T here are moments on the journey to becoming an adult that everyone remembers. First relationship, first time driving a car.…
… First time realizing that Kansas City is in Missouri.
It didn’t seem real after I got off the phone with Herm Edwards. He was the one who called me on draft night back in 2008.
It was all a blur, but we talked for a minute, and then he said something like, “Are you ready to come to Kansas City and be a Chief?”
“Yes, sir!” I spoke to the Chiefs’ general manager for another minute and then hung up the phone.
My family was all standing around me waiting to hear who it was. The room is just silent while everyone’s waiting for me to announce my team. Finally, I said it: “Kansas! Wooooo! I’m going to Kansas!”
They all just shook their head. “No you’re not.”
I said, “Yes I am! That was Herm Edwards! I just got drafted — Kansas City Chiefs!”
“Kansas City, Jamaal. That’s in Missouri.”
“C’mon, don’t play.”
“Kansas City. Missouri. That’s a fact, son.”
O.K., maybe I learned where it was a little later than most people — but for nine seasons, Kansas City (Missouri!) was my home. And I couldn’t have asked for a better one.
Ask anyone in this league, and they’ll tell you: There’s playing football — and then there’s playing football in Kansas City. The city is special … the stadium is special … the atmosphere isn’t like anywhere else in the world. It was a privilege to be able to take part in so many of those Sundays at Arrowhead, and to be able to contribute to so many great Chiefs teams.
Things are different now, I guess. It’s nine years later — and I’m coming back to K.C. for a road game, playing for a new team. A different team for the first time in what feels like forever.
But it’s times like these that make you think about how it started.
Times like these that make me think about how lucky I was to call Kansas City home.
After all the excitement from Draft Day finally died down, I was able to look a little more closely at my situation — and I kind of started wondering:
Damn, why is K.C. drafting a running back?
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It was like this: After the first day of the draft passed, I was a little heated that I didn’t get picked. There were a lot of people close to me whispering that I might go in the first round. So like any naive kid, I got my hopes up. And then when every team passed on me, the same people were telling me — “without a doubt” — that I’d go in the second round.
So when every team passed twice, I was really down. Like way down. In the span of a day, I just started to question everything. Would I ever get picked? Was I cut out for the NFL?
But then that call, man. That call from Herm. That was crazy. All the doubt, all the despair — right out the window. The dream continues. I was a Kansas City Chief.
Here’s the thing, though: Whether you knew about the geography of Missouri or not … you definitely knew the Chiefs running game back then was legit. For several years straight it had first been Priest Holmes and then Larry Johnson putting up insane numbers. And so while it was a blessing to get drafted, I guess I was also just sort of thinking, Man, does this team even need me?
I didn’t really have any idea what to expect when I first came to the Chiefs, but it was especially surreal coming in behind Larry. We became friends early on, and it was amazing to see how he was embraced everywhere he went in Kansas City. I couldn’t have asked for a better guy to learn from.
It’s like, not only was he incredible at football — he was good at pretty much everything he put his mind to. At one point he had a recording deal with Roc-A-Fella! Seriously, it was crazy. I got to meet Jay-Z once in Vegas my rookie year.
On the field it was like I was learning the insider secrets to becoming an offensive weapon. Remember, Larry was only a year away from back-to-back seasons of 2000 total yards. He was a certified running back god. Just watching him in practice helped me to understand what I’d need to do if I wanted to perform at the next level.
At first, it was all too good to be true. Getting paid to play football — you have to understand: I had never been paid to do anything before. For the first 20 years of my life, I wasn’t thinking about money at all. All I thought about was football. I’d been thinking about playing in the NFL every single day since middle school. And every single day I’d been working toward that dream.
Colin E. Braley/AP
And then suddenly I was there. I was in the dream. So for a minute, I guess there was this feeling of, almost, like … What now?
I had some good games my rookie year, but something just wasn’t clicking. And so I came into my second season still trying to master the offense. I was showing up to practice and putting in work every day, but I don’t know — I just wasn’t improving the way I wanted to be.
Which all led up to a day that I’ll never forget — when I heard two words that no player ever wants to hear: healthy scratch.
It was Week 2, and we were playing Oakland at home. I had to watch the game from the press box. I remember just standing up there like I wasn’t even part of the team. I looked around at the Arrowhead crowd and felt like I had let everybody down. I felt like a nobody. Even after the game, only one reporter asked me why I was inactive. Even the media didn’t care whether or not I was playing.
I vowed right then and there that I was going to work my tail off from that point forward. I was done thinking about money or clothes or jewelry — I was like a high-school kid again. The only thing I could think about was playing football.
Next day at practice, the coaches pulled me aside and said that I needed to step up or I wasn’t going to last. I nodded, like I understood.
But I was way ahead of them.
“You don’t want no other man to take care of your kids.”
That’s what Coach Edwards used to say to us all the time. “Y’all got kids. It’s time to grow up and take care of your own.”
You pick up these bits and pieces from different guys the longer you play in the league. Maybe a coach tells you something that really motivates you. Then an assistant helps you tweak something in your footwork. Then you spend a game in the press box stewin’ … and it’s like all of a sudden, everything comes together, and you’re ready to take off.
That 2009 season, man … I was ready to fly.
I was lucky to play for some great coaches in Kansas City over the years. Herm Edwards as a rookie, then Todd Haley came in and really started to utilize me as a receiver out of the backfield, then finally Coach Andy Reid — just one of the most brilliant offensive minds in the history of the game. All of them helped me turn into a more complete player.
After big seasons, after major injuries, the coaches and staff always believed in me when I told them I’d bounce back.
Fans, too. Anytime I got hurt, the Chiefs fans were good to me, always sending their love and rooting for me to get better. It’s like the entire city rallied around the guys on our football team. I always appreciated that on the road to recovery.
And I played alongside some of the league’s best on both sides of the ball every Sunday. Guys like Tony Gonzalez, Brian Waters, Derrick Johnson, Justin Houston. It’s hard, because I could name so many, but I learned so much about work ethic from all of them.
There are so many players on the teams I’ve played with who never got the credit they deserved.
And then there’s Mike the Equipment Manager, Brian in the Mail Room, the cafeteria staff at the Chiefs’ training facility who helped me with my Spanish — there’s an entire community of people who are never seen on the TV cameras, but who dedicate so much of their time to our sport, and contribute so much to how we play and practice every day. These are the people I hung out with when I wasn’t practicing or in the weight room. We joked and shared meals. We spent a whole lot of time together.
They’re the Kansas City Chiefs, too.
Saying that football is a business doesn’t give enough credit to the friends we make along the way. There are so many people I met over nine years that I never got the chance to properly say goodbye to, or to thank for helping me.
You see the same people every day for so long and it really is like you’re a family after some time. I ran for a lot of yards because I had a big family in Kansas City — I had a lot of people I wanted to run for. And I want them to know right now that I don’t take a single one of them for granted.
Jamie Squire/Getty Images
When all is said and done, the Kansas City Chiefs organization was so much bigger than football to me. For almost a decade, it was my entire life.
But when you’re released in this league, it doesn’t happen gradually. You don’t get to put in your two weeks notice and say goodbye to everybody. Most of the time, you just go from being on the team to being nobody. I was in the middle of a workout at the Chiefs facility when I got the call.
And that was that. I was gone. I packed up my locker, got in my car and went home. Didn’t even finish the workout.
In the immediate aftermath, I wasn’t thinking about getting sentimental — I was just thinking about that same old question again.
Man, what now?
Sometimes, in life, things happen so fast — so fast that you don’t even stop and think about what’s important. And by the time you take stock of everything that you’re leaving behind, it’s too late. You’re already somewhere else.
Which is why, with my coming back here now as a Bronco, I wanted to take the time to write this for y’all. I wanted to tell you, straight up: It was a privilege to play at Arrowhead. That it was great raising my kids as Chiefs fans. And that we’re all going to be feeling some type of way when I play the Chiefs tonight in a different uniform.
At the end of the day, I wouldn’t change a single thing about the past nine years. I could go on and on about how grateful I am, or about what my old team means to me. But instead I’ll just say it like this: Football ends at some point. Family is forever.
Denver is my home now. And I’m embracing my new city — my new family — the same way I did Kansas City. I know I don’t have anything left to prove in this league, but I still have plenty left to play for. And I’m as excited as I’ve been in a long time for the next part of this story.
But I’ll never forget where I came from.
So thank you for everything, Missouri. To everyone who got to know me and spend time with me over the years: You’ll always be a part of my family.
And hey, you know what — you’re my family too, state of Kansas. Keep doing you.