A Few Words For My People Who Got Me Here

Sam Maller/The Players' Tribune

My grandpa. 

We have to start there.

As the draft gets closer, I’ve been thinking a lot about the moments along my journey that have brought me to this point. And there’s a lot of them. But first and foremost, I need to shine a light on my grandfather. 

Football’s been handed down from generation to generation in my family, starting with him. He introduced my dad, who became a Division I cornerback, and my dad passed it down to me. 

My grandpa was there every step of the way, for 20 years of my life. He was the one who always picked me up from school and took me to practice. We’d always be laughing and cracking jokes. He was like my best friend. About three years ago, I went through the hardest thing I’ve ever been through when he passed away. Then my grandma passed just two weeks later. Man, that broke my heart in ways you can’t imagine. You think grandparents will live forever. But moving through that grief, as hard as it was, taught me something important. It opened up my perspective on life. I learned that you really gotta love the ones that love you, because you never know when that time might be up. I never want to be that person wishing I would’ve told the people I care about how much they really matter.

So that’s why I’m writing this. Before I walk across the stage on draft night and my life changes forever, I want to take the opportunity to say a few words. As I’ve been reflecting, so many memories have come flooding back that kind of say everything.

Senior year. 

That’s number one. We were on our way to back-to-back state titles, but we lost in the state championship at the last second to Sierra Canyon. I hadn’t cried after a loss since I was a little kid, but I cried after that one. It wasn’t just that I was so shocked at how we lost. It was something deeper. I knew that was it. High school, going out there and playing with the people that I grew up with in San Bernardino … all that was over with. 

Everybody in my family went to Cajon High School. That’s where my parents met. And that’s where I first stamped my name. Friday night football. We changed the trajectory of the high school program. In town, a lot of people go to the same barbershops, and they’d start hearing your name or seeing it in the city newspapers. So people knew who I was. By my junior year, which was my “senior year” because I graduated early, it was like everybody was trying to see our games. I remember at the semifinals they had to bring extra bleachers into the stadium because so many people were trying to come. I didn’t even know you could sell out a high school game like that. It was dope. You don’t usually see that where I’m from. But we became like must-see TV. My last season we had a couple of games televised, and that put us on the map.

So at the final whistle, when we lost, everything kind of hit me all at once. I thought, I’m not ever going to get these times back. We were all moving on to the next chapter of our lives, which would take us in different directions.

It kind of reminds me of something my dad told me in seventh grade. Growing up, he used to always call himself dropping gems, right?? He’d just say little things here and there to get me and my friends thinking about the future. Me and all my friends played on the same team, and this was my last year playing with them in the youth football organization, because I was a year younger. And my dad kept it real. He was like, “In the next few years, some of y’all are going to find a girl, might have a baby, some of y’all are gonna find yourself in some trouble, and some of y’all will be stars.” He said we all had the tools to be great if that’s the path we chose, but it was our decisions that would ultimately decide our destiny. At the time, that sounded wild. Everybody’s like, Nah, nah, nah. But in the end, everything he said turned out to be true. Some of my friends had kids, some of them got into things that took them down the wrong path. Only a small few were able to stay the course.

That really opened my eyes. The more we grew up and got more freedom, the more I saw how people changed. This is San Bernardino. I’m not gonna say it was bad, but there was violence and gang stuff everywhere. High school was like two different worlds. Picture the movie like this. You have the vibe at school, with kids chilling in the quad, having fun. You’d be sitting with friends, laughing on the wall. There’d be some fights, obviously. But in the background, some kids were starting to become affiliated with gangs, thinking they’re this and that. I don’t think my parents ever worried about me going that way, to be honest. My mom and my dad didn’t play that. I also just wasn’t a kid that was easily influenced to do things. But I mean, there was always a worry. You could always end up in the wrong situation, wrong place, wrong time.

Sam Maller/The Players' Tribune

.... And of course, I always had football.

I started out playing every position, but low-key, I was always set on QB because, selfishly, I just wanted the ball in my hand. At first, I didn’t think too deep about what it would take to embody that, if that makes sense. To actually be a QB. My dad was the one that first asked me, “Do you know what comes with it?” He was talking about the magnitude of the spotlight once you go to college and the pros, the intensity and the preparation it required. He also meant the microscope it puts you under, especially as a Black man. Honestly, I really didn’t know all that. So he said, “Alright, if your mind is set on this, I’m going to help you be the best that you can be.” He didn’t really know the quarterback position, so we had to seek outside help. I didn’t have a personal trainer until I was like 15, 16. Kids nowadays have them at seven, eight.

My freshman and sophomore year, I didn’t have any scholarship offers. I started second guessing myself. And then my junior season I had a big year, and Florida State offered me. Once Florida State offered me, then Oregon offered me, and the dominoes just started falling.

Forks Up. 

I remember Herm Edwards and Antonio Pierce recruiting me. I’ve known Coach Pierce since I was young. At that time there were two other true freshman QBs coming in, so I was like, “Y’all really going to take three true freshman quarterbacks in the same class?” And they said, “Yeah. And if you believe in yourself, you’ll go in there, you’ll handle business, and you’ll beat them out.”

Once I got to college, my knowledge of the position grew in ways I couldn’t have known. I mean, I thought I threw a football pretty good. But I came out to Golden West, in Huntington Beach, to train with Taylor Kelly and 3DQB, and I learned about biomechanics, the science behind throwing the ball, and saw all these ways I could improve. For example, I had a quick release, but it was like, How can we make it quicker? Also, at first, I was just throwing all arm — I wasn’t using my lower half. So I tweaked things like that. Taylor always figured out how to humble me in a way, and he still does that to this day. It’s still a learning process. I always have this mindset of, How can I get better? How can I grow from that?

Abbie Parr/Getty

My time at ASU really molded me and gave me some amazing football memories. I’ll always be grateful for that. I’ll never forget this time back in 2019, we were on a four-game losing streak. We didn’t win a game for a whole month. So that weekend, we were going up against No. 6 Oregon, who had Justin Herbert. I remember that game vividly. The atmosphere was another level. Everybody was on 10. A lot of my friends and people I grew up with went to Oregon, and at the time they were talking about getting ready to go to the playoffs. So, we were up by two touchdowns in the fourth quarter, right? And they started coming back. Flashforward and now we’re up only three, and it’s third-and-16. Brandon Aiyuk beats Deommodore Lenoir (his teammate now), and I throw him a fade ball down the sideline. He caught it, he scored. I still remember his celebration. He dropped the ball on the ground and kicked it, which got some flags. I hit the ice in my veins. Clock runs out. We beat them. Everybody rushes. Fans storm the field. That’s the stuff you always dream about. As for Oregon, I don’t know, I guess we spoiled their playoff chances….

Coach Herm. 

Man, that’s my dog. I’m not even kidding. There’s almost nothing I can say that could ever do justice to that relationship. He looked out for me. I used to sit up in his office, and he used to just talk to me about anything … life lessons about the NFL and stuff like that. He’s somebody who’s coached and played at the highest level, and is also human too. He was real about the stuff he’s been through. Listening to his stories…. I wouldn’t trade those memories for anything. After my grandparents passed, I remember he was the first person who called me. He was like, “I know football is your thing, but really take this time with your family.” He said, “I don’t even want you to come back to school right now. Take care of you.” He knew how important my grandparents were to me. And he told me it was O.K. to be selfish, in a way, to care of my mental health.

Courtesy Jayden Daniels

It was like right there that it clicked. That was like.… Man. I knew that he wasn’t just a coach at that point. I knew he was a father figure to me. Another grandpa, in a way. 

That was probably the hardest thing about leaving ASU. The next year, I didn’t have the best season, and honestly, there was a lot of uncertainty. People were getting let go, coaches were getting fired. I felt like, Dang, if the NFL is really a big thing to me, I have to turn this around. I wanted a clean slate and a fresh start. That meant I had to go into Coach Herm’s office and sit face-to-face and let him know my decision. No phone call, no text message, none of that. You have to think, I just turned 21 at that point. And like I said, Coach Herm was like my family. I feel like I grew up a lot in that hour.

It’s crazy because that’s actually another thing we used to talk about in his office — how to be the CEO of your life and all of the little things that go into being in a position of power. In a way, it’s like he’d been preparing me for this all along. In every conversation that led up to that point, he was teaching me, essentially, how to be a man. And not only how to be a man, but how to be a Black man, knowing everything that comes with it. As I was leaving, he said, “If there’s nothing there, you always got a spot with me.”

The California Bayou Boy. 

I went into the transfer portal, and my phone blew up. I’m getting calls from coaches everywhere. But there was something about Coach Kelly. I was really just looking for a new home, but I also wanted to go to a bigger program, to be on a bigger stage. And I remember when we first met, he said, “Man, I really want you to be here.” It wasn’t just him either. The offensive coordinator at the time that’s now at Notre Dame, Mike Denbrock, I was on a Zoom call with him, and he was like, “Man, I just want to help you get to where you want to go.” My parents taught me a lot about recognizing who’s genuine, who’s not. Who’s trying to bluff me. And I don’t know, everything just felt super authentic. He could’ve pitched me like, “I’ll make you a first-round pick or I’ll make you a Heisman Trophy winner.” But he was like, “I just want to help you achieve your goals in your life.” He had full belief in me. That’s what put them over the edge.

Jonathan Bachman/Getty

LSU was a long way from home. 

I remember this day, in the middle of June. We were working out. It’s humid, I’m sweating, go home, take a shower. I didn’t have nothing to do for the rest of the day. So I took a nap, and when I woke up it was pouring rain, lightning, thunder. I’m like, Man, what is going on?? I’m so confused. I’m like, Is it a hurricane coming? I’m calling my mom, I’m calling people like, “Bro, is this normal?” They were like, “Nah, this is normal.” I was in my head like, I can’t be playing outside in no hurricane…. 

That first year was really about getting my confidence back. But the biggest leap I took was off the field. It was like, I know who I am, now. There would be moments where I was just sitting there in the dorm, just me and my thoughts. Sometimes my mind would wander to some of these scenes of my life. I’d think about laughing in the car with my granddad on the way home from practice. Friday night football in San Bernardino. Chilling in the quad at Cajon High. I thought about everything I’d been through in 2021 and 2022, now, in 2023. And as all these moments played back in my mind, I became even more focused on my goal. That was the real leap, deciding, This is the life I want. This is what I’m going to do, what I have my sights set on. These are the dreams and aspirations that I’ve had since I was a kid, and now I’m going to do everything in my power to go out there and make it happen.

Every day I would think, Did I do enough today to be where I want to be in a couple of years? How can I get better on the little details and take my game to another level? At LSU, I learned how to train like a pro. Preparing as a pro is having consistency in your routine. I wake up at five, watch film at the facility for 45 minutes to an hour, go back home, eat, take a nap if necessary, come back up, take care of my body, and get ready for practice. Eat lunch, go to meetings, extra reps after practice, treatment, watch practice film. You get the idea. And you also have to build in quality time to hang out with your teammates so that you can connect. It’s fully adopting the mentality of first one in, last one out. And that’s something that I embodied this past year.


I owe a huge part of my growth this past season to Sherman Wilson. He works with the team. He’s like a mentor, but also a friend and a brother. This past year he challenged me, and I challenged him. We had that kind of relationship that you build with somebody you really trust, where you guys can challenge each other without feeling any disrespect. He pushed me in my routine. When I’d get up at five o’clock in the morning to watch film, he used to be out there with me. There would be times where we’d be kind of racing to see who could get to the film room first. Bringing that competitive juice to 5 a.m. helped get my game to the next level. And it paid off.

I remember last season we played Mississippi State away, and it was like everything I watched on film and went through at practice. I was seeing it and just reacting. It’s a different kind of focus, being that locked in. You see everything slowed down. It was like, they don’t know that I know what they’re doing, but I know what they’re doing. I know where I’m going with the football, and I’m making the throws. Their defense was trying to blitz, and I know who’s blitzing just based off of the little stuff. So that’s when the fruits of my labor started to show. When you get so locked in on something, and you’re so focused, at that point it’s like nothing can stop you. I had more games like that. Then, I started to hear buzz about New York. But the way it goes, one day you’re in the conversation, the next day you’re not. I remember telling Sherm at one point, after losing our third game of the season, “Man, I might be out the Heisman race.” He was more positive than me. He was like, “Nah, nah. Just keep going.” 

Just getting invited would have been a huge honor no matter what. But I’m not afraid to admit, I wanted the Heisman. One thing that I think gets overlooked sometimes is that dog and that competitive edge in me. People don’t really get to see that side because of who I am as a person. I’m more reserved. I’m calm, I’m quiet. But I’m very competitive. I don’t back down from anything or anybody. So I worked hard for it, and I hoped God would meet my effort with a blessing.

Five out.

When I was 12, I had the vision of myself playing in the NFL. I could really see myself doing that. I could visualize it in my mind. Deep down, I still feel like that 12-year-old kid. Like, Dang, this is really real. One thing I can tell you is, it takes a village to get in this position. It also takes a lot of love. I just want to thank all of the people who helped me get to this point. I want to thank my family above all. Shoutout to my mom and my dad, my sister, my grandparents, and all of my extended family as well. 

Sam Maller/The Players' Tribune

I also want to say a big thank you to the city of San Bernardino, from the bottom of my heart. They blessed me enough to name my high school stadium after me and show gratitude in that way. So I’m going to keep praising them until it’s backwards because I’m proud of where I’m from. Shoutout to everybody back home. Shoutout to my dogs Nick and Jerome. I’m grateful for the people who loved and believed in me enough to invest their time and energy, just so I could have a shot at reaching my dreams.

I feel like everything God has put me through has prepared me for a moment like this. Now, when I think back on my dad’s wisdom from when I was young, his words hold even more weight. On my journey, I did my best to make the right decisions. I made the choices that I hoped would lead me here before I knew it was written. That’s called faith.

I know that the platform I’m stepping into will open even more doors and come with a greater responsibility. I’m already looking ahead and preparing for greater challenges. But thanks for letting me look back, one more time, at That Kid.

He stayed the course. 

And for that, I’m grateful.