Eagles’ Nakobe Dean was always destined to be NFL star

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Nakobe Dean, pride of Horn Lake, was always destined to be a star originally appeared on NBC Sports Philadelphia

Nakobe Dean’s favorite food is peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. He’ll take them with creamy or crunchy peanut butter; either way.

But his mother, Neketta Dean, insists her son ‘Kobe will declare a house with a fully stocked refrigerator to be devoid of food if it lacks the necessary ingredients to create his culinary masterpiece.

“That’s his absolute favorite food,” she says.

In part, Neketta Dean, the rock of the Dean household, tells me this about her son so I can get to know him beyond the surface. It’s just a fun little fact.

It does, however, make Dean a tad more relatable. He likes a good PB&J. Oh yeah, she continues, he also likes to dance. Although he’s a bit shy — with a serious demeanor — and doesn’t let that fact slip out all that often. He might not be too happy she’s sharing this.

In plenty of ways, Nakobe Dean is just an ordinary guy from Horn Lake, Mississippi. But in so many more, he’s extraordinary.

And his mom didn’t want this reporter to hang up the phone without knowing how much her son loves a particular sandwich, how he has a fun side and — you better believe it — how he went through his high school career without receiving any grade lower than an A.

Neketta Dean is proud of her son, the Philadelphia Eagles rookie who has demanded excellence from himself for years and has achieved it. After a storied career at Horn Lake High School and then at the University of Georgia, Dean is ready for the next chapter of his life in the NFL.

A star at Horn Lake

Brad Boyette, the former head coach of the Horn Lake Eagles, is vacationing in Northern Virginia, about 10 miles outside Gordonsville, when his phone rings. Despite the somewhat choppy cell reception inside his yurt, Boyette insists on continuing the conversation about Dean.

“I’ll talk about that kid as long as you’ll stay on the phone with me,” Boyette says.

It’s funny, then, that Boyette had to be somewhat convinced about Dean back in 2015. It wasn’t that Boyette didn’t see something special in Dean back then; he did. But he also didn’t like to play freshmen and he was concerned about putting a 14-year-old kid in a bad situation. But after plenty of spirited discussions with his assistants, Boyette gave in. Not only did Dean start the first game of the year, but he played every defensive snap that season.

Dean was the only freshman to play varsity that year.

“Yeah, that’s 100 percent true,” former Horn Lake cornerback Alonzo Hunt says without a hint of jealousy. “They knew he was special.”

On his first day of ninth grade, Dean’s English teacher asked their students to write down goals for their high school careers. Among Dean’s goals: Win a state title, become an Under Armour All-American and achieve straight A’s.

Check, check and check.

Before Dean left Horn Lake, he helped turn around a program that had just three playoff wins in school history before his arrival and led them to a state championship as a senior. He became a five-star prospect and one of the top recruits in the country, winning the high school Butkus Award. And he did it all with humility while excelling in school and giving back to his community through his family’s philanthropic ventures.

“If any one of us adults could go back to 9th grade and do it all over again with an adult mentality,” Boyette says, “I think we would all go back and be much better versions of what we were. I think Nakobe had that figured out the first time through.”

All eyes on ‘Kobe

It was September of 2018 and the Eagles were well on their way to a perfect 15-0 record and a state title as the recruitment of Nakobe Dean hit full throttle. It wasn’t uncommon to see college football’s top coaches descend upon Horn Lake to get a glimpse or have a chat. At its peak, Boyette estimates Dean was getting 10-15 recruiting phone calls per day. Even if Dean wasn’t overly interested in a school, he would still respectfully have a conversation.

You can imagine, though, that it was a bit much for anyone — let alone a teenager — to handle. All that attention, all those phone calls, all the curiosity about the looming decision. So Boyette sat down Dean about a third of the way through Dean’s senior season and told him that if he was ready to make a decision it would go a long way to eliminating the circus that followed his recruitment. It could give him a little relief and take one huge item off his plate.

But Dean wasn’t interested.

“Coach, as long as I don’t commit, there are coaches coming by here,” Dean answered. “That may help somebody else on the team.”

Dean, of course, was right. The coaches kept showing up and when they watched him they would see his teammates. And some of those teammates ended up with opportunities they might not have had otherwise.

It’s hard to overstate how big of a deal Dean’s recruitment was in Mississippi at the time. When he eventually made his decision on signing day in December, lifting a Nike shoebox to reveal a Georgia t-shirt, it was broadcasted nationally on ESPN.

One of Dean’s former teammates remembers Nick Saban showing up at the school. Another recalls spotting Kirby Smart at their state championship parade. So this was a big deal, a huge deal, but Dean never acted like it.

“Honestly, you wouldn’t even know,” former Horn Lake linebacker Micheal Campbell says. “I don’t think he even acted like he was under pressure. He was real humble so he didn’t even talk about having all the offers and schools talking to him and stuff like that. I know a lot of people would ask him and he would tell it how it is. But he didn’t ever seem like he was under pressure.”

Former Horn Lake offensive lineman Matt Williams even remembers that Dean would often bring up his teammates whenever college coaches would talk to him. Boyette says he wishes every high school kid would handle the recruiting process like that.

Neketta Dean, when asked how her son was able to deal with all that pressure, says it probably stemmed from his upbringing. Dean grew up in a single-parent household with his mom, his older brother Nikolas and his younger sister Brooklyn. Neketta worked long hours as a director of community/public affairs at the county and because of that, the Deans were latchkey kids. They had to help out at home and they certainly didn’t “have room for foolishness.”

It created an atmosphere where Dean had to be responsible and stay out of trouble. If he or his siblings were involved in any “craziness”— mom’s term, not mine — and Neketta had to leave her job to deal with it, that would have been unacceptable. That maturity flowed into sports.

“Nakobe, with all the sports he’s played,” Neketta Dean says, "he doesn’t feel like he needs to shine out. He really grasped the concept of team. So it’s not big I, no little you. It was, we all win. If we leave one behind, we’re only as strong as our weakest man, so we have to help each other.”

Competition started early

The Dean household required maturity but there was fun to be had too. And a bulk of that fun happened on Freestyle Fridays. OK … what’s a Freestyle Friday?

It was a way for the Dean family to relax after a hectic work week. They’d order pizza or wings, the kids could invite over a friend or two, and they’d have some fun. Those are the nights when the family would get into heated games of Yahtzee, Scrabble and UNO.

That same competitiveness also showed up in school, on and off the field. Hunt told his favorite story about Dean. It happened during their ninth or 10th grade year. In what was a common scene for the Eagles, a few of the football players began to wrestle after practice one day, just fooling around. But when Dean, the star linebacker, joined in, they ganged up on him. There were a few defensive backs, a couple linemen and they all started going after Dean.

“We caught him off guard,” Hunt remembers. “He somehow still beat all of us. Everybody just got up and took off running from him.”

Dean was also drawn to sports at a young age. He would carry around a ball, any ball, as a sort of security blanket. When he was just 6 months old, the only way Neketta could get him to cooperate for a photo was by placing a football next to him. Then he was happy.

The Dean kids were also very competitive about school. Neketta didn’t give her kids allowances. Instead, they were rewarded for grades. If they got straight A’s on their report card, they’d get $100. But just one B would drop their reward all the way down to $25. These rewards were handed out in front of all the kids and so it became a competition.

After he got a B in his seventh grade typing class — Dean used to joke to Boyette that his fat fingers were to blame — he always pulled in $100.

Smarts on the field and off

If you haven’t figured it out by now, Dean is pretty smart. He was an engineering major at Georgia and hasn’t ruled out eventually going pre-med, perhaps one day aiming to work in the field of prosthetics. You already know that he had straight A’s in high school, but he also had a 3.55 GPA at Georgia. When he decided on going to Georgia, he told Boyette that he wanted to go somewhere where he could win a national championship without sacrificing his academics. He did just that.

There are plenty of examples of Dean’s intelligence.

Williams has another one. Dean once received a hoverboard as a Christmas present and even though Williams was a 250-pound offensive lineman, he wanted to give it a try while he was visiting the Dean home … so he did.

“I ended up breaking it,” Williams says. “I was outside and he was inside the house. I put it in his room but he’s smart and as soon as he got in his room, he noticed it.”

Dean has put that intelligence to work during his football career, especially in the film room. Several of his high school teammates credit Dean for helping them learn how to really break down game tape and use it to their advantage. Boyette says he had plenty of players who were willing to watch a ton of film, but none of them have had the ability to retain and process it like Dean.

There’s one particular moment that stands out to Boyette. In the 2018 MHSAA 6A state championship game, Dean made a play only he could make.

During their week of film study, the Horn Lake coaches showed their defense a play Oak Grove ran just once in Week 6; this was Week 15. On the play, there was a tell. If Oak Grove was in a certain formation and went in motion, the running back was running a wheel route and the Horn Lake defense would be susceptible. Dean knew the boundary safety was responsible for the running back out of the backfield but also realized his teammate wasn’t going to remember that. So Dean left his assignment and broke up the pass nowhere near his responsibility. Fans in the crowd assumed Dean had man coverage and simply did his job. But Boyette was standing there in amazement that a high school kid just pulled that off.

The state championship

Long before Dean led the Georgia Bulldogs to a national championship win over powerhouse Alabama, he led the Horn Lake Eagles to their first-ever state title.

But it wasn’t easy.

Coming into that game, the Eagles expected Oak Grove to run the ball and the Eagles were exceptionally good at defending the run. But after the first few series didn’t yield much, Oak Grove and quarterback John Rhys Plumlee (now at UCF after transferring from Ole Miss) abandoned the run and began to throw the rock, catching the Eagles off guard. What resulted was a back-and-forth, high-scoring affair that came down to the final moments, when an Eagles interception sealed the win.

Throughout the stressful game, it was Dean’s leadership and calming voice that settled his teammates down.

“We just needed a stop,” Williams says. “It was our first championship so everyone was nervous. He kept everybody calm on the sideline and kept everybody’s spirits high.”

Just before the game-sealing interception, Dean made one last effort to calm his teammates. He was always in control.

“Nakobe just made sure that everybody’s head was on straight and made sure that everybody was ready,” Hunt says. “It’s like he can sense it, whenever it’s about to happen.”

Dean is known for having an alpha personality. It’s what made him such a great leader for the national champion Bulldogs. But his high school teammates saw it long before all that.

Nakobe the role model

Earlier this spring, the City of Horn Lake honored the Philadelphia Eagles’ third-round draft pick on Monday, May 9: Nakobe Dean Day.

“They had a Nakobe Dean Day,” repeats Neketta with pride.

Horn Lake Mayor Allen Latimer that day presented Dean with the official proclamation in a frame.

“Well, I’ll tell you what,” Latimer says after promptly returning a voicemail. “He is fulfilling his dream of getting to play pro ball and being a credit to his family and he certainly has been a role model for our youth in this town. He has certainly been a role model. He was involved in the community, still stays involved in the community when he gets a chance. His family is just outstanding, just rock citizens, the kind every town would love to have. He is a gentleman all around.”

Being a role model isn’t something Dean takes lightly.

His quest to be a positive example likely comes from his upbringing. He was raised by Neketta in a Christian household where community service was the norm. Every Saturday she would haul her kids and sometimes her kids’ friends to volunteer. They’d give their time at homeless shelters, nursing homes, they’d give toys to needy families, Nakobe gave his time to the Boys & Girls Club. And Neketta would try to impress upon her children that they were fortunate in their situation and God required them to give back; and so they gave back a ton.

Nakobe wants to continue to set a positive example, which doesn’t come as a surprise to his high school teammates. They looked up to him years ago; why wouldn’t kids look up to him now?

“We couldn’t ask for a better representative,” the mayor says.

The Philadelphia Eagles held a rookie minicamp last month and it was Dean’s first chance at an NFL press conference. When he was asked about the draft slide that had him falling to No. 83 overall, he admitted it’ll provide some motivation. But he also said it wouldn’t be the primary source.

Aside from his family, what motivates Dean? He wants to be a role model for kids in his community.

“When I go back home, I try to tell the kids, I don’t want y’all to try to be like me,” Dean says. “I want y’all to be better than me. But I’m going to make it hard.”

If you ask anyone in Horn Lake, he already has.

All photos in this story are courtesy of the Dean family.