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In New Orleans, Alvin Kamara Can Feel the Vibe

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

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].”

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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.