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  • The Saints’ record-breaking rookie running back has found himself—really found himself—in the Big Easy. He walks home from games, strolls the streets of the Quarter and embraces the good things that come with being young and famous in a great, eccentric city. It seems a perfect fit of player, team and town
By Ben Baskin
January 04, 2018

NEW ORLEANS — Two street performers strum fiddles under ornate cast-iron balconies in the French Quarter of New Orleans as Alvin Kamara strolls through the streets. He walks past art galleries, voodoo stores and antique shops. Fans follow behind, the horde continually growing, all ages and genders and ethnicities, the whole city chasing after him. Chefs come out of restaurants with aprons on, asking for pictures. “Rookie of the Year!” is a frequent greeting. An elderly man tells him he already has plane tickets to Minnesota for the Super Bowl; the man’s wife says that she was the one who sent Kamara a box of Airheads last week. “Thank you so much from our whole city,” she beams, hugging him tight.

He continues through the eccentric scene that is Jackson Square, past the tarot card readers and the psychics and the men dressed up as female pirates and the women painted bronze who stand on carts and pose as statues. Two adolescent street drummers ask if he could help them pull apart their buckets that got stuck together; Kamara stops and spends a few minutes tugging, straining, using his foot as leverage until he finally pries them apart. They thank him and he continues, through cobblestone corridors, past Creole cottages, the whole city of New Orleans at his feet, adoration awaiting on every corner.

“There’s a lot of love here,” Kamara says. “There’s a feel-good vibe [in this city].”

Jeffery A. Salter for The MMQB/Sports Illustrated

Vibe. It’s a concept Kamara talks often about, something he believes he is acutely attuned to. He says he got that from his mother, Adama, who fled Liberia in 1989 when she was 29 years old, escaping right before the civil war broke out because she sensed it was coming. She often has premonitions based on instinct—once when he was a college student back home in Atlanta for winter break, she called Alvin dozens of times throughout the day, pleading with him to come home; he ignored her, and the night ended with him getting into a car crash. Kamara now believes he is the same way, in touch with himself and the way he feels.

If his gut tells him that something is off, Kamara will simply leave. He’s done it before. Every city, every situation, has its own energy, its own vibe, he says. And the vibe’s been off before. Many times throughout his life everything has felt wrong.

But not here, not in this city, with these people and this team.

It’s a Saturday afternoon in late December, and the sun is beginning to set in the Quarter. Cars honk as they drive past. Some stop in the middle of the road, blocking traffic, just to scream “Who Dat!” A homeless man lying on the sidewalk sits up and says, “AK.” A trumpeter follows him around the block and plays “When the Saints Go Marching In.” A horse-drawn carriage pulls back abruptly so that the driver can pay his respects. Fans ask for pictures— he always obliges—and then say that they love him. “I love you, too,” Kamara responds.

After years of being underappreciated, undervalued and underutilized, Kamara has finally found what he has long been searching for. A home. An ideal fit, both in football and in life. A scheme that accentuates his skills, a coach who maximizes his abilities, a team and a city that allow him to be him—bull nose ring, gold grill, dreadlocks and all. The 22-year-old has put up historic numbers in his rookie season, quickly becoming one of the most exciting players in the league and a paragon of efficiency, more productive per touch (9.0 yards) than any other NFL running back in the last 25 years. He has lifted a team at the very tail-end of a Hall of Fame quarterback’s career back to the playoffs, and back into Super Bowl contention. But it is his connection with New Orleans and its denizens, the way that his vibe flows with theirs, that has made this pairing work so well. It is organic, authentic. It is distinctly Kamara.

While most of his Saints teammates live near the team facility in Metarie or Kenner, Kamara decided to move downtown, into a ground-floor apartment, his floor-to-very-high-ceiling windows facing directly out to the street and the people on them. He walks home from games, from the Superdome to his front door, amid the revelry and the hordes of adoring fans; down Canal Street to high-end fashion stores to browse; around the block to get breakfast at the Ruby Slipper or to pick up groceries. He considers himself a foodie and has dined at the city’s most famous establishments and the hidden gems on every street, in fancy neighborhoods and not-so-fancy— he has tried beignets and oysters for the first time, and has grown to love the char-grilled variety of the latter.

Eventually he hopes to sit at every great restaurant in the city. He knows this might take years to accomplish, but he’s in no rush. He plans to be here for a while.


Jeffery A. Salter for The MMQB/Sports Illustrated

If you ever find yourself in Alvin Kamara’s apartment, one of the first things that will happen is that you will be offered an Airhead. Just open the bottom drawer in the kitchen, he says.

It’s about four hours after practice ended on Friday and Kamara is hanging out on his couch with Antonio Morgan (DJ Tonee if you’re from Atlanta), who flew in for the Saints-Falcons game on Sunday. The two have been friends since Kamara was in 6th grade. When Kamara is asked what has changed in his life this year, the year that everything seems to have changed, Morgan answers for him.

“Ain’t nothing changed,” he says. “I’m still here.”

Which brings us back to that drawer in the kitchen. In it you’ll find Airhead Bites, Xtreme Airhead Sour Belts, regular-sized Airheads and mini Airheads—every flavor except Watermelon, because that’s Kamara’s favorite and he’s already eaten all of them. Earlier this year the company saw a picture of the star rookie with a handful of their product—which has always been his preferred candy—and reached out on Twitter to ask if they could send him a care package. Now Kamara reiterates that nothing has changed in his life this year—other than the Airheads.

Like most famous people, Kamara has received offers for other free things. A protein drink company has sent him several cases, unsolicited, which he keeps in the corner of his kitchen and says he needs to donate or get rid of, because he doesn’t drink that protein shake and refuses to endorse a product he doesn’t use. That wouldn’t be organic. That wouldn’t be Kamara. Neither would taking the free cars that several dealerships have offered. Or the yacht that one fan on Twitter said he’d give him. “Even if I wanted a boat,” Kamara says, “what the f--- am I going to do with a boat right now?”

He had no desire to make an outlandish purchase after he was drafted, because there was nothing he wanted. “I got my signing bonus and I put that s--- in the bank and I went and got some motherf---ing wings,” he says. That is Kamara.

He has no problem with telling you who he is, because he’s already done his soul searching and is content with what he found. He often sits on his couch after practice, by himself, watches the 75-inch LG TV mounted in his living room, and reads. Right now he is reading The Seven Stages of Power and Healing, which uses “wisdom from Hindu, Christian and Kaballah traditions” to create a “comprehensive guide to energy healing.” Kamara now flips through the iBook on his phone and shows off some of the passages he has highlighted. We all have negative feelings, but not all negativity produces disease.

He often jots down his own thoughts in the Notes app on his iPhone, whenever something profound strikes him. During training camp Kamara cut off communication with everyone—responding with one word answers to family and close friends—but he still needed to express his feelings, so he wrote down entries everyday, like a journal. He often goes back to reread what he wrote at a specific point in his life because, he says, you can’t grow as a person unless you assess, honestly, from the outside looking in, everything that you have done before, both the negative and the positive.

Kamara’s life is structured. He sticks to the same regimen every weekend. “There’s no exceptions,” he says, noting that he is a bit OCD as he gets up to sweep a speck of dust that he spotted in his immaculately clean kitchen and then rearrange the slightly askew pillows on his couch. “The angles and s--- is very particular in here,” he says.

His routine is long and exacting. The highlights: He has two chocolate chip cookies on Saturday night, but throws away the last bite of the first one. He sleeps on the bed furthest from the door in his hotel room and places his shoes on the very bottom of the other bed, so he can’t see them when he lies down. He balls up his schedule before he leaves his hotel room on Sunday morning and shoots it into the trashcan. Then he takes a cup, not a bowl, and places two spoonfuls of oatmeal and a touch of brown sugar into it and eats it all; then he pours a glass of water and drinks only some.

All of that has allowed Kamara to remain himself in the midst of sudden fame. He knows who he is and is comfortable being that person, refusing to conform to someone else’s vision of what a star football player should be. He is an eccentric, a bit odd and unconventional, and he hasn’t changed, even when everything else around him has.

Most days Kamara will go on Netflix and throw on some of his old favorite Disney titles—The Lion King, Atlantis, Little Mermaid. The movies remind him of the most innocent time in his life, when he was a kid and had no obligations, nothing to worry about. They provide a brief escape from the responsibilities and craziness of his new existence, tethering him to reality, because being Alvin Kamara hasn’t always been this easy. Especially for Alvin Kamara.


Jeffery A. Salter for The MMQB/Sports Illustrated

Nick Saban sold Kamara on the idea that Alabama wanted a versatile back like him, something they never had before. Kamara didn’t care that the team had a glut of running back talent. He had grown up watching Mark Ingram and Trent Richardson. The best running backs in the country go to Alabama, he figured, and he’d be the best of them all.

Or as Kamara puts it, “I was ’bout to go to Bama and show everybody why I’m the s---.”

Just a week and a half before the Tide’s 2013 season started, Kamara partially tore his lateral meniscus on a non-contact play and was red-shirted. It was the first significant injury he had ever suffered, and he responded by shutting everyone out. He didn’t return calls or texts from coaches or trainers, locking himself in his dorm suite all day. Staff members started to worry, asking if he was OK—not physically, but mentally. He told everyone he was fine, but as he lay in bed the word “why” kept repeating in his head.

When Kamara eventually got back on the field, he knew that he was not playing for the rest of the season, so he loafed through drills. Saban created a punishment system called The Box, specifically for Kamara, which was four cones set up on the sideline where he would be sent to do push-ups, sit-ups and body weight squats for the duration of practice. He was suspended for the team’s game against LSU in November and again for the Sugar Bowl in January. By that point, Kamara had already decided he was transferring.

“I started feeling like this isn’t it, this isn’t for me,” Kamara says. “I had to follow my gut. Follow my heart.”

He was convinced the vibe was off. He could sense it. His actions were immature; he had been caught up in the allure of being a big-time college football player, thinking he had already made it, then he got hurt and lost focus. He knew he had to be honest with himself. He had never had any behavioral or disciplinary issues before. He needed a change, a fresh start.

So he abruptly left school two days into his second semester, returned home to Atlanta, and quickly realized that he had no plan, no idea what he was doing. He ignored repeated calls from college coaches looking to recruit him. He had lost focus, lost track of his vision for the future. “Lost myself,” he says. Then, the low point: In February, Kamara took his mom’s car to do his laundry. He was pulled over for not wearing a seatbelt, and the police officer discovered that Kamara had a suspended learner’s permit. He was handcuffed and arrested.

On the drive to the police station, the officer lectured Kamara. This is what you want to do with your life? No kids would look up to you. Kamara sat in a cell for eight hours, as fellow prisoners asked the local star what the hell he was doing in there. He started to wonder the same. He had been playing college football two months ago. This wasn’t him.

His mother bailed him out at 3 am. She wasn’t mad. She simply asked, “What’s next?” When he left Alabama he had been excoriated by Tide fans on Twitter and on the team message boards, and he had read every comment. This kid can’t play in the SEC,” he says now, repeating the criticisms. “He’s selfish. He’s a crybaby. He’s not built for it. He’s a coward. He’s not good enough.” Kamara was barred from transferring to an SEC school, per Alabama stipulations, but he could have joined another conference and sat out a season. He didn’t want that. He needed to get back to the SEC. “Had something to prove,” he says.

Less than a week later Kamara was in Kansas, enrolling at Hutchinson Community College. That year he did nothing but go to class, then to practice, then back to his dorm room to play Call of Duty on PS4 all night. When teammates traveled to Wichita or Manhattan to party on weekends, Kamara never joined in. He knew where he wanted to go, and this was just a quick detour. He got the bull nose ring that year; he was slowly finding himself and growing comfortable with what he found.

After one season, and one conference offensive player of the year award, Kamara transferred to Tennessee, finally back in the SEC. But he’d soon learn that something felt off, again. “F---ed up” is how Kamara describes the football experience in Knoxville. Kamara is clearly a dynamic force on the field, but a coach must scheme for his abilities. To fully actualize his impact on the field, an offense needs to adapt around him, create specific packages and plays that utilize his rare versatility and skill set.  Tennessee chose not to do that.

For two years he was the backup to Jalen Hurd, despite averaging 2.31 more yards per touch than the starter. Of course it was frustrating. But Kamara still believed that wherever he ended up in the NFL, whatever round he was drafted, it would work out. As long as I get the chance, he would tell friends before the draft, I’ll shine.

At Tennessee, Kamara had gotten his hair dreaded and begun to wear the gold grill in his mouth during games. He had discovered his own vibe, figured out who he was. And he had learned that the more he could simply be himself, the better he played.

“I have to be unapologetically me,” he says.


Jeffery A. Salter for The MMQB/Sports Illustrated

Nobody, not even Kamara, could have predicted how successful the match of team and player would be. Not this quickly. Saints coach Sean Payton was one of the first in the league to use the “Joker” position, a multidimensional back who can line up all over the field and create mismatches—Reggie Bush first, Darren Sproles later. After Kamara displayed nonpareil athleticism at the NFL combine (he posted the best numbers of all running backs in both the broad jump and vertical jump), and then impressed with his route-running abilities during a private workout with New Orleans, Payton vowed to confidants that he had to have the back on his team. He was the next in line.

Kamara has since proven to be the ideal fit for that role and the Saints offense, a hybrid player with size and speed and endless versatility, a precise route-runner, hard to tackle, unfathomably efficient. A running back who can seamlessly slot out to play receiver, a receiver who can line up in the backfield and run between the tackles, a threat to score every time he touches the ball, including kick returns.

Despite splitting playing time with Mark Ingram, Kamara is only the third rookie in NFL history, and the first in more than 30 years, to have more than 800 receiving yards and 700 rushing yards. Per Pro Football Focus, he had the third most yards per passing route run, behind only Julio Jones and Antonio Brown, two of the premier actual wide receivers in the NFL. His PFF “elusive” rating—meaning his “success beyond the point of being helped by his blockers”—is the best in the league. As a receiver, his 81 catches rank 13th in the league and second for running backs, behind only Le’Veon Bell, who averages 2.5 fewer yards per reception than Kamara. As a running back, his 6.1 yards per carry led the NFL. And his 14 total touchdowns were second in the league. He is only the second rookie, after Gale Sayers in 1965, to have at least five touchdowns both receiving and rushing, plus a kickoff return TD.

Kamara’s ability to make defenders miss is hard for even him to describe. He says that when he has the ball in his hands he goes into “Matrix mode.” The play slows down around him, everything becomes clearer, and he’s able to see “ten steps ahead.” He’s not worried about the defender who’s currently trying to tackle him, because he already knows how he’s going to evade him. He’s thinking about the next would-be tackler. “I’m diagnosing moves before I make them,” he says. “Ten yards down the field—I’m thinking about what I’m going to do when I get there.”

Even when defenders seem to have him cornered, when it looks like there is no way for him to escape, he’s still difficult to tackle him. Why? Simple, Kamara says. “Cuz I’m not trying to get tackled.” He just seems slippery. “Like water,” he adds. “I’m flowing.”

Kamara also points out that the Saints “allow me to be me.” His look, his personality, his vibe, embody the spirit of New Orleans. Fans now wear gold teeth to the Superdome, fake dreadlocks on their heads, bull nose rings in their septa. His ability, Kamara says, to be “organic and authentic” in his new city is a main factor in his success. The energy is right, the perfect fit of franchise, city and player. After touchdowns, he’s leapt into the Superdome stands and sat down, just one of the crowd, openly and proudly being Alvin Kamara, an eccentric, suddenly famous, in a city where eccentrics thrive.


Jeffery A. Salter for The MMQB/Sports Illustrated

Alvin Kamara is taking pictures. Again. This time he’s in the Family and Friends room at the Superdome, about an hour after the Saints have beaten the Falcons. Employees line up beside teammates’ mothers and wives and children, waiting for autographs and pictures, next to the sign that reads “No Autographs or Pictures.” Soon Kamara is off, heading through the tunnels of the stadium and out onto the New Orleans streets. He is flanked by a crew of two dozen—childhood friends and family members who flew in for the game. No one he hasn’t known for years, since day one, before the fame and everything that came with it.

Kamara says he has never spoken with his father. He’s OK with that. The last time he saw him was in Atlanta last year, he says, and the two walked right past each other, dad not recognizing son. Before the Saints’ first game this season, Kamara found a Post-it note stuck in his mailbox. His dad had called the team’s front desk and asked them to pass along a message. Kamara took the sticky note, balled it up and threw it in the trash.

Now, as he walks east down Poyrdas Street, only his Day One crew tailing behind, he is, unsurprisingly, stopped at every block. A man with a barbecue grill attached to his black Chevy Silverado offers up some free food. Kamara stops and talk with him for 10 minutes. Then he gets a styrofoam container with ribs placed between two pieces of white bread and continues his walk.

A red Suburu Outlander pulls to the side of the road. The car’s windows roll down, and four women ask him if he needs a ride. Kamara briefly hops in the back seat, much to their delight. A man in a wheelchair rolls down the block at double speed, desperately attempting to catch up, but a half a street length behind and losing ground; Kamara notices him, turns around, and walks back to take a picture.

At the next street corner Kamara is stopped by a man in a Saints jersey. It turns out to be actor Anthony Mackie, from the Avenger movies. The two embrace and talk privately. Mackie, a New Orleans native and lifelong Saints fan, says that nobody has affected the team this season the way Kamara has. Then he’s asked if the rookie could hang with his group of Superfriends, be a part of the Avengers.

“Motherf---er is the best Avenger in the squad,” Mackie says. “When I wake up as the Falcon, I wish I was Alvin Kamara.”

Around 8:30, Kamara is back on his couch, with Disney’s Moana on the television and all of his old friends hanging around. Bottles of Patron and Moët & Chandon champagne are scattered about. Kamara has a big night planned, a private table booked at Masquerade for Jeezy’s Christmas Eve party. That’s another part of being Kamara. He always goes out the night of a win. His favorite drink at dinner is a Moscow Mule, but when he’s partying he’ll drink anything. Just like the city he resides in, he is not bashful about drinking in season.

“I’m enjoying the motherf---ing bountiful harvest,” he says. “We win, I’m turning up.”

Jeffery A. Salter for The MMQB/Sports Illustrated

At around 10 p.m., gold grill still in his mouth, he heads to Chicken & Watermelon, a counter-service wings dive. “I’m finna take you to the hood,” he announces, saying that’s where the best food is. Not to mention the daquiri shack next door, where the drinks are strong and the DJ is spinning Juvenile. “I gotta get some food in me before I do some crazy s--- tonight,” Kamara says, before ordering 100 BBQ and lemon pepper wings and several colorful daiquiris for the group. He daps up the group of men standing in a circle outside the front door, smoking cigarettes and passing blunts. “Your real n---- points out the roof right now,” one man says to the Saints player just hanging in the hood with the real New Orleanians. As he leaves, there’s a loud bang somewhere in the distance. “That one was a gunshot,” Kamara notes.

At 11 p.m., Kamara is shirtless in his kitchen, drinking Cupcake white wine straight out of the bottle. His mom calls. “I’m bout to get f---ed up,” he tells her. “Bout to get turnt.” He opens a drawer and pulls out a stack of $1 bills. “Left over from the strip club,” he says, being unapologetically Alvin Kamara, the best rookie in the NFL, organic, authentic, distinctly himself.

At 1 a.m., he piles into an eight-seat Mercedes Sprinter to fit his 13-person crew and heads to the club. The van pulls up to the front, and Kamara leads the way inside, turning around frequently to make sure everyone gets through the velvet ropes. He weaves through the crowd, frequently being stopped for pictures and well wishes, arriving in his section at 2 a.m. But within minutes he leaves the club, abruptly.

The vibe is off. He can feel it.

Question or comment? Email us at talkback@themmqb.com.

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