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

By Chase Goodbread | Published Feb. 22, 2018

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."

Malone trimmed down from 330 to 300 pounds in high school, gained strength, and developed into a four-star recruit who punished defenders. But still they talked.

"It never failed," K.J. said. "The first snap, every week, the guy across from me would start talking about my family. 'You ain't nothing -- you're just hyped because of your dad. ' Then after I'd put them on their back, they'd come back and say, 'Mad respect.' But at first they'd always try to get in my head."

Even the parents of opposing players would get into the act.

On a road trip to face Tensas High, the Cedar Creek bus carrying the players pulled into the school parking lot only to see the Tensas marquee calling for fans to come support the Panthers … and come see Karl Malone and son.

K.J.'s play earned his scholarship to LSU, but detractors gave credit to his bloodline. Earlier this month, when the official list of NFL Combine participants was released, K.J. checked his Twitter timeline and saw that LSU fans -- his own supposed supporters -- were suggesting that Tigers DL Christian LaCouture deserved an invitation more than he did. That he'd received one only because his father "pulled strings."

None of it surprises Karl Sr.

It's why he preferred K.J. play a sport other than basketball. The shadow that would have been cast over K.J.'s hoops career wouldn't have just been long; it would have been never-ending. Karl scored 36,928 career points in 19 NBA seasons with the Utah Jazz and Los Angeles Lakers, more than anyone in history not named Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. At age 54, he still looks game-ready physically, strong and trim as ever, only now with a graying beard bordering the trademark smile. Occasionally he tugs on it, as if pulling for wisdom, even though it comes to him rather easily.

"As a family, we want to realize that the last name comes with blessings and curses," he said. "You can't change how people are going to be, but you don't quit anything. People talk their (expletive), and when they're finished with us, they move on to the next family.

"Now we've got grandkids, and I cringe at what they're going to go through. Because it doesn't stop."

Karl Sr. retired from the NBA 14 years ago, when K.J. was just 8. Yet even today, at age 22, reminders of how famous his father was can still surround him. While getting treatment in between workouts at Plex Performance in Houston last week, Jazz highlights appear on a TV to K.J.'s right.

He perks up.

The Jazz had mounted a comeback the previous night for their 10th win in a row, beating the San Antonio Spurs. The highlights end with a reference to the club's longest win streak ever, 15, last set in 1999, when Karl Malone won an MVP. And there's dad, sinking a baseline jumper from the left side, in Hi Def on the 60-inch flatscreen.

K.J. casts a grin across the room, to anyone around but no one in particular. He doesn't run from it.

"Only player I've ever seen in here who watches Jazz highlights," says April Neal, who oversees this part of Malone's workout.

Malone is preparing for the combine in relative isolation. Typically, top training facilities attract draft prospects in groups each year, resulting in a bonding experience as players from different schools work out together with the common goal of combine excellence.

But Malone is on his own.

He's about the only draft prospect preparing for the combine at Houston's Plex Performance Center. On the positive side, that means plenty of one-on-one attention from his trainers, and no distractions. Still, motivation is readily apparent. Hall of Fame offensive lineman Bruce Matthews is among those helping to get K.J. combine-ready.

Away from his training, he's still alone -- staying in a nearby extended-stay hotel, no roommate except for Roxy, a Maltipoo he co-owns with his girlfriend, Bria.

It's a lonely six-week existence, but a regimented one.

On this particular day, he's at Plex Performance by 8 a.m. and begins the day with a stretch and some treatment before rotating through a variety of exercises. Neal is big on technique and quick with any needed corrections.

Surprisingly, there's very little in the way of free weights on his circuit, and plenty of band-resistance training.

Atlanta Falcons left tackle Jake Matthews, one of Bruce's sons, works out on his own just a few feet away. The former first-round pick has bought into the offseason training methods of Plex's Danny Arnold, who is overseeing Malone's workouts. And Malone has been able to pick the brains of the Matthews family since arriving in January.

"Just being around those guys has been amazing," he says.

Arnold sees in Malone the sort of hip flexibility NFL scouts and coaches look for in offensive line prospects.

"His hips are loose, no doubt. All we've had to do is get him more in shape, so he's progressed pretty quickly," Arnold says. "I'd rather have that than a guy who's naturally tight in the hips, because that can take a lot longer."

The lunch routine here doesn't change. After his morning workout, Malone heads to Whole Foods for the same meal every day: chicken breast, two eggs and broccoli. His weight is down under 310 now, and he plans to keep it that way.

As he pulls into the parking lot, another longtime Malone family passion -- trucks -- makes itself heard when a tiny toy dump truck rattles around the passenger-side door bin of K.J.'s high-riding Toyota Tundra.

"My nephew's," he says.

From Whole Foods, he heads straight to a veterinarian's office to check on Roxy. She's been ill, and has been held overnight for nearly a week. He's pleased to learn the closest thing he has to a roommate in Houston should be back with him at the pet-friendly hotel in a couple days, then drives directly back to Plex for more training.

After another workout of about 90 minutes, Malone heads back to his six-week home -- a second-floor hotel room -- surrounded by little more than an X-Box that allows him to re-connect online with former LSU teammates at night, and a few healthy snacks.

"He was always on LSU's schedule before. Now he's on his own schedule and it's like, 'Oh, I have free time?' I can take a nap, I can hang out,' " said his mother, Kay. "He's had to put himself on a schedule now, rather than the coaches. It's the process of growing up. We can't be there the whole time, we can't be there to catch him when he falls. When he does, he'll learn from it."

Karl Malone takes his seat at the Teriyaki Grill, and by the time he gets up to leave, it's hard to tell what number is higher: all the family members he's surrounded himself with, or all his various interests.

Sons Daryl and Demetress, half-brothers to K.J., join the table. K.J.'s sisters, Kadee, Kylee and Karlee, pop into the restaurant for a while, as well. The central topic on this day is one of the few family members who couldn't drop by: Karl Jr., who is training back in Houston.

"One thing we're definitely not is helicopter parents," Karl said. "We don't hover. Whether it was LSU or even at Cedar Creek, we gave K.J. his space."

To be sure, Malone was glad to let K.J. chart his own course. But that doesn't mean he wasn't involved. When the children first enrolled at Cedar Creek, Malone visited Head of School Andrew Yepson, gave him his personal cell phone number and told him to call if there were ever a behavioral problem with K.J. or his sisters.

"He said, 'You do whatever you need to do, but if you don't call me, we'll have a problem,' " Yepson said. "I still have the number, but I never had to dial it once."

While K.J. trains for the combine 300 miles away with a singular focus, the family's interests couldn't be more diverse.

Kay owns the restaurant, and Demetress -- the former Bills and Eagles tackle -- works for Daryl's logging company. Karl Sr., meanwhile, stays plenty busy.

Next door, Malone's 5.11 Tactical shop is nearly open, as is a cigar lounge, Legends, across the street. To stock it, he'll secure his own line of Dominican cigars, complete with a personalized logo. Over 90 minutes, the conversation splinters in so many directions it's as though the pursuits of 10 men are being discussed, not one.

Family ranch property that stretches from Louisiana up into Arkansas.

A Toyota dealership still under his name in Utah.

Even wildlife conservation.

"I'm looking at dropping some fire-ant pellets," he said, checking an old-school flip phone. "Fire ants are really bad on quail eggs."

Just about anything is liable to demand Karl Sr.'s attention at any given moment, but family stays first.

"Parenting is the toughest thing ever, but it's the most rewarding thing ever. There's no middle ground," he said. "When (your children) quote something you've said, that means they're listening. That's what will refresh you. That's what's neat."

Draft projections peg K.J. Malone for selection toward the end of the draft. According to a scout with an NFC team, he's got the requisite lower-body power to make a team, but his overall athleticism will likely force the LSU offensive tackle to move inside to guard.

Bruce Matthews admits he hasn't yet seen Malone's game film, but after working with him in combine preparation at Plex Performance, he's come to believe Malone has a legitimate opportunity.

"I love the kid's demeanor. He's got a sponge mentality. His arms are long and he's working on all the right things," said Matthews, who made 14 Pro Bowls in his 19 NFL seasons. "My perspective is limited, but I feel like he gets it. If he stays healthy, he could have a good career because he's willing to work, and he takes to coaching. The thing that strikes me most about him is that humility he has."

Also working in K.J.'s favor is a vast amount of experience against future NFL talent. Playing in the SEC West ensured a stiff test every Saturday, but the tests Malone took during LSU practice weeks were equally tough. He considers Danielle Hunter, now with the Minnesota Vikings, to be the toughest pass rusher he ever dealt with at LSU. He's also clashed with the likes of Deion Jones and Kwon Alexander among eight front-seven defenders drafted from LSU since K.J. arrived in 2013.

Among the core questions NFL clubs want an answer to in interviews at the combine is whether the player's love for the sport is genuine; whether they're in it more for money and status. Whatever concerns they have about K.J. as a prospect, that won't be one of them. He's got a keen awareness of the trappings that await pro athletes. Fame and glory aren't in his equation. Not for the son of a man who had more of both than most anyone else could ever stand.

There's no sense of entitlement with K.J., a trait that clearly was passed down.

Asked when he began to tire of his own popularity, Karl Sr. tugged at that beard once again. And the 14-time NBA All-Star, without even a hint that he might be joking, replied: "Probably by my sophomore year at Louisiana Tech."

Malone had all but decided to trade in his cleats for a badge as the 2016 football season came to a close. He researched the path to the U.S. Marshals Service, which begins with a year of police duty while waiting for an application to be processed.

The decision was all but made.

Weeks later, he gathered a small group of family and friends to let them know he'd changed his mind. He had given his mom the news weeks earlier, but she wasn't altogether sure he wouldn't change his mind again, so keeping his plans under wraps wasn't difficult. Ultimately, like the day he decided he wasn't going to let the insults derail his NFL dream, he wasn't going give up his last year of college eligibility, either.

"He had such a bond with his teammates at LSU, he didn't want to leave those guys," Kay said.

That decision opened the door to his combine invitation, which in turn will help open the door to the NFL. One factor in his decision was that he could both achieve his NFL dream and answer his calling only by pursuing the NFL first. U.S. Marshal-turned-NFL-player isn't a viable progression.

"Like my mom used to say, you cook while the grease is hot," Karl Sr. said.

Dreams can be fleeting that way.

Callings are more patient.

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