STAYING GROUNDED

Ta­bor touches D.C. roots on eve of draft

The Washington Times Daily - - FRONT PAGE - BY NORA PRINCIOTTI

It’s about 10 a.m. on Wed­nes­day out­side Friend­ship Col­le­giate Academy, a char­ter school in North­east D.C. that Jalen Ta­bor used to use the buddy sys­tem to get to with­out get­ting jumped. For this par­tic­u­lar ar­rival, a white Chevro­let Sub­ur­ban pops a U-turn to drop him off right out­side.

Things are chang­ing fast.

A back door opens and out slides the 21-year-old cor­ner­back, one red Jor­dan sneaker at a time. He’s wear­ing gray skinny jeans and a silky black bomber jacket with the punk band Sonic Youth’s “Con­fu­sion is Sex” al­bum cover em­broi­dered on the back. He has what looks like five pounds of gold chain jew­elry around his neck and wrists.

He’s days away from the NFL draft, where he is al­most cer­tain to be cho­sen.

The door to the pas­sen­ger seat swings open and, be­fore the amount of time nec­es­sary to iden­tify footwear passes, Merri Ta­bor ex­its and marches past

her son to­ward the school. She en­rolled Ta­bor at Friend­ship in 2010, she ar­ranged for him to speak to the foot­ball team to­day and she is in charge here.

“She’s pretty much the head on the rocket and she tells me and [Jalen] what to do,” said Alex Pa­tel, Merri Ta­bor’s hus­band and Jalen Ta­bor’s step­fa­ther.

Ta­bor was born and raised in Bowie, Mary­land. But, af­ter his mom met Aazaar Ab­dul-Rahim, the Mary­land de­fen­sive backs coach who was then the foot­ball coach at Friend­ship, Mrs. Ta­bor de­cided the fam­ily would move to D.C. so that her son could play for the coach.

“I was de­ter­mined for [my son] to be suc­cess­ful,” she said.

Mrs. Ta­bor was there for ev­ery break­fast and din­ner and was al­ways avail­able to talk to Ta­bor’s coaches, but she couldn’t pro­tect him from their new en­vi­ron­ment — one of D.C.’s most crimerid­den neigh­bor­hoods.

“It was a cul­ture shock,” Ta­bor said. “You go from the sub­urbs to the city. It taught me a lot.”

Af­ter he was robbed for a se­cond time, Mrs. Ta­bor made sure that older friends would make the trips to school with her son and she would pick him up from prac­tice. Ta­bor lost two friends in shoot­ings, and says he learned to stay calm and def­er­en­tial around peo­ple he knew were car­ry­ing guns.

Friend­ship’s foot­ball team prac­ticed on a dirt field dubbed ‘The Beach.’ It wasn’t a playable game field, so they played ev­ery game on the road. Old nee­dles were a hazard. Ta­bor thrived any­way. He didn’t al­low a com­ple­tion in his di­rec­tion as a ju­nior. In 2014 as a se­nior, he was D.C.’s Mr. Foot­ball and the No. 4-rated cor­ner­back prospect ac­cord­ing to ESPN.

When the col­leges came call­ing, he got of­fers from more than two dozen schools in­clud­ing Alabama, Clem­son, Michi­gan, Ohio State, Notre Dame, LSU and Ari­zona. Ta­bor en­joys glitz, and he loved his visit to Ari­zona — the girls, the par­ties, the weather, ev­ery­thing just seemed bet­ter there — but his mom said no. She thought Florida, and the SEC, would pro­vide him with a bet­ter ed­u­ca­tion and a safer path to the NFL. For two weeks straight, she burst into tears telling him so ev­ery night un­til Ta­bor gave in and flipped his com­mit­ment.

At Florida, he broke up 33 passes in his three years, sixth-most in pro­gram his­tory. He was first-team All-SEC twice. In his last two sea­sons in Gainesville, Ta­bor to­taled eight in­ter­cep­tions and re­turned three of them for touch­downs, a byprod­uct of the in­stincts and vi­sion scouts love about him.

Most projections have him go­ing in the se­cond or third round of this week’s draft. Ta­bor had been seen as a firstrounder, po­ten­tially even a top-10 pick, be­fore he ran a 4.62 40-yard dash at the NFL Scout­ing Com­bine and fol­lowed it up with an even slower time at Florida’s Pro Day — the one Bill Belichick ditched the NFL’s an­nual meet­ings to at­tend.

Ta­bor said a sore ham­string im­pacted his times. The whole fam­ily told him not to run, but he did any­way.

“It’s a toss-22,” Mrs. Ta­bor said. “Do you not run and then drop to the third round? Do you run it with a bad ham­string and try?”

All 32 teams have letters from Ta­bor’s doc­tor and trainer in Florida, his mom says, and they’ve been as­sured re­peat­edly that the Florida star’s game film is far more im­por­tant than his mea­sur­ables. Ta­bor would love to be drafted by the Dal­las Cow­boys, he says. He loves the Red­skins, but thinks they’re set at cor­ner­back.

He will watch the draft from home, with his mom, step­dad, girl­friend and maybe a few friends. For a guy that doesn’t mind the spot­light, he doesn’t want to make a big deal out of the draft. This has been a tax­ing process.

“We just try not to think about it. There’s so much scru­tiny in the me­dia th­ese days. It’s so many neg­a­tive things,” Mrs. Ta­bor said. “It’s a tough time. A tough time ... Peo­ple don’t un­der­stand.”

Pay­ing it for­ward

Ta­bor takes the stage at his old school and faces the as­sem­blage of ado­les­cent boys slouch­ing in their Friend­ship jack­ets and their navy-and-gold ties, which none of them have tied cor­rectly. They slouch be­cause they are 16 or so, not be­cause they are not riv­eted.

A few of the cor­ner­back’s many sides come through clearly as he an­swers their ques­tions.

He is con­fi­dent:

“I’m pretty sure you all know who I am,” he says af­ter get­ting on stage. He goes the en­tire ses­sion with­out in­tro­duc­ing him­self by name.

He has a sense of hu­mor: “You’re gonna talk to one girl way dif­fer­ent than you’re gonna talk to the next girl,” he says, ex­plain­ing the nu­ances of cov­er­ing shifty slot re­ceivers ver­sus out­side burn­ers. The teenagers laugh a lit­tle, but they mostly take this ad­vice as gospel.

He gets ahead of him­self some­times: “I want to own a team or be a GM,” he says. Sec­onds be­fore, he’d said that he hasn’t given much thought to life af­ter his play­ing ca­reer.

Ta­bor wants to be bet­ter than his idol, Deion San­ders, both as a player and as a show­man. He jumps from topic to topic, smil­ing widely and speak­ing freely. This is not out of char­ac­ter. While at Florida, he com­mented on top­ics rang­ing from dis­plea­sure with the Florida ath­letic de­part­ment to the po­lice shoot­ing death of Al­ton Ster­ling on his Twit­ter ac­count. He is out­spo­ken, and thinks ath­letes have an obli­ga­tion to be that way.

“We’ve got to do a bet­ter job of speak­ing out for what’s right and not be­ing quiet be­cause we’re get­ting paid a lot of money to be quiet,” he said.

An African-Amer­i­can stud­ies ma­jor who plans on fin­ish­ing his de­gree the sum­mer af­ter his rookie NFL sea­son, Ta­bor said he never felt the di­rect im­pact of racism as a player at Florida, but no­ticed its ef­fect on the com­mu­nity around him.

“They shel­ter us be­cause we’re mak­ing money for them,” he said.

He’s not sure what he would do if he were forced to choose be­tween an NFL con­tract and the free­dom to speak his mind, but he has a plan in place to avoid fac­ing that choice.

“I’m go­ing to play so well and I’m go­ing to be such a good per­son that they’re not go­ing to be able to get me out of there,” he said.

Ta­bor wants to con­trol his own im­age, and he is al­ready good at mar­ket­ing him­self. When he did not go to SEC Me­dia Day in 2016, he held his own via Periscope. He de­clared for the draft in Jan­uary and an­nounced his de­ci­sion in a good­bye let­ter to Florida pub­lished in the Play­ers’ Tri­bune.

He ad­mires the Ball brothers, Lonzo, LiAn­gelo and LaMelo, whose fa­ther LaVar has made head­lines this year for, among other things, a war of words with Nike. LaVar Ball is­sued a pub­lic warn­ing that BBB, the ap­parel brand he cre­ated in his kids’ honor, will one day eat into the mar­ket­place that Nike, Adi­das and Un­der Ar­mour cur­rently dom­i­nate.

“I think that’s amaz­ing,” Ta­bor said. “I feel like that’s what I want to do, have my own cleat one day and stuff like that. Your own brand? That’s what’s best. You don’t want to be a part of some­body else’s brand.”

In­sider and out­siders

There’s a man in a black shirt, black pants and a black hat with a green gator on the cap hang­ing out by the door of the au­di­to­rium — he’s a fam­ily friend Mrs. Ta­bor asked, mid­way through last sea­son, to look af­ter her son 24-7.

“Peo­ple think I’m crazy,” she said. That in­cludes her son, who some­times doesn’t like hav­ing a guardian with him ev­ery time he goes out.

“Just pro­tect­ing his best in­ter­est,” mom said. “You hear about all of th­ese bad sto­ries com­ing up this week, and it’s re­ally bad this year. Kids get­ting into a fight at a bar ... an­other kid who did some­thing in a ho­tel room.”

“If you have that, some­one there that’s look­ing out for you, those things ei­ther won’t oc­cur or they’re con­sciously think­ing ‘Let’s go. You can’t hit her back,’ or ‘You’ve gotta go.’ You know what I mean? ‘You can’t be do­ing this.’ And that’s im­por­tant. Peo­ple don’t re­al­ize that that’s very, very im­por­tant. It may seem like babysit­ting, but hey,” she said.

It’s not that her son needs a chap­er­one. He knows right from wrong — she made sure of that dur­ing those days when it was just the two of them liv­ing down the street from Friend­ship on South Dakota Av­enue.

Ta­bor’s days of foot­ball prac­tice and class were fol­lowed up by life lessons with his mother.

A sam­ple of her cur­ricu­lum: “Women 101, Guns 101, Drugs 101,” she said.

“We’d sit down and I’d say, ‘Can you carry this pill with­out this pre­scrip­tion cup?’ Peo­ple don’t know that,” she said. “If you put, let’s just say Oxy­codone or Tylenol 3, be­cause some­times he would take Tylenol for his body, can you carry that around with­out the pre­scrip­tion bot­tle?”

“Well of course he said yes, be­cause he didn’t know, but you can’t, that’s il­le­gal. Just lit­tle stuff like that,” she said.

How to han­dle money was a ma­jor topic be­fore Jalen went to col­lege. It will be­come one again once he signs his first NFL con­tract. They’ve al­ready had con­ver­sa­tions about sav­ing for the fu­ture.

Money is also a ma­jor rea­son the fam­ily wants some­one they trust watch­ing out for Ta­bor. The months lead­ing up to the draft are full of out­siders look­ing for an in with a soon-to-be mil­lion­aire.

“He’s got a big heart, he can’t say no, and we can’t be there,” Ta­bor’s step­fa­ther said.

Ta­bor does have a his­tory of get­ting into trou­ble, though noth­ing that would give an NFL team ma­jor pause. He was cited for mar­i­juana pos­ses­sion once and sus­pended twice, once for re­port­edly re­fus­ing to take a drug test and a se­cond time for fight­ing with team­mate C’yon­tai Lewis in prac­tice. He missed both the 2015 and 2016 sea­son open­ers as a re­sult.

With ev­ery in­ci­dent, he’s had to place a call home to his mother.

“I didn’t want to, but I had to,” Ta­bor said.

Asked what words were typ­i­cally ex­changed on those calls, he ex­hales sharply. His eyes widen and he shakes his head.

“A whole bunch of stuff,” is all he says. A call with bad news, though, is bet­ter than no call at all.

“I’d rather him call me and we put out the fire than him be scared and me get ner­vous,” Mrs. Ta­bor said.

Ta­bor said there was a time when he didn’t have to call, though, that proved to be a piv­otal mo­ment for him.

He hadn’t stopped smok­ing af­ter his mar­i­juana ci­ta­tion and, one day, while gassing up his car, po­lice of­fi­cers showed up. He saw them com­ing and quickly stuffed the lit­tle bag of con­tra­band he had on him into the gas com­part­ment.

The of­fi­cers searched his ve­hi­cle thor­oughly, dump­ing out the bag of chips and can of soda Ta­bor had in the front seat. But they never checked the gas com­part­ment. Ta­bor said think­ing about what might have hap­pened af­ter his se­cond of­fense scared him straight.

“I just [saw] all the plays in col­lege flash be­fore my eyes,” Ta­bor said.

One more les­son

Ta­bor takes pic­tures, signs au­to­graphs and passes out Florida Gators wrist­bands with the gag­gle of stu­dents who stayed be­hind af­ter he fin­ished speak­ing. Soon, the group is told to get to class, and to walk qui­etly on their way there. Ta­bor asks about an old teacher.

“She still up on the third floor?” Ta­bor’s hope is to start a char­ter school in D.C., just like Friend­ship, once his NFL earn­ings start com­ing in. He and his mother have pre­pared a patent ap­pli­ca­tion for the name New Foun­da­tions D.C., which is what they want to call the school.

“If I can give th­ese kids a lit­tle bit of light to help their sit­u­a­tion that means the world to me,” he said.

In her mind, Mrs. Ta­bor sees her son one day walk­ing the halls of New Foun­da­tions wav­ing to stu­dents, or head­ing out to watch foot­ball prac­tice. She of all peo­ple un­der­stands that her boy would not be where he is with­out the help of oth­ers, and it’s im­por­tant to her that he pays it for­ward.

The school has a se­condary pur­pose, too. It’s a con­struc­tive project, some­thing Ta­bor can fo­cus on in the lim­ited time he has that isn’t con­sumed by foot­ball, and a re­minder that he doesn’t play in the pur­suit of lux­ury alone.

“Keep­ing his mind straight and mak­ing sure that he re­mem­bers that there’s more to life than just foot­ball, there’s more to life than just the glam­our,” she said. “Let’s keep con­cen­tra­tion on where we came from, make sure we’re able to give back, stay fo­cused. You’re on a plat­form. Every­body is watch­ing and you’ve got to re­mem­ber that be­cause they look up to you.”

As she talks, her lan­guage morphs. At first she is de­scrib­ing what she wants for her son. But grad­u­ally, it be­comes clear she is still speak­ing di­rectly to Ta­bor — a mom try­ing to squeeze in one last life les­son be­fore the pros call.

Ta­bor

AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Projections have D.C. na­tive Jalen Ta­bor go­ing in the se­cond or third round of this week’s NFL draft. He was seen as a pos­si­ble first-rounder be­fore dis­ap­point­ing draft work­outs.

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