The middle row of the maroon Chevy Suburban was home for Josh Jacobs.
It was where he would sleep, resting his eyes while his father would drive to no destination in particular. For a time, those seats served as his bed when night fell, a cramped sanctuary of sorts for a child too naive to understand the gravity of a dire situation.
For years, he had grown accustomed to laying down his head on the latest short-term solution — a family friend’s couch, a motel room floor, a temporary apartment. A bed of his own was never part of his reality. That is, until he stepped foot inside his dorm room at the University of Alabama. But even then, Jacobs found that old habits die hard.
The college running back, who spent some of his childhood hungry, homeless and trying to ignore the sound of gunshots, finally had a bed of his own. And yet he wouldn’t use it.
Those first few months on campus, Jacobs preferred to lay on his dorm room floor because he felt more comfortable there.
“It’s definitely a surreal feeling. Just being able to sit on a bed and get comfortable sleep,” Jacobs said in a recent interview with Yahoo Sports. “Every time I get in a bed I think, wow, how far I’ve come.”
Small blessings are not lost on the 21-year-old. The one-time little-known recruit out of Tulsa, Oklahoma, has done more than just exceed his wildest expectations. He has shattered them.
The boy who grew up never dreaming of playing in the NFL became a first-round pick of the Oakland Raiders — and the first running back drafted — last week in Nashville.
“The biggest message I want to get across throughout this whole process is: Hard work, and faith,” said Jacobs, who, on draft night, sported a blue suit that had a map of North Tulsa and a rose growing out of concrete embroidered on the inside of the jacket. “And just doing things right, whether it’s by people or just being a good person, things will play out in your favor. No matter where you come from, you can achieve anything you put your mind to.”
While sharing the workload with Alabama running back Damien Harris in 2018, Jacobs rushed for 640 yards and 11 touchdowns, and also caught 20 passes for 247 yards and three touchdowns. He won MVP honors in the SEC title game but it was his performance against Oklahoma in the Orange Bowl — complete with a bulldozing TD run over a Sooners safety — that made the entire football world take notice.
His field vision, soft hands and punishing running style made him an obvious target for the Raiders, who were in need of a feature back following the recent retirement of Marshawn Lynch. Jacobs’ grit as a runner, versatility as a pass-catcher and physicality as a pass-blocker impressed Oakland so much that head coach Jon Gruden and new general manager Mike Mayock were reportedly nervous the Philadelphia Eagles would swoop in ahead of them in Round 1 and steal Jacobs from them.
As luck, or the football gods would have it, Philly traded up to the No. 22 overall pick to select Washington State offensive tackle Andre Dillard. Two picks later, the Raiders took Jacobs.
“We need a feature back now, so I’m just telling you you’re gonna get the opportunity of a lifetime,” Gruden told Jacobs by phone that night.
Jacobs: ‘It’s bigger than me’
Football saved him.
The game gave him an outlet. It also taught him much-needed life lessons, like the importance of hard work, patience and overcoming adversity, he said.
But his story of survival has resonated most.
His parents separated when he was in the fourth grade. Jacobs went to live with his father, Marty. His sister and three brothers soon followed.
So did years of uncertainty.
An injury at work resulted in Jacob’s father losing his job. Money, which already was hard to come by, became even more scarce. Jacobs bounced from couch to couch, floor to floor. When sleeping in a motel was not an option, the family of six huddled in the Suburban.
Middle school was the low point. That’s when kids “finally start paying attention to what people wear. You kind of get judged by the clothes that you wear, whether you have holes in your shoes,” he said, admitting that he used to fight “a lot” defending his family members or friends who were being bullied.
As a child, Jacobs normalized his surroundings and his family’s struggles. “But it’s definitely not normal,” he said with a chuckle.
“The things I remember most was just driving around and falling asleep and wondering if my father ever went to sleep,” Jacobs said. “I never saw him go to sleep. And it’s crazy because I originally didn’t even think, ‘We’re sleeping in a car.’ I was just up and it basically was like, we were going on a ride. … I didn’t really think too much about it.”
The homelessness, the initial lack of interest from big-time programs, the birth of his son on the same day he committed to Alabama — they were all details of a personal story Jacobs was reticent to tell. That is, until Crimson Tide assistant athletics director, Josh Maxson convinced him to share his story.
Jacobs didn’t want to be treated differently. Worst of all, he didn’t want pity. But in time, he said he realized that his journey could serve as an inspiration.
“I owe him for convincing me,” Jacobs said of Maxson. “Being able to tell my story — which I definitely didn’t want to do initially — is huge because I can see that it’s bigger than me.”
While football taught him patience, his father taught him the value of sacrifice. Especially for your children.
“Everything that you do you think about them and they come before any of your personal feelings or needs,” said Jacobs, whose son Braxton is now 3 years old. “He basically showed me how to be a father, how to be a parent — the proper way, regardless of what cards you’re dealt.”
When the Raiders’ rookie class — which includes fellow first-rounders, defensive end Clelin Ferrell and safety Johnathan Abram — takes the field for rookie minicamp May 3-5, Oakland staffers will likely see first-hand what Jacobs’ Crimson Tide family witnessed during his time in Tuscaloosa: a humble player with a profound sense of purpose.
“There was just this magnetism about him,” said Maxson, a self-described “Okie living in Alabama.
“There was just this work ethic and determination. You just can’t be around the guy very long and not just love him to death.”
For so long, simple things — like a bed — were a luxury Jacobs could not afford. Now, he offers a lighthearted laugh when he reflects on what his life used to be.
In December, Jacobs and three other Alabama players teamed up with SD Allen Ministry and Missions to help deliver four beds and other furniture to a Tuscaloosa family in need. And last week, in the lead-up to the NFL draft, Jacobs was making the rounds as one of the newest ambassadors for Sleep Number.
“From not sleeping on a bed to sleeping on the best bed, it’s just crazy to me,” he said, laughing again.
Jacobs’ life was filled with uncertainty years ago. But now, the journey makes sense.
“I would tell him to keep doing what he’s doing,” he said, referring to his younger self. “Stay who he is and continue to work hard. Not get so upset about how things are going to play out, because they’re going to play out in his favor.”
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