This story appears in the Dec. 17-24, 2018, issue of Sports Illustrated. For more great storytelling and in-depth analysis, subscribe to the magazine—and get up to 94% off the cover price. Click here for more.
"Hell, yeah, it's been wild," says Alvin Kamara. The Saints' 23-year-old, do-everything running back is getting animated talking about his emergence, how he went from a cast-off college back to the vanguard of the NFL's offensive revolution. "I never wanted to be famous," he continues. "I wanted to be successful."
Fame. Success. Kamara has attained both, matching preternatural talents with a sui generis style (dreadlocks, bull nosering, gold teeth) and an exuberant, accessible personality. (After home wins he'll often walk back to his apartment amid the fans, then imbibe with them later that night.) But the path he traveled to get here has been marked by pit stops and detours. He has gone from undisciplined to unheralded to unstoppable in only a few seasons, and now he has climbed up the short list of the league's most dangerous weapons.
Five years ago Kamara was just trying to dig his way out of Nick Saban's doghouse at Alabama. A four-star recruit from Norcross (Ga.) High, Kamara had been injured early in his freshman season; when he returned and found himself tethered to the bench, he turned standoffish and recalcitrant. He admits he was immature and blames only himself for the situation.
Things got so strained that Saban tailored a punishment for Kamara that the coach called "the box": four cones on the sideline where the castigated back would do push-ups, sit-ups and body-weight squats for the duration of practice. Kamara was suspended twice before leaving Tuscaloosa at season's end, with fans deriding him on his way out.
A year later he was playing at Hutchinson (Kans.) Community College, where he encountered hip-high snow for the first time in his life. On weekends, while teammates went to Wichita or Manhattan to party, Kamara hunkered down in his room and played Call of Duty or read self-empowerment books, thinking about how to correct course. Even after a transfer to Tennessee, he still struggled to find his way. He spent 2015 and '16 as a backup to Jalen Hurd and, despite superior numbers—higher efficiency, greater productivity—he was, essentially, an afterthought in the Volunteers' offense.
Frustrated as he was with his role and his playing time, though, he still believed: If he just got a chance in the NFL....
That chance—after an eye-popping combine at which he led all backs in the vertical and broad jumps—came with the 67th pick in the 2017 draft. Kamara started at No. 3 on New Orleans's depth chart, but he impressed coaches enough that by October the front office had traded away a still-something-left-in-the-tank Adrian Peterson. Despite splitting carries with Mark Ingram, Kamara made a run at the record books, becoming the first rookie since Gale Sayers in 1965 to score five receiving touchdowns, five rushing touchdowns and a kick-return TD. He put up 7.7 yards per offensive touch, the highest average in NFL history (minimum 200 touches), and led all rookies with 14 total TDs and 81 receptions (the third-most ever by a first-year back). By last February he was the easy choice for Offensive Rookie of the Year.
With Ingram suspended the first four games of 2018 for violating the NFL's PED policy, Kamara broke through in an even bigger way. If in 2017 he was a paring knife, handling the ball fewer than 13 times a game, then in early '18 he was a meat cleaver. As the lone back he averaged 22.8 touches, and through those four solo outings he led the NFL with 611 yards from scrimmage, tying for the league lead with six total TDs and entering the early MVP discussion.
Ingram is back—which is better for the Saints, with dual threats—but the 5'10", 215-pound Kamara remains the team's top guy. He's on pace to surpass his 2017 totals for touchdowns and all-purpose yards (projected: 18 and 1,703)—and he continues to link himself to some of the game's most hallowed names. In a Week 4 win over the Giants he became the first player in NFL history with both 1,000 receiving yards and 1,000 rushing yards through his first 20 games. In a Week 9 victory over the Rams he joined Jim Brown as the only players to have three three-TD games in a single season before turning 23. A couple of weeks later he joined another exclusive list: Only he, Abner Haynes, Herschel Walker and Edgerrin James have ever accumulated both 500 yards rushing and 500 yards receiving in each of their first two seasons.
"We put a lot on his plate last year, but we put even more on his plate this year," says Saints offensive coordinator Pete Carmichael. "There are plays where you just don't know how he made that defender miss. So many wow! plays—plays that could have been a five-yard loss, and he turned it into a touchdown. He makes it look easy."
Kamara has a term for these moments: Matrix mode. A play will slow down for him; everything becomes clearer, and he says he's able to see "10 steps ahead." He's not worried about the defender trying to tackle him because he already knows how he's going to evade that guy. He's thinking about the next would-be obstacle. "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."
And the poor sap who is able to get a hand on this NFL Neo? "[I'm] like water," says Kamara. "I'm flowing."
In this season of offensive innovation, he's the paragon of the modern hybrid player, a mix of size and speed with limitless versatility; he's a precise route-runner, hard to tackle, unfathomably efficient. If part of Saints coach Sean Payton's eventual legacy is his employment of a Joker back—a multidimensional threat who can line up all over the field and create mismatches—then Kamara is a third and best draft of that design, after Reggie Bush and Darren Sproles. He's either a running back who can seamlessly slot out to play receiver, or he's a receiver who can line up in the backfield and run between the tackles, with the ability to score on every touch. "He sees the game, the big picture," says Carmichael, "like a quarterback does."
Whatever Kamara's initial intentions, his playing style and personality have made him wildly famous. Fans mimic his look, wearing faux-gold teeth to the Superdome, dreadlock wigs on their heads, bull noserings in their septa. He's cameoed in a Drake video and earned his own flavor of Airhead candy, Alvin Kamara Watermelon Zoom, with his smiling face plastered across the label.
"He's not a secret now," says Carmichael. "Everybody knows who he is."