Out from under his famous father's large NBA shadow, LSU offensive lineman K.J. Malone aiming to leave his own mark ... in the NFL and beyond
RUSTON, La. -- Karl Anthony Malone Jr. had heard it all before, but this time, he'd heard enough.
Two-a-day practices in the Louisiana heat were hard enough without his own teammates ribbing him about his dad, making sure he knew his last name meant nothing on the practice field. Just a freshman at Cedar Creek High, young Karl didn't yet have the strength or skill to close those mouths with his play.
"I didn't know how to take it. I told my dad I didn't want to do this anymore," said Malone, who goes by the nickname K.J. "He looked at me and said, 'Son, we're not quitters in this family. People are just saying that because they're jealous of you.' "
And with that, in August 2009, the son of NBA great Karl Malone, resolved to squeeze every drop from his potential as a football player. It was far from the last time an opponent would invoke his father's name to insult K.J., although from then on, it would become a mistake to do so.
It also wasn't the last time he questioned his future. That's because dreams and callings aren't the same thing.
K.J.'s dream wasn't to follow his father into the NBA anyway; it was to play in the NFL. But the calling that gnaws at him is law enforcement, more specifically as a U.S. Marshal. Turns out that while K.J. didn't choose his dad's sport, he did choose a few of his passions.
Next week, the former LSU left tackle will chase his dream as one of 336 draft prospects to gather in Indianapolis for the NFL Scouting Combine. Malone is committed to see his football career to its final outcome, be that a long and prosperous NFL career or something short of that.
But while the dream could fly or die, the tug of his calling looks here to stay.
As easily as Malone can point to the watershed moments in his football career, identifying what made him determined to enter law enforcement isn't quite as easy.
As a small child, he would pretend his three sisters were crooks, arrest them, and jail them. At age 6, he got a tour of a S.W.A.T. assault vehicle, courtesy of Utah state troopers, and never forgot it.
"It looked like a tank. I remember thinking, 'If I could grow up and drive this thing for a living, that'd be pretty cool,' " he said.
Then there were motivators that were anything but cool.
Five police officers in Dallas were ambushed and killed by gunfire in the summer of 2016. Less than two weeks later, three more were shot and killed much closer to home for Malone, in Baton Rouge. The 2015 riots in Baltimore stemming from protests surrounding the controversial death of Freddie Gray, who was injured while being transported in a police vehicle, made a big impact on Malone as well.
"People were rioting against police and calling every policeman racist," Malone said. "That helped me want to get into law enforcement and make sure people know that not every cop is bad. Police exist to help."
Between the social unrest, the fact that coach Les Miles had been fired, and that K.J. was on track to earn a degree in interdisciplinary studies in May of 2017, a confluence of circumstances made him feel the time was right to give up his fifth-year senior season and enter police work.
Karl Sr. is a staunch, life-long advocate for police and military. He's been a keynote speaker at the Louisiana state police convention, he's engaged in law enforcement fundraisers, and among his many business interests is a partnership with 5.11 Tactical, an apparel and accessory line that's penetrated a variety of markets, including law enforcement.
"Freedom's not free," Karl Sr. said while working his way through the biggest lunch at the table at the Teriyaki Grill, his wife's restaurant in Ruston. "With police officers, people always have something negative or bad to say about them, but when a burglar breaks into our house, who do we call?"
To this family, it's not a rhetorical question. Karl's other two adult sons, Daryl Ford and Demetress Bell, sit beside him and answer the question in unison: "The police."
Karl Sr. made fast friends with law officers both during and after his NBA career, one of which got K.J. his tour of the S.W.A.T. truck as a youngster. Years later, K.J. was making friends of policemen on his own.
One of the assistant coaches on Malone's Cedar Creek High football team, Stephen Taylor, was drawn away from coaching by a call to serve. Malone considers Taylor among his inspirations for the profession. Taylor was a canine officer for six years; his drug-sniffing dog, Kilo, is now retired as Taylor's pet. Now he's a state trooper, with the responsibility of working every traffic fatality in his area.
"When you drive up on an (accident) scene and there's a 3-year-old in the car who didn't make it, that's tough. It has to be in your blood," Taylor said. "You have to be a certain kind of person to sign up for that. You have to want to serve, and K.J. has a service heart."
That protective instinct meshed nicely with football for Malone; as LSU's two-year starter at left tackle, his biggest job was to protect quarterback Danny Etling's blind side. But when the time is right in his life, he still holds every intention of protecting something much more important.
It's an instinct he can't turn off.
"My sisters look at me as a protector, and I love that," K.J. said. "When I take them out to eat, I'm always on alert."