J. Brady McCollough
J. Brady McCollough - Courtside Allen Field House


Thursday, August 30, 2007

KU's big daddy

 

Talib was always motivated to succeed, but with a new baby, he's even more focused on his NFL dream.

 

By J. BRADY McCOLLOUGH

The Kansas City Star

 

LAWRENCE | On days like these, Aqib Talib realizes just how far he’s come.

 

A little girl turns around so that he can sign the back of her T-shirt. A man points to the crimson stripe that splits the Kansas helmet. He wants it there. A woman hands Talib a miniature football.

 

“You’re going to be awesome,” she says.

 

All that work to get here, and Talib has only 12 games to go. One season separating him from his dream. If everything goes as planned, Talib, a standout cornerback, will be a first-round pick in the 2008 NFL draft. Millions of dollars are on the line, and he can’t afford to fail. Everything has changed in the last 11 months.

 

Talib looks into the crowd surrounding him at Kansas’ fan appreciation day and motions for a young woman to come forward. The fans make way for her and a baby. Talib reaches out and cups the child in his hands with wide-receiver gloves. He smiles for the camera.

 

Talib doesn’t announce to the crowd that the baby is his 2-month-old daughter, Kiara Renae Talib. Although, if they looked closely enough, they could see the words “My daddy loves me” inscribed on her pink infant shirt, or her already-growing resemblance to her 21-year-old father.

 

“I think she looks more like me,” Talib says proudly. “She’s got her mom’s color, her mom’s hair, but I think the facial features are mine.”

 

As Talib prepares for an all-crucial junior season that could set his family up for life, he has newfound motivation. Before Kiara, Talib wanted to play in the NFL so that his mom and dad, who live in Trenton, N.J., would never have to work again. But now he has his own family to think about, too.

 

“My mom is still in Trenton, my dad is still in Trenton,” Talib says. “I talk to them once a week or something. Now I wake up and see the goal at 3 o’ clock in the morning every day. Every day, I can see the goal.

 

“She came at the perfect time.”

 

***

 

In October 2006, Aqib Talib was on his way to a breakout season for Kansas. His social life was pretty good, too. He was dating Cortney Jacobs, a sprinter on the KU track and field team, and living the life of a college athlete.

 

But when a pregnancy test turned up positive for Jacobs, Talib was confronted with a fight-or-flight moment. Just a junior, Jacobs didn’t know what to do. She was afraid of telling her track coach and her parents. To her, there was no way she could have the baby.

 

“I was really upset,” Jacobs says. “That wasn’t what I had planned for my life. Aqib was the one who said, ‘Cortney, we’ll get through it. We’ll have enough money. There will never be anything the baby needs.’ ”

 

To find the answers, all Talib had to do was look at his own father, Theodore Henry. Despite growing up in a tough Trenton neighborhood, Talib and his older brother, Yaqub, never wanted for anything. Henry worked the late shift at a K-Mart warehouse, and if that wasn’t enough to get his boys Air Jordans, he’d just work more.

 

Henry scrounged up enough cash to send the boys to a Catholic school during their formative years. Aqib’s friends from the neighborhood would cut class as early as sixth grade, but Henry made sure Aqib was in school.

 

“Look,” Henry would say, “all you have to do is go to school and get good grades. If you do that, I’ll buy you whatever you want. If I can’t afford it, I’ll work overtime.”

 

Mostly, Henry did what he could. He didn’t have time to cart Aqib to all of his baseball and basketball practices. But Henry noticed something about Aqib at an early age.

 

“I’d say, ‘I can’t get you to practice,’ and he’d say, ‘Don’t worry about me, I’ve already got a ride,’ ” Henry says. “Somehow, he always manages to get what he wants.”

 

Henry made the ultimate sacrifice when Talib was entering his eighth-grade year. He felt that there would be too much trouble awaiting his boys if they attended high school in Trenton, so he pushed them to move to Texas, where their mom lived, thousands of miles away from him.

 

“I’d go upstairs and sit in their room on the bed sometimes,” Henry says. “I’d say, ‘I should never have let them go to Texas.’ ”

 

But it was more important to Henry that Aqib had a chance for a better life. So when Aqib’s world was turned upside-down last October, his reaction was instinctive. He did what his father would have done.

 

“It was a shock,” Talib says. “We both were in shock. We didn’t mean for it to happen, but we’re going to make the best out of the situation. We’re living together, she’s my girlfriend, and she’s going to be my wife.”

 

***

 

Almost nine months had passed, and Aqib Talib had his first fatherly decision to make.

 

His six interceptions and 28 pass breakups his sophomore year had put him on this year’s Playboy All-America team, and he was supposed to go on a trip to Arizona as a reward. There was a chance, though, that Jacobs would go into labor during that time.

 

“Aqib said, ‘I’m going to be there when she has our baby,’ ” Henry says. “I said, ‘Whoa, you’re really growing up now.’ ”

 

It turned out that Talib got to be there for both. The Playboy weekend was memorable, hobnobbing with some of the nation’s finest players, but it was nothing compared to the high of Kiara’s birth on June 22. Talib waited by Jacobs’ side for 14 hours before Kiara finally made an appearance just after 4 a.m.

 

“It was crazy seeing my daughter come into the world,” Talib says. “It had my mind everywhere for a good two days. That was the most … out there … experience ever.”

 

To hear Talib tell it, the rest has been pretty easy.

 

“I had more experience than Cortney had just from being an uncle and stuff,” Talib says. “I was ready. It’s not as hard as I thought it was going to be.”

 

Talib and Jacobs share an off-campus apartment. Jacobs cooks breakfast for Talib in the mornings, and she recently made pork chops for dinner. Give Talib a briefcase, and he’d be a regular Ward Cleaver.

 

“It’s a happy home,” Talib says.

 

Opposing wide receivers would probably scoff at this image of Talib, known for his big mouth and brash attitude on the field. Talib has spent the whole offseason, for instance, predicting to reporters that Kansas would win the Big 12 North this year.

 

Away from the public eye, though, there’s little doubt that Talib has changed. Back in July, his family had a reunion down in Richardson, Texas, and Talib brought Jacobs and Kiara with him. That meant that Talib’s high school friends didn’t get to see him as often.

 

“They’re like, ‘We’re going to such and such. You coming?’ ” says Saran Billings, Talib’s older sister by 16 years. “He said, ‘I can’t go. Y’all go ahead.’ I’ll put it like this: There’s been no time before that he’s ever come home from school that he did not go out and kick it.”

 

Yaqub Talib says his little brother is a natural family man.

 

“This last year, he’s matured more than I’ve ever seen,” Yaqub says, “and I think it was in part getting older and in part being in his situation. It’s a big spot of happiness in his life, just loving that girl so much.”

 

***

 

At the family reunion, Talib was watching the new ESPN show, “College Live,” when his name came up as one of the top cornerbacks in the country. The family spent the rest of the weekend watching the recording on TiVo.

 

“It was the first time I’ve seen me on the real, real ESPN,” Talib says, “not Fox Sports Net.”

 

It’s hard to become a national presence at Kansas, but Talib is getting close. ESPN draft guru Mel Kiper lists Talib as the No. 1 junior cornerback in the nation, and several online mock drafts have Talib listed in the first round, as high as 15th overall.

 

While Talib revels in the attention, it’s overwhelming for his family. They remember when he was lightly recruited by elite programs like Texas and Oklahoma out of high school, despite being in their backyard. Talib’s high school, Richardson Berkner, was not a school that recruiters routinely visited, and Talib was rated a two-star talent by Rivals.com.

 

Now, it’s just something to laugh about. Aqib Talib, from Trenton, N.J. and Berkner High School, a first-round pick. Seriously?

 

“It’s unexplainable,” Talib says, taking a deep breath. “Like, it almost feels like it’s too good to be true. I’m not going to go to the NFL and be a first-round pick. That’s like, unheard of. But it’s here, man. It’s really happening right now.”

 

The whole family is waiting for Talib to deliver the good life. Henry says he wants to retire and be able to live out the rest of his years in peace. He compares his son’s probable NFL career to winning the lottery.

 

All Talib has to do is avoid injury and play up to the standard he set last season. All.

 

“You can’t help but think about it all the time,” Talib says. “My mom and dad are too old to be worried about this stuff. I try not to think about it, but of course the thought comes up, and I just try to do my best to put it in the back of my mind so I can perform and make sure it happens.”

 

Sounds like a lot of pressure. But remember, Talib will always have that daily 3 a.m. wake-up call to keep him focused. He’ll rub his eyes, walk over to the crib and hold Kiara Talib, a living, breathing reminder of the stakes at hand.

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