NEW YORK — This past Thursday afternoon, on the second floor of a high-end fashion store overlooking Fifth Avenue, Josh Jacobs wove between a rack of $425 T-shirts and a display of fashion sneakers with price tags approaching four figures. Jacobs had a couple of hours to kill, a precious commodity during his whirlwind schedule in advance of the NFL draft, where he is considered to be the best running back available, probably the only one to be taken in Thursday’s first round.
Jacobs had been to New York once, as a child on a school field trip. He wanted to experience the city in a way he never could have imagined then and in a way that carried significance few could understand. He showed a friend who had joined him a pair of sneakers, off-white with gold and metallic blue accents.
“Them tough,” Jacobs said, signaling his approval.
“Them tough,” his friend affirmed.
Jacobs picked up one of the shoes and asked a hovering salesman, “Say, y’all got these in 11½?”
Jacobs treasures shoes. He owns more than 150 pairs, because he carries with him the hurt of owning none. Jacobs became an athletic star at Alabama, a violent, versatile running back who plows through smaller tacklers, bursts around larger defenders and dusts linebackers on passing routes. Before his college career, Jacobs grew up on the north side of Tulsa, raised and protected with four siblings by a doting father who did everything he could under trying circumstances.
For Marty Jacobs, Josh’s father, that meant bouncing from hotel to hotel, hunting for the best deal on a room that included free breakfast. It meant late nights and early mornings and skipping meals so his could kids were never hungry. For a short stretch, it meant living with Josh in his maroon Chevy Suburban, refusing to fall asleep and keeping a gun nearby.
“The closer we get, the more you’re like, this is real,” Marty Jacobs said in a phone conversation. “I would have never imagined the path it took to get to where he is.”
Last week, the path led to shops along Fifth Avenue. Josh tried on the 11½s and liked what he saw.
“I remember, I used to be mad about not being able to get, like, new Jordans that came out,” he said later, riding through Manhattan in the back of a GMC Yukon. “We took turns getting shoes.”
Once, in seventh grade, Josh received a pair of black-and-red Air Jordan 13s. He had them on his feet so much he wore out the soles. He never forgot how good pulling them on for the first time made him feel. His life has changed, but when he asked the salesperson for the fashion sneakers to be shipped home to Tuscaloosa, Ala., it brought him back to those Jordan 13s.
“Same feeling,” he said. “It’s kind of the reason why I’m big with shoes now.”
‘We’re looking for a yes’
As a teenager, Marty Jacobs envisioned a simple life with a wife and children in a happy home. He was raising five kids with his wife — four they had together, plus her child from a previous relationship — when she asked for a divorce. The life he envisioned evaporated, replaced by hard choices and difficult sacrifices.
Marty would eventually gain custody of all five children — Josh was the middle in age — after a protracted divorce proceeding. At first, believing he would have to pay child support, he downsized to a one-bedroom apartment. When that apartment fell through, his old landlord had already found a new tenant. Suddenly, he was homeless.
“If it was just me, I’m cool; I can hang at a buddy’s house,” Marty said. “But some of my buddies did some things I didn’t want my kids around. I had to tell Josh, ‘We’re going to do some things.’ ”
Josh Jacobs was in fourth grade, and his siblings were staying with his mother while custody was being decided. Marty would pick him up from football practice, take him to a drive-through for dinner and find the safest place he could for the night. For a week and a half, father and son slept in a Suburban. One night, a man approached the car. Marty didn’t know if the man was just nosy or ill-intentioned, and he didn’t want to find out. Marty pulled a gun on him.
Josh remembers only one thing from that week: His father was always awake.
Unable to find steady housing, Marty started living in hotels with all five of his children. For about six months, the Jacobses became an itinerant family, hopping around Tulsa in search of the best weekly rate. They bonded, and most car rides included more laughter — many prompted by Alicia Keys singalongs — than tears.
“I understood what was going on, but I didn’t think it was as bad as it really was,” Josh said. “I guess I kind of normalized everything.”
Marty labored to make life normal for his children. He would talk to God and say, “I don’t want to screw them up.” He would pack up the car late at night, so his children wouldn’t see him moving their lives. He organized sports equipment and schoolwork so they could get to day care and school on time, even if it meant he’d arrive late to work most days.
Once, he kept his kids in the car as he ran into a shopping plaza to pick up dinner. In the parking lot, two men got into an argument, and one of them brandished a gun. As he walked back to the car, seeing his kids inside, Marty walked between the men, calm and stone-faced. He didn’t want his kids to be scared, and he believed the best way to prevent that was to look like he was unafraid.
“If I look back as a teenager, I would have never imagined this for my children,” Marty said. “But it could have been worse. I could have been one of those fathers that left. But I didn’t. I could have done some things that made it easier. But I can’t raise them behind a wall, you know what I’m saying?”
Friends pleaded with him to place the kids in a shelter, but he said he knew they would be safer with him, even in a hotel. Even his kids told Marty he needed to eat and sleep more. Stress piled up. “Emotionally,” Marty said, “I never had a chance to deal with the divorce. I think a lot of that started playing a part on my body, too.” He found it difficult to work at an oil and gas company, and when he hurt his eye on the job, he went on workers’ comp.
He soldiered on, trying to live by the mantras he repeated to his family. “Go through life understanding you already have a no. We’re looking for a yes,” he would tell them. “If someone says yes, that’s a win. If someone says no, that’s not the end of the world. We already have that.”
By the time Josh reached high school, his father had saved enough to move into a house in a rough neighborhood on the north side of Tulsa. He remembers hearing police helicopters circling overhead and gunshots outside his windows. “It was bad to the point where young kids, like 13 years old, were catching bodies, killing people,” he said. “It was tough.” His family and neighbors recognized his athletic talent and protected him, but he was tempted by the life he saw many of his peers living.
“It would have been easy to sell drugs or rob people,” Josh said. “It would have been easy to do things like that. But it wasn’t worth it. You’re selling a certain amount of drugs; the return on it is, like, you might as well have just saved your money. It was like, was the risk really worth it for the quick money?”
From zero stars to three
Josh Jacobs excelled in every sport, playing everything from baseball to tennis, and when he put on a football helmet, he felt like a different person. But he never dreamed of the NFL. When he thought about his future, he saw himself at college not dominating on a football field but majoring in engineering. Schoolwork came naturally to him, and he took calculus at McLain High. None of his coaches or classmates knew about his home life.
Still, he wondered why major college football programs overlooked him. As a junior, Josh led the state in rushing, yet his only scholarship offers came from Wyoming and New Mexico State. Local reporters didn’t believe his coaches when they called in Josh’s single-game rushing yardage totals, some of which climbed into the 400s, so Coach Jarvis Payne invited them to games to see for themselves.
“We had a more popular school up the street, and we were overlooked because of our environment,” Payne said. “Their thinking was, ‘Nothing really came out of McLain, so we’re just going to keep on moving.’ ”
During Jacobs’s senior season, out of the blue, his direction changed. A coach in Texas with an avid interest in recruiting noticed game film of Jacobs. The coach contacted him, shocked more schools had not shown interest. Josh had no Facebook or Twitter account. The coach instructed him to sign up for social media and post his highlights.
Two days later, calls from college recruiters poured in. “Literally, two days,” Josh said. One came from Alabama running backs coach Burton Burns. Burns attended one of Josh’s basketball games and, on the spot, offered him a scholarship. Josh was so unknown he had zero stars on recruiting website profiles. Once Alabama offered a scholarship, he had three.
‘I don’t know how he did it’
Josh did not struggle to adjust to Alabama, but the differences between his world there and how he grew up stunned him. The campus had flower-lined walkways and immaculate buildings, and the football facility was a palace. “Everything was so nice, it was weird,” he said.
He joined a powerhouse with a roster chock-full of elite running back recruits. He played sparingly as a freshman, but by late in his sophomore season, he became a crucial cog in the Crimson Tide’s offense. He gained 30 pounds, he said, through improved nutrition. As a junior, he scored 14 touchdowns while Alabama’s depth prevented wear.
For his first two seasons, he told no one about his experiences growing up. He viewed them as private and found them difficult to discuss. Josh Maxson, Alabama’s assistant athletic director for football communications, brought up the idea of making his story public, telling him he could help others in positions similar to his.
“That’s the thing that sold me about telling the story,” Josh said. He shared it publicly this past summer, and ever since people have thanked him.
“I get it every day. “It definitely makes you proud, to see people understand and they care about certain things.”
As he raised them, Marty Jacobs enlisted counseling for his children, in hopes they would not carry scars into adulthood. Josh rarely said a word in those sessions. Now, when reporters contact Marty and share what his son has told them, he is shocked but happy.
“Yeah, we go through some stuff,” said Marty, who is flying to Nashville this week to spend the draft with his son. “You’re not by yourself. That’s a platform where he’s going to reach a lot of people he’ll never meet.”
Josh looks back at what his father did with awe. “I don’t know how he did it,” he said of Marty. He thinks about it a lot: Josh is a father, too. He marvels at his 3-year-old son, Braxton, the way he can open the refrigerator door himself, pick out his favorite juice and climb onto his bed. Josh’s work and talent will mean Braxton, who lived in Tulsa with Marty and the Jacobs family this past year, will never experience the kind of life Josh had. When it comes time, Josh will tell his story again.
“I’m going to tell him about everything,” Josh said. “Obviously, he’s going to be in a different position than I was. But I want him to understand that [lifestyle]. I want him to not live it but to understand it to the point where he doesn’t feel like he’s privileged or he doesn’t treat people differently. I want him to understand everything.”
Josh Jacobs can also explain the meaning behind the shoes on his feet. He cherished those Jordan 13s, but after he wore them out, for some reason he stopped liking that style. In his vast collection, he has other Jordans but not the 13s. When he thought about it last week in New York, after he had come so far, it seemed like something to rectify. “I’m going to get some,” he said, and he smiled.
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