METAIRIE, La. — The path had led him to some unexpected places, and on this stormy Monday it had brought Alvin Kamara to the New Orleans Saints’ practice facility, where he spent a few solitary minutes on an electric scooter, spinning doughnuts in the end zone.
About a year ago, Kamara was a largely unknown running back with a distinctive look and a reputation that included both mystery and baggage. He had attended the University of Alabama, gotten suspended, left the school, been arrested, attended two more colleges, accumulated respect and a few thousand yards, surprised coaches with his intellectual depth and put off some teammates with his confidence and focus, and dropped in the NFL draft to the third round.
“I didn’t know the route,” he would say recently, but somehow it led him here.
Now Kamara is on the verge of superstardom — just in the past few weeks he has appeared in a Drake video, sung at the ESPY Awards, been profiled by GQ — and the Saints are a popular pick to reach the Super Bowl. Kamara isn’t just entering his second season having restored faith in a franchise that posted losing seasons in four of the five years before his arrival — he has forced the league to rethink the value of the running back position.
It all seems about as far as can be from where he was four years ago, an Atlanta native and Southeastern Conference talent heading to central Kansas and a season in junior college for what would become, Kamara now says, the most important year of his life.
“I was,” the 23-year-old would recall later, “all the way out of place.”
A few weeks after leaving Alabama, Kamara answered the phone and listened to Thaddeus Brown, a coach and recruiter at Hutchinson Community College, explain how a season there — the city an hour from Wichita, the program known for bringing promising football careers back from the dead — could change him. Kamara went with it, and when he drove into town, he couldn’t help but notice how dark it seemed — the city lights of Atlanta and the prestige of Tuscaloosa far away.
“Hold on, man; why am I here?” Kamara would remember thinking. “It was just nothing.”
But he saw it as a work assignment, and if he performed on the field and earned his associate degree by the end of 2014, his route to the NFL — never in doubt, at least to Kamara — might feel more familiar. He identified and became close with individuals who could help him, and put distance between himself and those who could not. When games ended and teammates and coaches lingered on the field to socialize, Kamara jogged toward the isolation of the locker room. If someone asked him about Nick Saban, the legendary coach of the Crimson Tide, Kamara would respond that Saban was a good guy, offering almost nothing more. When students gathered for social events, it wasn’t uncommon to see Kamara sitting alone, pinching bottle caps into his dreadlocks.
“Dorm, practice, class — that same triangle. I didn’t do nothing,” he says. “People be going out, doing [stuff] like that, but I was like: I’m not here for that.”
If that rubbed some people the wrong way, Kamara didn’t care. “I’m not scared to be who I am,” he would say much later, one of the most intriguing things about him now that he’s famous, and who he was throughout 2014 was a young man who had ventured into the unknown as the only way back to civilization.
Besides, school employees didn’t see Kamara as aloof. They saw focus and determination: a talented and thoughtful young man who had it and lost it, and anything that did not advance his cause was an obstacle.
“He was clocking in, clocking out, and he knew it,” said Brown, who has spent six seasons on a staff that’s honest about the best thing about coming to Hutchinson: Eventually, you can leave.
That wasn’t happening for Kamara, however, the way his grades were that first semester. He underachieved on a math placement test and needed to retake another class entirely. Kamara, who had further isolated himself, responded when Erin Ellis, the athletic department’s developmental academic adviser, texted him to suggest he try a little harder; maybe take that placement exam again. And if that rubbed Kamara the wrong way, Ellis didn’t care. She had done this long enough to recognize his potential.
Eventually Kamara showed up at Ellis’s office, smiling as he asked what he needed to do, becoming determined as she outlined a plan that would be anything but easy. At most colleges, a full workload is a 15-hour semester, and only the ambitious or the deluded pack 18 hours of classes into their week — to say nothing of the additional responsibilities of a football player. But Kamara, if his path were to take him where he thought he belonged, would need to take 25 hours — a staggering number that, Ellis would say later, required her to request special approval from the school.
“I don’t really want to say I put my neck out, but I did,” Ellis says now, and whether Kamara realized it or not, the adviser was required to lay out a plan for how she would keep the interesting young man on track.
Yes, Kamara had a one-hour conditioning class that he cruised through. But he also had biology and a cluster of other general education requirements, Ellis says, that required real study and — maybe more important — communication when Ellis kept texting, kept asking where certain assignments stood, kept reminding Kamara that it wasn’t just his future that lay in the balance.
“I could see the motivation was growing, getting stronger,” she says. “At that time, I think he was fairly certain on where he was going when he left here. He had more of a set goal planned, more specific, but I knew he could do it. I knew he would do it. We just, together, had to stay on top of everything.”
That season, Kamara rushed for 18 touchdowns and more than 1,200 yards in nine games, most of which were decided before halftime — Kamara liked to joke with Brown that he was clocking out early on Saturdays — as the Blue Dragons went 11-1. That semester, he completed his requirements and entered finals week on the verge of graduation.
The path hadn’t just curved back in the direction he wanted; Kamara, with Ellis’s help, had bent it back toward the SEC, where he would spend two seasons at Tennessee, and, eventually, the NFL.
Once he joined the Saints, who went 11-5 last season and were one “Minnesota Miracle” from the NFC championship game, he established himself as a new kind of running back ideally suited for the modern game: intelligent and versatile, as dangerous catching the football as carrying it. His skill set, which helped Kamara tally 728 yards rushing, 826 yards receiving and 14 total touchdowns, is as distinctive as his style: shoulder-length dreads, bull-nose ring, gleaming gold grill.
“I just stayed true to what I’ve believed in, stayed true to who I was,” says Kamara, who won the offensive rookie of the year award. “I’ve got to live with whatever decision I make in my life. It’s me; I’m going to be in the casket alone.”
Nearly four years ago, Ellis would recall, she texted Kamara after each final exam. “This one is done; now we can think about the next one,” she remembered him saying, and though the years have passed and Kamara is one of the brightest young faces of professional football, he would bring up Ellis’s name unsolicited as one of the most important individuals in his life.
“I’m still grateful for her,” he says, leaning on his electric scooter. “I was messing up a little bit, like, my last semester . . . but she was on me, on me.”
On Kamara’s final night in Hutchinson, ahead of a flight early the next morning that would bring him back from the darkness, he stripped the sheets from his bed and slid the four outfits he had brought with him into his bag. He knew he needed to sleep, but the longest year of his life had passed more quickly than he had imagined, and Kamara was reflective and maybe a little sad.
So he sat on the bare mattress, typed a long paragraph on his phone and selected the perfect photograph to illustrate his feelings of the moment: Kamara in his blue and gray Hutchinson uniform, a young man usually looking forward but was for once looking back.
“This past year has been a journey to say the least,” he wrote. “Making it to the top is obviously the goal, but sometimes there is adversity.”
He kept typing, eventually reaching more than 300 words.
“I want also to thank the people (you know who you are) that did not give up on me. Even though I may not always show my appreciation believe me you have done more than you know to help me get over this valley in my life.”
Then he posted it all on Instagram, closed his eyes for a few hours, and the next morning he would board a plane that would depart central Kansas and bring Kamara a little closer to a destination that perhaps only he could see.