How did Josh Jacobs go from homelessness to the top running back prospect in the NFL draft? By continuing to run forward, using all of his bad breaks as fuel.
By Jeffri Chadiha | Published April 23, 2019
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.
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. MARYLAND COACH MIKE LOCKSLEY
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.