiver, Tennessee Titans
Cause: Colin Kaepernick, Know Your Rights Camp
Gerald McCoy, Defensive Tackle, Tampa Bay buccaneers
Cause: “The Life of a Single Mom”
Designer: The Hulfish Project
Eric Reid, Safety, San Francisco 49ers
— San Francisco 49ers (@49ers) December 2, 2017
Repost @e_reid35 – Can’t wait to rock my cleats supporting @kaepernick7’s @yourrightscamp! Each emoji represents a topic covered in his camp to educate youth from marginalized communities. #MyCauseMyCleats
Gavel = Legal Rights When… https://t.co/x4YCUDz9ai pic.twitter.com/vB27pyJaEj
— KnowYourRightsCamp (@yourrightscamp) December 1, 2017
Cause: Colin Kaepernick, Know Your Rights Camp
Designer: Tragik MCMXCIII
A’shawn Robinson, Defensive Tackle, Detroit Lions
Proud to wear these for #MyCauseMyCleats on Sunday to help raise awareness for Leukemia and Down Syndrome. Let’s all work together to lend a helping hand where we can! #OnePride pic.twitter.com/lRAbIZh60n
— Ashawn Robinson (@AshawnRobinson) December 2, 2017
: In support of Leukemia patients pic.twitter.com/dAsD6zLfsq
— Detroit Lions (@Lions) December 2, 2017
Cause: Leukemia patients
Jaylon Smith, Linebacker, Dallas Cowboys
— Jaylon Smith (@thejaylonsmith) November 28, 2017
Designer: The Hulfish Project
Torrey Smith, Wide Receiver, Philadelphia Eagles
Shane Vereen, Running Back, New York Giants
— New York Giants (@Giants) December 3, 2017
Anthony Walker, Linebacker, Indianapolis Colts
— Anthony Walker Jr. (@__AWalkJr) November 29, 2017
Cause: Trayvon Martin Foundation
Designer: Desmond J. Jones, Art is Dope
Deshaun Watson, Quarterback, Houston Texans
— Houston Texans (@HoustonTexans) December 2, 2017
Cause: Habitat for Humanity
Designer: 5-year-old twins Kayla and Jakwan; Evan Melnyk, Nike
Russell Wilson, Quarterback, Seattle Seahawks
— Russell Wilson (@DangeRussWilson) November 28, 2017
— Seattle Seahawks (@Seahawks) December 2, 2017
Cause: Why Not You Foundation
Designer: Kate Neckel and Dash Tsai
Daryl Worley, Cornerback, Carolina Panthers
Designer: SR Customs
The term “coach killer” is football jargon used to label a player, normally a quarterback, whose on-field performance is so bad that it routinely undermines his coach’s game plan and eventually leads to the firing of the coaching staff. But there isn’t a term for when the opposite happens, when a coaching staff’s game plans are so insufficient that they undermine the skills of their quarterback. Until now …
noun: fish·er \ ˈfi-shər \
- A coach who makes his quarterback worse.
Origin: It is a derivative of Jeff Fisher, the former NFL coach.
After 22 seasons as an NFL head coach, five leading the Los Angeles Rams, Jeff Fisher and his staff were fired last season. Like many failed staffs, Fisher’s crew probably convinced themselves that they would have succeeded if they had only found a decent quarterback. By bubble-wrapping their egos in that theory, most coaches enjoy peace of mind for many years. But poor Fisher wasn’t even afforded a year of self-delusion because Jared Goff and Case Keenum became very good NFL quarterbacks almost immediately after being freed from his tutelage.
This season, Goff is 8-3 as the Rams’ starter under the guidance of 31-year-old rookie head coach Sean McVay. Goff was 0-7 a season ago. Keenum ended up in Minnesota with the Vikings, where he assumed the starting role after Sam Bradford, another former Fisher quarterback, got hurt. Keenum has gone 7-2 for his new team. He went 4-5 with Fisher in 2016. But their records aren’t the only evidence of improvement. With a Total QBR of 18.3 last season, rookie Goff was being called the worst quarterback of all time. So far this season, his QBR is 55.2. That places him right at the league average, which is promising for a player in his second season, his first as a Week 1 starter. At the beginning of last season, Goff was deemed unfit to even be a backup by Fisher and crew. He was third on the depth chart.
All quarterbacks should improve from their first season to their second. The average QBR increase from year one to year two is +5.6. But Goff’s QBR increase of 36.9 is enormous. If he sustains his current QBR, it will be the largest increase from first to second season since the stat has been kept. However, it might not be the biggest year-to-year QBR increase regardless of level of experience. That distinction could go to Keenum, Fisher’s other 2016 quarterback. If Keenum can sustain his 77.2 QBR (second-best in the league), he will have increased his QBR by nearly 40. The Vikings are Keenum’s third team in his five-year career. The first two seasons he spent in Houston, where his QBR was 48.6 and 39.3. Then he went to Fisher’s Rams for a couple of seasons, where he had the two lowest QBRs of his career (34.8 and 37.5).
To be fair to Fisher, he is a defensive-minded coach, so maybe the quarterback failures are not a result of his poor game plans. But hiring a complementary staff is one of the chief responsibilities of a head coach. And Fisher went through three offensive coordinators in his time with the Rams, so it doesn’t seem that he knows how to find the right guy. Goff and Keenum are surrounded by more talent than they had under Fisher, so that could account for some of the quarterbacks’ improvement. That explanation, though, isn’t strong enough to restore Fisher’s reputation. Only winning could do that, and no franchise is going to give the 59-year-old anti-quarterback whisperer a chance now. Which is probably for the best.
The stats show this season’s Rams offense under McVay is more productive. Watching the video of games shows why. This season the Rams are taking big shots down the field on early downs, when the defense is most susceptible. They are using receiver motion, tight splits and receiver stacks to keep defenders from pressing receivers at the line of scrimmage and to create mismatches and angles for the receivers to get open. And every week, they run a few unique route combinations that almost guarantee that a receiver will be open down the field.
In last week’s game against the New Orleans Saints, on one play the Rams overloaded the Saints’ zone coverage with four eligible pass catchers running routes to one side. Goff completed a pass to tight end Tyler Higbee for a gain of 38 yards.
McVay has taken the responsibility of scheming success for Goff. Fisher’s 2016 offense put the responsibility on Goff and the skill players to create success. The formations were traditional and stagnant, and the schemes were simple and predictable. On first down, they would run the ball or throw short, isolated passes. Fisher’s goal was probably to keep it simple for his rookie quarterback, but the game plan was obvious to the defenses. So opponents had a good idea of what the Rams were going to do, which meant that Goff had to be deadly accurate on every play or the receivers had to be spectacular. Fisher’s attempt to coddle Goff backfired.
Although Fisher is out of the league, it doesn’t mean that his way of thinking left with him. Goff and Keenum were fortunate to find situations that suit them. Not all young quarterbacks are that lucky. They get labeled as a bad quarterback before ever getting the opportunity to play for a creative and resourceful coach. Instead, they get stuck with a coach who is searching for a superstar quarterback to ride to glory rather than getting the best out of the players he has.
Oklahoma City Thunder assistant coach Mark Bryant was walking alongside the basketball court at the team’s practice facility when he passed a legendary face from the jazz world oddly hanging out. Bryant turned around on this September day to enthusiastically introduce himself to Branford Marsalis. The three-time Grammy Award-winning saxophonist was there to talk about the connection between jazz and basketball with Thunder general manager Sam Presti and head coach Billy Donovan.
“When I talk to people who are in a discipline outside of my discipline, talking to them kind of affirms to me what I know to already be true,” Marsalis said during a phone interview from Warsaw, Poland, after a recent performance. “That was that situation. Billy had a ton of questions. They know what they are doing. I really didn’t have a lot of questions. I just watched. But there was stuff I learned about the building, the organization and ownership being hands off. Just things that really matter.
“It was a great experience for me. I appreciate basketball. I appreciate the skill of it.”
Presti is a longtime jazz fan, while Donovan says he is not familiar with the genre of music. Both, however, have huge respect for superstar brothers Branford and Wynton Marsalis, who have combined to win 12 Grammys. Presti said that “nonbasketball learning” is important to the Thunder organization.
Presti and Donovan sat with Branford Marsalis hours before he performed with his quartet at the University of Central Oklahoma’s Mitchell Hall Theatre on Sept. 8. Donovan also had a long conversation with Wynton Marsalis this summer.
The reason? To pick the jazz legends’ minds about teamwork and philosophy in a jazz band as it relates to basketball.
“When I met Branford in person and talked to Wynton on the phone, I was blown away on their mentality in terms of sport, music and society and just how much it’s about making the people around you better,” Donovan said. “In team sports, it’s not necessarily about, ‘Hey, I want to play my music.’ Sometimes you have to listen to other people’s music and how to make the group better by listening. I thought their messaging, background and being basketball fans and sports fans, both were incredible.
“I just loved listening to those guys. Those guys, in their industry, they’re legends. I have not listened to a lot of jazz music, but I know those two names.”
Presti said he became a fan of jazz as a kid growing up in Boston when he took drum lessons. He was hooked on jazz after his music teacher gave him the album Miles Smiles from legendary trumpeter Miles Davis. Presti eventually became a huge fan of the Marsalis family’s influence on jazz, most notably Branford.
“He has been so well-known for so long because of how early he started,” Presti said. “All the different genres he has played within, The [Jazz] Messengers [group] to obviously working with Sting to his solo work. He’s touched so many different facets. From a production standpoint, he’s just been involved in so much music. It’s hard not to collide with something he has not touched.
“Obviously, that family in general has had such a huge influence on music. Not just in terms of their contributions in music themselves but as educators that share their experience and insights. They have a tremendous reach. It’s really interesting to hear them speak about how they interpret the art themselves.”
Branford Marsalis is a huge sports fan who lives and dies with his hometown New Orleans Saints and is optimistic about the New Orleans Pelicans. The former musical director for The Tonight Show with Jay Leno and Sting was introduced to Presti by a mutual friend after hearing that Presti was a big fan. The two kept in touch, and Branford Marsalis even sent music. Branford Marsalis texted Presti to let him know he was going to be in Oklahoma City on Sept. 8 to teach a master’s class on music at a local college and to perform a concert.
Branford Marsalis next accepted an invitation to hang out with Presti and Donovan at the Thunder’s training facility. The three men, along with other Thunder staff members, sat for about three hours talking jazz and basketball and how the two intertwine. Presti said he learned a lot from Branford Marsalis about how he challenges himself to continually improve as an artist even at his level, how he still learns from the jazz greats, the struggle of jazz artists and what some of the jazz greats were like as musicians and people.
“Music and sports are such a metaphor for so many things in the world,” Presti said. “They both involve having to listen and react and interpret different things. For the conversation in general, I asked him, ‘How do you continue to grow and learn? How do you know what is quality? How do you find that?’ And obviously, the art form itself with Branford and his craft, so much of it is about listening and really hearing what the other people are doing. It’s really fascinating to listen to him talk about that as well as his preparation and the way he has taken his career path. It was a pretty wide-ranging conversation, to be honest. It was interesting to hear him speak about that stuff.
“A couple things stood out to me. With him, the thing that was really cool was his respect and reverence for the people that he grew up listening to. He still listens to those records endlessly and learns from them. And the emphasis he placed on listening and hearing different things from the same recording. I thought that was really because he basically put such an emphasis on going back and listening to those specific artists, the greats, and there is so much knowledge wrapped up in there. The other thing that stuck out to me was never wanting to repeat yourself and stretching yourself to try new things.”
Branford Marsalis said Donovan and Presti asked him a “pile of questions” on alternative types of leadership. Branford Marsalis explained that jazz and basketball were similar since “very few people can do this s— on a very high level.” He also told Donovan and Presti that the evaluation of jazz artists should be the same as NBA free agents by looking beyond the statistics. Donovan also asked Branford Marsalis about finding personnel, adapting to playing in different venues, and more.
“I talked to [Donovan] about the parallels between music and sports in a way that he would have never thought about it because he’s never played music,” Branford Marsalis said. “For better or for worse, a lot of us have played sports. In a jazz band, it’s very similar to basketball because you can have musicians who can really play their instrument really well. But they don’t have an understanding of what their function is to make the group succeed.
“Many times in the history of basketball, you think of players who got [big] free-agent contracts based on their stats when what the s— would really be would be apparent if you were just looking at the person play with the kind of eyesight that you need to have. It’s like little things. I listen to musicians play and I look for little things. I don’t look for the big things. Is the musician that is playing a solo feeding off what the rhythm section is giving him or is he playing some s— that he just worked out? Does he play? Does he balance with the other musicians? Does he play louder than everyone else? Does he play softer? Does he make eye contact? Does he communicate? Can he hear the music?”
Branford Marsalis also was impressed by the Thunder’s development of players while watching some work on their game and play pickup ball during his time at the practice facility in the NBA offseason.
“I said, ‘Let’s talk about the team.’ [Presti] likes his job, so he was excited to talk about it. By that time, Carmelo [Anthony] and Paul George were coming,” Branford Marsalis said. “But we talked more about the philosophy of the team, the facility, the guys who are playing now, who are those guys. They have these development league guys, and those guys are playing with them. And sometimes the Thunder guys will ball with them. There were guys playing and being coached then. I was like, ‘Damn, it was year-round.’ ”
Presti and several staff members went on to attend Branford Marsalis’ concert later that night. While at the concert, Presti picked up more insight on the connection between jazz and basketball.
“It’s not every day that someone like that comes through town,” Presti said. “They were playing in what he felt was a really great acoustic venue. It was a really old auditorium locally. That was pretty cool that he really liked the environment. He also talked about the dynamics of the group. There was a new bass player that evening because someone had a travel issue or maybe was sick. They called a guy in from out of the country. Just watching the interplay, none of us would have picked up on the fact that this was someone relatively new for the evening that may spend a few weeks with him.
“With that knowledge, it was interesting to see it all work, the professionalism and the craft that goes into it. It was a really great experience, and he was really kind to us when he was there. And just to see him onstage where he was at his best was cool to see.”
Donovan was honored to get time with Wynton Marsalis, who is the most decorated jazz legend living today.
The New Orleans native is the only artist to win Grammys for jazz and classical records. Time magazine celebrated Wynton Marsalis as one of America’s 25 most influential people in 1996. The first jazz musician to win the Pulitzer Prize for music has sold approximately 7 million copies of his recordings worldwide, has toured every continent except Antarctica and received the National Medal of Arts from President George W. Bush in 2005. Wynton Marsalis also created a series of “I Love This Game” commercials for the NBA during the 1998 NBA season and appeared in the public service announcements for the NBA’s Team Up program.
“Wynton used to always say that jazz is like a fast break,” Branford Marsalis said.
Donovan became “fascinated” with Wynton Marsalis after watching an interview of him talking about jazz having a connection to basketball.
“He talked in the interview about the ability to be unselfish, how to make people around you better,” Donovan said. “It sounded so much like the game of basketball. There is a stylistic freelancing. Guys are playing instruments together and they are improvising. And a lot of times on the court, they have to improvise. So when I saw this interview after my assistant showed it to me, I was like, ‘Wow, this is really powerful.’ ”
Last offseason, Thunder assistant coach Billy Schmidt passed Wynton Marsalis’ book, Moving to Higher Ground: How Jazz Can Change Your Life, on to Donovan’s coaching staff and the team’s front office. Wynton Marsalis wrote that he hopes the book reached “a new audience with the positive message of America’s greatest music, to show how great musicians demonstrate on the bandstand a mutual respect and trust that can alter your outlook on the world and enrich every aspect of your life — from individual creativity and personal relationships to conducting business and understanding what it means to be American in the most modern sense.”
Donovan, part of that new audience, would later have a phone conversation with Wynton Marsalis about the book.
“It was a really incredible book,” Donovan said. “You have a 50-team piece band. Everybody wants to be soloing. Everybody wants to be out in front. But sometimes the most important guy is the drummer because he is keeping everyone in rhythm and he is the guy in the background. You have to be OK with that egowise. And it was just how you make the group better. The biggest thing he talked about as a musician is you have to be willing to listen.
“In the interview, he told a guy, ‘You play what you want to play, and I’ll play what I want to play.’ And they both played what they wanted to play, and it was awful. Then he said, ‘You start playing and I will listen to what you’re playing and I know I will complement you to what you’re playing.’ And that stuff to me in terms of team sports with basketball really resonated.”
Donovan yearned to speak with Wynton Marsalis after hearing the interview and reading the book. One of the Thunder security guards was able to make it happen in early October thanks to a connection to Wynton Marsalis. Donovan said he sent notes on Wynton Marsalis’ book to him before the phone call.
“We talked for about an hour on the phone,” Donovan said. “We talked about life, jazz bands and what he goes into performing, and every show being completely different. Every game is completely different. Every team is different. And I hope that they can both speak to our team, because it was really powerful.
“And I didn’t know enough about jazz. I didn’t know that jazz was all improvised. I had no idea. He educated me on it and how they have to be a team, how they have to work together and sometimes how guys walk offstage and say, ‘You know what, I was really bad tonight.’ And they play great the next night. Not every player is going to play great every night. There was a lot of correlation and comparisons to be made.”
Wynton Marsalis said what he most recalls about his phone conversation with Donovan was how “very polite” he was, as well as his “focus and graciousness.” Wynton Marsalis, a self-described “midlevel scrub” as a basketball player, also agrees with the connection between jazz and basketball. He said most of Donovan’s questions were centered on refocusing individual goals to align with collective goals and ways to change “a value system so that the sacrificial decisions that undergird group success are as venerated as individual achievements.”
“Both require the different positions or instruments to understand and accept the unique requirements of their specific roles,” Wynton Marsalis said via e-mail. “Both encourage accurate decision-making and graceful execution under the pressure of time. Both have a tradition of transcendent geniuses who change the definition of greatness and a tradition of definitive groups or teams that demonstrate the superiority of collective emotion, intelligence and execution.”
Wynton Marsalis said a key to teamwork in a great band is finding members who believe in “the value of group expression and buy into the philosophy and practices of our group.” He said he evaluates talent by assessing “spiritual depth” at first before assessing desire, knowledge, intelligence, humility, charisma, execution under pressure and collegiality. When all those attributes are combined, Wynton Marsalis believes, a team can be great whether on the stage or the hardwood.
“In jazz, it means someone strives to understand the meaning and philosophies of the music across time and are equally as willing to meticulously repeat the smallest details of a given piece as long as is necessary,” Wynton Marsalis said. “In basketball, it means a person understands the meaning and history of the sport, the game plan from different positions, and is willing to do the most tedious and specific drills and studies every day until they achieve the desired mastery. Finally, the macro-micro type integrates both methods into one practice. Then, you have a lot of trouble beating them. A whole lot.”
Dante Jones and Drew Love formed THEY. and released their debut EP hit in 2015. Now the rhythm and blues hitmakers are featured in the NFL’s latest television campaign, Unpredictability.
The pair’s U-Rite has amassed nearly 10 million plays on YouTube and Spotify combined and is the soundtrack for the NFL ad, which spotlights Tennessee Titans running back DeMarco Murray, Philadelphia Eagles running back Jay Ajayi (recently traded from the Miami Dolphins), New Orleans Saints wide receiver Michael Thomas and Cleveland Browns defensive end Myles Garrett.
“We are massive football fans,” said Love. “Our music, specifically U-Rite, tailors itself to a lot of energy. I believe the NFL felt the same way. We watch football every Sunday, Monday and Thursday, so to hear our song during commercials is incredible.”
The Los Angeles-based pair, who have opened tours for PartyNextDoor and Bryson Tiller, are in sync when it comes to their music. But when it comes to the NFL, Love is an Oakland Raiders fan and Jones follows the Denver Broncos. THEY. spoke with The Undefeated about their music, their NFL partnership and how they got started.
What made your song ‘U-Rite’ complement the NFL’s campaign ‘Unpredictability’?
Drew: I think our music in general lends unpredictability. It’s what we preach and what [our album] Nu Religion is all about — being unpredictable, taking chances and risks, because you never know what can really happen. The same thing happens in the NFL. That’s what makes it so exciting.
What went through your mind the first time you saw the campaign on TV?
Dante: I went bananas. It was so surreal because we heard it might be a possibility, but you never really believe it until you see it.
How would you describe your music?
Drew: We’re both R&B at the core, but we draw influences from emo, punk and grunge. The lines of R&B are starting to get blurred.
Who and what has influenced your music?
Drew: I grew up to the music my parents listened to, with my dad loving jazz and my mom always listening to Motown. Dante was a pop producer when he first started, so we draw from that too. My first CDs I bought were Britney Spears and Backstreet Boys, so pop is at my roots too. We’re a melting pot of a bunch of ideas and genres.
How did you guys come together to form THEY.?
Dante: It was a chance meeting. I’d been working as a producer in Los Angeles for about three years at the time. I had a few songs with artists like Kelly Clarkson and Chris Brown. Drew was fresh to L.A. and had been cutting his teeth as a writer where he, too, was working with Chris [Brown] and other artists like Jeremih.
We instantly connected. After we got comfortable with each other, I played him a little bit of my music. I didn’t have much expectations of whether he’d like it or not, but then he was like, ‘Let me do my thing with it.’ Next thing you know, we had a song. It was the first song we ever did together. It’s called ‘Africa,’ the second song on the [Nu Religion] album.
What’s the story behind your group’s name?
Dante: The next song we wrote after ‘Africa’ was ‘Back It Up,’ but the original file name for that song was called ‘They.’ When Drew saw it on the screen, he thought it looked cool and that it should be the name of the group. I said we’ll go with it for now, but then it stuck, and once time passed we really couldn’t imagine being called anything else.
What is your creative process?
Dante: There’s really no formula with it. We just try to find something inspiring and build off of that. My perspective as a producer is to find something that feels really good and then build on top of that. We take a little more time than the typical factory mentality that a lot of producers have these days. We just really have a respect for the process. I think, too, some days I’ll be on fire, but other times I just sit back and record Drew because he’s killing it. Having that partner to create that spark is very valuable.
Did you always want to be in the music industry?
Dante: Back in the day, I wanted to be a sportswriter and wrote for a Denver sports blog. I used to send emails from my AOL account to [The Undefeated’s senior NBA writer] Marc J. Spears when he was a Nuggets writer for The Denver Post. I’d write, ‘You’re my favorite writer,’ and ask for advice on sportswriting. That’s how big of a sports geek I am.
What’s next for you?
Drew: We’re back in the studio, doing a lot of traveling and growing, and slowly chipping away at our next project.
Randy Moss didn’t always need a football field to put his inhuman speed on display. All he really needed was a treadmill, and a few spectators.
During one workout at a Florida gym back in the early days of his NFL career, the young Minnesota Vikings wide receiver pushed the limit of human athleticism. His training circuit began with a 15- to 20-second treadmill sprint at 15 mph, which Moss and a friend who joined him completed with ease. Next came 17 mph. They both jumped on and, for about 10 seconds, busted out another run.
Then Moss did something crazy: He upped the speed to 19 mph. “F— that, I’m done with this,” one spectator recalls Moss’ friend saying before tapping out. Moss, however, completed the rep and kept going. He cranked the treadmill to an unfathomable 21 mph and prepared to make his move. While holding on to the rails, Moss planted one foot on the machine’s foundation and used his other foot to judge just how fast the belt circulated as he nailed his timing down. The gears in his brain synced with the mechanics of his body.
“He jumps on and whips out 21 mph, just hauling a–,” said the aforementioned spectator, Gentry Humphrey, product director for Jordan Brand at the time. “Just watching him do that, to me, he was a freak of nature … purely a super freak.”
Humphrey can’t recall the exact date or time of year that the treadmill incident unfolded before his eyes, but he does know it took place sometime between 1999 and 2000, within the phenom wideout’s first two NFL seasons. During this period, Humphrey spent as much time as he possibly could with Moss while in the process of designing Moss’ first signature shoe: the Air Jordan Super Freak.
“I realized,” said Humphrey, “that Randy was very, very different.”
In 1999, two years after Nike and Michael Jordan came to terms on Jordan Brand, Moss — then 22, and coming off a monster rookie season — became the first football player to sign an endorsement deal with Jordan Brand. “Jordans were a basketball shoe, but when I came into the league, I was still infatuated by Nike shoes and Jordan shoes,” says Moss now. “My first year, I was just pulling Jordans off the rack and lacing them up.” And playing in them.
Remember, by this point in 1999, Michael Jordan had already retired from the NBA for the second time in his career and had shifted his focus to the business world. In his early formation of Team Jordan, His Airness wanted to branch out from creating products solely for basketball, so he signed New York Yankees All-Star shortstop Derek Jeter to represent the brand through baseball and light heavyweight world champion Roy Jones Jr. to represent boxing. For football, Moss was his guy.
“I just wanted to pay tribute to Michael,” Moss said. “But at the same time, I looked at the shoes and I was like, ‘Oh, those would look good with my uniform.’ ”
Originally, Jordan Brand’s plan for Moss didn’t include a signature shoe. Instead, he was envisioned as the face of products set to be rolled out as part of a cross-training division. Two factors contributed to a change of plan. First, Humphrey took a look at some of the NFL’s fields and the type of shoes players needed to flourish on them.
“A lot of athletes at the time that were playing on AstroTurf were using basketball shoes,” said Humphrey, who’s now Nike’s vice president of footwear for profile sports. “They were using nubby-bottomed outsoles to really get the traction that they needed on the field. I looked at it as an opportunity to create a new silhouette for training by using that nubby bottom.”
The second factor was simple: Randy Moss was too athletic, and too much of a superstar-in-the-making, to not have his own shoe. At 6-foot-5 and 210 pounds, Moss gave defenses matchup nightmares. “With 4.25 speed in the 40-yard-dash … an impressive 39-inch vertical leap and huge hands with tentacle-like fingers that rarely drop passes,” is how The Associated Press’ Jim Vertuno put it in 1997. That was the year Moss emerged as a Heisman Trophy finalist at Marshall University with 90 catches for 1,647 yards and a Division I-A single-season record 25 receiving touchdowns. “Nobody,” Ball State coach Bill Lynch said of Moss after he caught five touchdown passes against his team in 1997, “in America can cover him.”
The Minnesota Vikings selected Moss with the No. 21 overall pick in the 1998 draft, and what the franchise quickly realized it got in him was a football player in a basketball player’s body. Before the start of his rookie season in Minnesota, Moss — a two-time basketball Player of the Year at DuPont High School near his hometown of Rand, West Virginia — flirted with the idea of trying out for the Minnesota Timberwolves and eventually playing in both the NFL and NBA. “I don’t think so,” said Vikings president Roger Headrick in June 1998. “Overlapping seasons.”
In his first year of pro football during the 1998-99 season, Moss recorded 69 catches for 1,313 yards (third most in the league behind Green Bay’s Antonio Freeman and Buffalo’s Eric Moulds) while grabbing an NFL rookie-record 17 touchdown passes, earning him a trip to the Pro Bowl and NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year honors.
“The things that he did on the field, the way he ran past people, the way he caught things,” Humphrey says, “he was like the Michael Jordan at the wide receiver position. I think that was kind of the obvious.”
After that record-setting rookie season, Humphrey and Team Jordan embarked upon the 16- to 18-month development process of Moss’ first shoe, seeking to incorporate every aspect of his life, training habits and style of play into the design. “ ‘All right, Gent! What do we got today?’ ” Humphrey remembers Moss animatedly saying in his Southern accent as he took the wide receiver through initial concepts and updated samples. “It was almost like watching a kid at Christmas … how much fun he had designing his first shoe.”
Moss knew exactly what he wanted to call the shoes he’d soon be donning on the field. “He’s the one that kind of came to us and told us that he had been given the name ‘Super Freak,’ ” Humphrey said. It was a moniker that Moss picked up during his high school days in West Virginia, and one that stuck with him through college and into the NFL.
To personify Moss’ freak-of-nature identity, especially after that otherworldly treadmill workout, Jordan Brand attempted to channel the wide receiver’s blazing speed into the shoe. Moss, in Humphrey’s mind, moved as fast as fire, leading the designer to test a metallic-sheen, flame-retardant material on the Super Freak as a unique play off the patent leather featured on the Air Jordan 11s. Humphrey, who began contributing to Jordan designs in 1990 with the Air Jordan 5, also toyed with a material worn on the uniforms and footwear of race car drivers. But because of bonding issues, neither material made it to final production. After trial and error, Humphrey finally found something with the stability and durability to match the tempo at which Moss moved.
“The great thing about someone who is so frickin’ fast is … we always found ourselves using analogies and inspiration that represented speed to show what Randy was all about,” Humphrey said. “We wanted to provide a product that could ultimately give people a piece of the Randy dream.”
By July 25, 2000, in the brief section of a St. Paul Pioneer Press story published at the start of Minnesota Vikings training camp, the last line read, “Randy Moss debuted his new cleats. The high-topped, black cleats are called the ‘Super Freak.’ They will be commercially available soon.” With the arrival of his first signature shoe, which he wore throughout his 77-catch, 1,437-yard and 15-touchdown 2000-01 season, Moss lived and breathed the “Super Freak” persona that matched his fresh new Air Jordans.
“I mean, they call me ‘Super Freak,’ ” Moss told a reporter after making a 39-yard game-winning catch in a 31-27 win over the Buffalo Bills on Oct. 22, 2000. “Ain’t nobody out there that can really do it like myself.”
It was Jan. 6, 2001, in an NFC divisional-round playoff matchup between the Minnesota Vikings and New Orleans Saints at Minneapolis’ Metrodome. For the game, Humphrey designed Moss a custom pair of purple and yellow Air Jordan 11s, with his No. 84 emblazoned on the heel of each shoe. But everywhere Moss turned on the AstroTurf field, a different player was sporting his signature Super Freaks — from his Vikings teammates, most notably veteran wide receiver Cris Carter, to Saints opponents, including wide receivers Joe Horn and Jake Reed, as well as running back/return specialist Chad Morton.
“About eight to nine guys had my Super Freak shoe on,” said Moss. “I’m sitting there thinking like, ‘Wow.’ It was kind of overwhelming to see some of the guys with my shoe.” During an era when Jordan Brand had just begun to expand outside of hoops, Moss had sparked a cultural movement in the NFL that witnessed players taking the field in Jordan cleats on grass and Jordan basketball shoes on AstroTurf.
“He was definitely the right guy for Jordan Brand at the right time,” Humphrey said. Soon, the league witnessed Donovan McNabb, Charles Woodson, Warren Sapp, Marvin Harrison and Michael Vick join the exclusive Air Jordan-rocking football fraternity that Moss founded. Nearly two decades later, that family has grown to include Jamal Adams, Dez Bryant, Corey Coleman, Michael Crabtree, Thomas Davis, Joe Haden, Malik Hooker, Melvin Ingram, Alshon Jeffery, DeShone Kizer, Jalen Ramsey, Jordan Reed, Golden Tate and Earl Thomas as active NFL players endorsed by Jordan Brand.
Yet, Moss still remains in a league of his own as the only football player in history to have his own signature Air Jordans — first with the Super Freak and then with the “Mossified,” released in 2001.
“You still got guys out there wearing Jordans, but it started with me,” Moss said. “I don’t know who it’s going to end with, but I am happy to say that I did start that trend.”