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How Josh Jacobs used life's bad breaks to fuel path to the NFL

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NEW YORK -- After a couple early-morning interviews and a brief ride on a half-empty subway train, Josh Jacobs casually strolled through the busy midtown section of Manhattan last week. He wore a white Burberry shirt with skinny black jeans and moved with the ease of a young man feeling damn good about where his life is heading. Flanked by his own small entourage -- an ESPN camera crew filmed his every move while his agent, publicist and a close friend hustled nearby -- Jacobs trotted across 49th street and set his sights on the offices of SiriusXM Radio. Only a couple hours into this media blitz, he was already was hitting his stride.

Jacobs admitted he'd been a little leery about all this when the day began. Posing for cameras and sitting for interviews had never really been his thing. There was simply too much baggage in his life to unpack in those sessions, too many opportunities to let people see the struggles he'd overcome to become a star running back at Alabama and a probable first-round pick on Thursday in Nashville, Tennessee. It was easier to just play football and leave the media-darling stuff to somebody else.

Jacobs thought about how quickly his life was changing as he darted in between a couple idling cabs and headed toward the glass doors of the entrance. The only other time he'd been in New York City, he was enjoying a one-week trip with his fellow junior high school students from Tulsa as a reward for good grades.

"All I remember us doing back then was going to museums and seeing a lot of historical stuff," Jacobs said. "This is definitely a different kind of trip."

The ease Jacobs displayed in maneuvering through Manhattan shouldn't be surprising. The relentless hustle and bustle was the perfect backdrop for a 21-year-old whose life has been a whirlwind for most of the last eight months. It's difficult to imagine a prospect in this year's class who has blown up as rapidly as Jacobs has. He's gone from splitting time with two other backs at the start of his junior season to being hailed as the best ball carrier in this class.

Jacobs didn't do that because he had jaw-dropping numbers; he only accumulated 640 rushing yards for the Crimson Tide in 2018. He's achieved his current stature because he's made the most of his opportunities, remained humble about his success and learned to use all the bad breaks in his life as fuel for whatever lies ahead.

"It's crazy how it all played out," Jacobs said. "I didn't know what it took or how much was needed to get here. I just did the best that I could. That's what all the teams told me. I guess the production I put on tape was huge."

It's impossible to not be impressed by the way the 5-foot-10, 220-pound Jacobs attacks the game. Even though he was the third-leading rusher at Alabama last season, he was easily the most dangerous ball carrier in a backfield rotation that included Damien Harris and Najee Harris. He lined up in the backfield, split out wide, in the slot and also played on special teams (both on coverage and return units). The Crimson Tide coaches were so enamored with him that he routinely handled quarterbacking duties when the offense turned to the Wildcat formation.

Jacobs proved that versatility was a major selling point when it came to evaluating his draft stock (he also had 20 receptions for 247 yards, averaged 30.6 yards per kick return and scored 14 total touchdowns). The lack of wear and tear on his body and the tenacity he brings to the position are just as attractive to NFL teams.

"Josh is an angry runner," said new Maryland head coach Mike Locksley, who served as Alabama's offensive coordinator last season. "Whoever drafts him is going to get a guy who's mentally and physically tough. He brings a certain mentality to the field and he leads by his style of play. You always hear people talking about who they would want to bring if they had to go down a dark alley? Josh would be the guy you would want with you."

That edge in Jacobs only comes out when necessary. As he moved through Manhattan on that Wednesday morning, he smiled easily and radiated a natural charisma. When SiriusXM Radio host Adam Schein informed Jacobs that one NFL executive had compared him to New England running back Sony Michel, a first-round pick in the 2018 draft and an integral component in the Patriots' Super Bowl victory in February, Jacobs appreciated the comparison to a Southeastern Conference rival.

"I've got nothing against Georgia," Jacobs said in reference to Michel's college team. "I never lost to them."

Jacobs actually had been warming up to the star treatment from the minute he arrived in NYC. After he and his college friend, Jaquou Crawford, flew into LaGuardia Airport, they found a driver waiting for them with a black van idling nearby. Jacobs had never seen a vehicle so gaudy -- it was equipped with luxurious seats, a big-screen television and personalized thermostats -- and he and Crawford agreed that this was a whole new world they were entering. Later that evening, while roaming through the neighborhoods near his hotel on the east side of Midtown Manhattan, he soaked in the city's energy and marveled at how far he'd come.

Jacobs already had made all of his team visits -- he'd met with the Ravens, Eagles and Colts -- so the New York trip would be the last major event on his calendar before he flew back to campus. He was ready for a break from the constant grind of pre-draft preparation, but also eager to reach the finale. As Crawford said, "He's stayed humble throughout this whole process. He's never had the big head. I don't think it's hit him yet. That's because of what he's come from. He's still in the mindset of working hard and not having everything handed to him."

Added Jacobs: "The thing about it is that you have to remain who you are. I still see myself the same way I did four years ago. I still don't think I'm better than people. I still look at myself as a regular person. When you view it that way, it keeps you level-headed. You don't really notice all of this."

While Jacobs listened to questions from WFAN radio host and former New York Giants offensive lineman David Diehl, Crawford joked that it would be hard to ever see Jacobs changing his unassuming approach to success. If Jacobs did, he would likely have plenty of people telling him to take a hard look at his past. "We'd all tell him to take his butt back to Tulsa and see where he came from," Crawford said. That upbringing is the main thing Jacobs credits for where he is today.

Jacobs grew up in a two-parent household in Tulsa until he was 8 years old. In 2006, his father, Marty, and mother, Lachelle, separated and eventually divorced. Josh wanted to stay with his father, who worked in local warehouses doing shipping and receiving, but Marty told his son and his other four children to remain with their mother as the parents fought for custody. Josh heeded his father's orders, but he didn't like living with his mom one bit.

Jacobs argued with his mother constantly. He accused her of misusing the child support Marty provided.

"My father would give her a stack of money," Jacobs said. "She would go out and spend it and we'd be eating Salvation Army food. I would ask her how she could go spend that money and not have good food for us to eat. She didn't like that, how I rebelled and spoke up. So, she kicked me out."

Josh thought he was finding a better situation with his father, but Marty had problems of his own. Shortly after Josh arrived at his father's house, Marty was in the process of downsizing to an apartment while helping Lachelle with her bills. However, Marty and Josh wound up scrambling for lodging after the apartment Marty lined up didn't work out. They found it in Marty's Suburban, which he often drove around Tulsa until they could find a place he felt comfortable parking for the night.

That became their routine for the next couple weeks when they couldn't stay with friends. Josh would lay in the backseat at night, eyeing his father as Marty sat in the driver's seat, usually with a gun in his lap.

"I remember seeing him not sleep," Josh said. "It's crazy because I didn't notice that I was sleeping in a car. I was just thinking that I was falling asleep and waking up. I didn't think anything about it because I felt safe. He would just drive around until he found a place to sleep and then I'd get up the next day and go to school."

Within three months of Josh joining Marty, Josh's four siblings arrived, as well. Marty gained custody after Lachelle agreed to let him have the kids, and the challenges increased even more. Marty had a two-bedroom apartment by then and he had to find a way to care for five kids.

"When I got home after court, I put some palettes on the floor and then went into my room and closed the door," Marty said. "I prayed to God and just said, 'I have them now. So, what do I do?' The answer I heard back was pretty clear: I had to protect their destiny."

The Jacobs family spent the next six months in that cramped apartment. They bounced between hotels for four months after that. At one point, Marty was driving four hours a day back and forth to a job while trying to make sure the younger kids made it to day care and the older ones found their way to school on time. Even though Marty had found another house by that point, Josh still didn't have a bed of his own.

Marty tried to give his kids emotional outlets by having them write poetry or even rap lyrics to express their feelings. It must have helped because Josh didn't really understand how challenged his family was until he was in middle school.

"That was when I started to notice the difference," Josh said. "You're getting to the age where what you wear is pretty big. I would notice that somebody would have something on that I wanted, but when we went to the store, I found out I couldn't get it."

The one thing Josh could count on in those days -- aside from Marty's perseverance -- was football. When he started playing at the junior football level, he was too heavy to play a skill position, so he wound up at defensive end. However, Josh also came of age at a time when seven-time Pro Bowl running back Adrian Peterson was an All-American at Oklahoma. The more Josh watched Peterson rumble, the more he knew that running back was his calling.

The only problem was that very few people outside of the Tulsa area knew how good Jacobs could be. Even after he ran for 5,372 yards and 58 touchdowns at McLain High School -- including 2,704 yards and 31 touchdowns as a quarterback in his senior year -- hardly any recruiters came calling. New Mexico State offered a scholarship. Wyoming did, as well. But no other Division I schools showed any serious interest, not even local programs like Oklahoma, Oklahoma State and Tulsa.

It didn't help that McLain wasn't a prominent football factory, but Jacobs believes there were other factors at play. He remembers seeing Oklahoma assistant Mike Stoops at his little league baseball games, so, as Jacobs said, "It wasn't like they didn't know who I was."

"I was leading the state in rushing," he added. "How is it that the guy who was 10th was getting offers and I wasn't when I was (outgaining) that guy by 1,000 yards? My school didn't know how to do recruiting. I didn't know anything about camps. I didn't know anything about ratings until I got to college. That was probably the biggest factor -- my being uninformed."

Jacobs was more than willing to go to Wyoming when a random fan reached out to him through social media in January 2016, roughly a month before National Signing Day. The man had caught Jacobs on film while watching highlights of another player and wondered why Jacobs wasn't fielding more offers from major schools. Jacobs told him he had been frustrated by the same question for weeks. That's when the man told Jacobs to try a different path to notoriety: Twitter.

It took Jacobs less than a week to hear from major college recruiters after posting his highlight tape. Missouri called and sent an assistant to watch him play basketball. Oklahoma suddenly had a serious interest and offered. Before Jacobs knew it, he was fielding 10 to 12 calls a day and trying his best to narrow his options at the last minute. When Alabama assistant coach Burton Burns came to watch him play basketball -- and arranged a visit to Tuscaloosa in the final weekend before signing day -- Jacobs knew where he wanted to go.

"Honestly, I went on the Missouri campus, but it wasn't for me," Jacobs said. "I loved the coaches and (quarterback and fellow first-round prospect) Drew Lock showed me around, but it wasn't a fit for me. Plus, I wanted to play on the biggest stage I could find. When you've been underrated your whole life, you have a point to prove."

Jacobs made an immediate impact on the Alabama coaches. He played in 14 games as a freshman -- in a backfield that included Damien Harris and Bo Scarbrough -- and rushed for 567 yards while adding another 156 receiving yards. His adjustment off the field was much harder than most people realized. When Crawford first met Jacobs while visiting a friend at Alabama, he noticed the running back kept to himself and trusted few people. One day, he realized something even more odd: Jacobs liked to sleep on the floor.

When Crawford asked him about it, Jacobs said the bed didn't feel comfortable. It wasn't until a few months later he admitted the truth.

"It was weird," Jacobs said. "I was used to sleeping on floors or on carpet. You get used to it after a while. When you finally sleep in a bed and it's soft, it's uncomfortable. I had a transition period as far as getting used to it. It wasn't until I got to college that I realized I'd really gone through some stuff."

Going into his sophomore year, Jacobs was listed as the first-string running back until he partially tore a hamstring during training camp. That injury cost him two games, and a sprained ankle in Week 5 hobbled him until he had surgery at the end of the season. That second year at Alabama would be a huge turning point for him. He struggled with his lack of production on a national championship-winning squad (he only had 46 carries for 284 yards as a sophomore) and the feeling that this might not be the school for him after all.

Jacobs spoke to his father several times about wanting to transfer.

"People talked a lot about how Josh was overlooked when he was getting recruited out of high school, but he was starting to feel overlooked there, as well," Marty said.

Added Jacobs: "You hear all the players telling you, 'You're the best running back we have.' You hear the coaches coming up to you on the sideline saying, 'Why aren't you in the game right now?' After a while, you get tired of hearing that. Everybody says they love you, but then you start wondering why they don't value you more. You realize there are a lot of politics that go into it. They're promising a lot of stuff to the five-star guys. But my pops just told me that if you start something, you finish it."

That attitude fueled Jacobs at the start of his junior year. He actually called Marty before the season and promised his father a special campaign, saying "This is going to be my year. Just watch."

Crawford sensed it, as well.

"Josh came in with a whole different mindset," Crawford said. "He had something to prove and his attitude was that it was now or never. He recognized he had a future in this. He had coaches telling him that even though he's not in the game 24/7, there were still scouts coming to practice and watching him. He started to understand the process of becoming someone."

Locksley also had a plan for Jacobs after taking over as offensive coordinator. Locksley knew the Crimson Tide had plenty of weapons, but he promised Jacobs he wouldn't get lost in the shuffle.

"As the play caller, I made it clear to Josh that it didn't matter if he played 80 plays or 40 plays," Locksley said. "He was going to get his 12 to 15 touches a game."

Jacobs was enjoying a solidyear until he elevated his game during a 24-0 win over Mississippi State on Nov. 10. He ran for 97 yards on a season-high 20 carries and impressed the coaches so much that some began to talk about his NFL future. The excitement surrounding Jacobs increased even more when he ran for 83 yards on eight carries in a win over Georgia in the SEC Championship Game and followed that effort with 158 total yards (98 rushing) in a victory over Oklahoma in the national semifinals.

Suddenly, after all the ups and downs, Jacobs was hearing his name mentioned among the best in the country when it came to the draft. The Oklahoma game was especially gratifying, as Marty could see the joy in his son as he dominated the school from their home state. "You could see he was having fun," Marty said. "You could see the love of the game was back in him again."

Jacobs felt so good about how his season ended that he sat down with Marty after the national championship loss to Clemson and talked about early entry into the draft. The first question Marty asked was whether Josh was going to finish his degree at some point. When he heard that Josh was committed to doing so, he told his son they were good. Just as when Josh had to decide which college to attend, Marty figured it was better for his son to make the choice all on his own.

The certainty of that decision was obvious as Josh maneuvered through the Grand Hyatt last Wednesday afternoon. He weaved his way through the midday lunch crowd, crossed 42nd street and then leaned against a nearby wall while waiting for the rest of his crew to catch up. He had a meeting with an attorney and then he was heading to a helipad, where a helicopter would fly him over to New Jersey. Once there, he'd be fitted for football pads made by a company called XTECH before returning to the city for dinner.

Jacobs smiled as he thought about having a chance to relax in the city for one more day before heading home. He'd be in Nashville soon for the draft, with about 10 to 12 relatives and friends along for the ride. He hadn't determined specific plans for the events he'd attend while in town, but he did promise to keep his emotions in check when his name was called. He would wait until he was far away from the cameras and the television audience before letting anybody see how that moment would impact him.

Marty could understand that. He's watched the way Josh interacts with his 3-year-old son Braxton, who was born in the same year Josh committed to Alabama. Marty sees Braxton watching his father the same way Josh used to watch him. Marty is also grateful that his son is doing as much for his child as he tried to do for Josh.

"One of the things that I'm proudest of with Josh is that he trusted the process," Marty said. "There are a lot of things he experienced as a child that he doesn't want his son to experience. I tear up when I talk about it because God trusted me with those kids and he trusted me not to leave. That's why I'm glad to see Josh embracing the positive stuff from what we went through. He could've easily been a different kid."

Josh agreed.

"I never was one of those people who had the dream of going to NFL," he said. "I was just happy because I was the first person to ever go to college in my family. Once I got to the college level, I just wanted to compete at a high level. And once I blew up like I did, I was like, 'Wow.' Now I get to be on the biggest stage ever. It's crazy to think about everything that's happening. And It's definitely humbling to think about how I got here."

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