- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 27, 2017

It’s about 10 a.m. on Wednesday outside Friendship Collegiate Academy, a charter school in Northeast D.C. that Jalen Tabor used to use the buddy system to get to without getting jumped. For this particular arrival, a white Chevrolet Suburban pops a U-turn to drop him off right outside.

Things are changing fast.

A back door opens and out slides the 21-year-old cornerback, one red Jordan sneaker at a time. He’s wearing grey skinny jeans and a silky black bomber jacket with the punk band Sonic Youth’s “Confusion is Sex” album cover embroidered on the back. He has what looks like five pounds of gold chain jewelry around his neck and wrists.

He’s days away from the NFL draft, where he is almost certain to be chosen.

The door to the passenger seat swings open and, before the amount of time necessary to identify footwear passes, Merri Tabor exits the vehicle and marches past her son toward the school. She enrolled Jalen at Friendship in 2010, she arranged for him to speak to the football team today and she is in charge here.

“She’s pretty much the head on the rocket and she tells me and [Jalen] what to do,” says Alex Patel, Merri’s husband and Jalen’s stepfather.

Jalen was born and raised in Bowie, Md., but, after meeting Aazaar Abdul-Rahim, the Maryland defensive backs coach who was then the football coach at Friendship, Merri decided that she and Jalen would move to D.C. so that her son could play for Abdul-Rahim. She got a job transfer but her husband had to stay behind meaning that, for a time, they were paying bills in two places.

“I was determined for [Jalen] to be successful,” she says.

Merri was there for every breakfast and dinner and was always available to talk to Jalen’s coaches, but she couldn’t protect him from their new environment in what was one of D.C.’s most crime-ridden neighborhoods.

“It was a culture shock,” Jalen says. “You go from the suburbs to the city. It taught me a lot.”

After Jalen was robbed a second time, Merri made sure that older friends would make the trips to school with him. She would pick him up from practice. Jalen lost two friends in shootings, and says he learned to act calm and deferential around people he knew were carrying guns.

Friendship’s football team practiced on a dirt field they dubbed ‘The Beach.’ It wasn’t a playable game field, so they played every game on the road. Old needles were a hazard. Jalen thrived anyway. He didn’t allow a completion in his direction as a junior. In 2014 as a senior, he was D.C.’s Mr. Football and the No. 4-rated cornerback prospect according to ESPN.

When the colleges came calling, Jalen got offers from more than two dozen schools including Alabama, Clemson, Michigan, Ohio State, Notre Dame, LSU and Arizona. Jalen enjoys glitz, and he loved his visit to Arizona — the girls, the parties, the weather, everything just seemed better there — but Merri said no. She thought Florida, and the SEC, would provide him with a better education and a safer path to the NFL. For two weeks straight, she burst into tears telling him so every night until Jalen gave in and flipped his commitment.

At Florida, Jalen broke up 33 passes in his three years, sixth-most in program history. He was first team All-SEC twice. In his last two seasons in Gainesville Jalen totaled eight interceptions and returned three of them for touchdowns, a byproduct of the instincts and vision scouts love about him.

Most projections have him going in the second or third round of the draft. Jalen had been seen as a first-rounder, potentially even a top-10 pick, before he ran a 4.62 40-yard dash at the NFL Scouting Combine and followed it up with an even slower time at Florida’s Pro Day — the one Bill Belichick ditched the NFL’s annual meetings to attend.

Jalen says a sore hamstring impacted his times. The whole family told him not to run, but Jalen did anyway.

“It’s a toss-22,” Merri said. “Do you not run and then drop to the third round? Do you run it with a bad hamstring and try?”

All 32 teams have letters from Jalen’s doctor and trainer in Florida, Merri says, and they’ve been assured repeatedly that Jalen’s game film is far more important than his measurables. Jalen would love to be drafted by the Dallas Cowboys, he says. He loves the Redskins but thinks they’re set at cornerback.

Jalen will watch the draft from home, with his mom, stepdad, girlfriend and maybe a few friends. For a guy that doesn’t mind the spotlight, he doesn’t want to make a big deal out of the draft. This has been a taxing process.

“We just try not to think about it. There’s so much scrutiny in the media these days. It’s so many negative things,” Merri says. “It’s a tough time … You’re in that balance. People don’t understand.”

 

Paying it forward

Jalen takes the stage at his old school and faces the assemblage of adolescent boys slouching in their Friendship jackets and their navy-and-gold ties, which none of them have tied correctly. They slouch because they are 16-or-so, not because they are not riveted.

A few of Jalen’s many sides come through clearly as he answers their questions.

He is confident:

“I’m pretty sure you all know who I am,” he says after getting on stage. He goes the entire session without introducing himself by name.

He has a sense of humor:

“You’re gonna talk to one girl way different than you’re gonna talk to the next girl,” he says, explaining the nuances of covering shifty slot receivers versus outside burners. The teenagers laugh a little, but they mostly take this advice as Gospel.

He gets ahead of himself sometimes:

“I want to own a team or be a GM,” he says. Seconds before, he’d said that he hasn’t given much thought to life after his playing career.

Jalen wants to be better than his idol, Deion Sanders, both as a player and as a showman. He jumps from topic to topic, smiling widely and speaking freely. This is not out of character. While at Florida, Jalen commented on topics ranging from displeasure with the Florida athletic department to the police shooting death of Alton Sterling on his Twitter account. He is outspoken, and thinks athletes have an obligation to be that way.

“We’ve got to do a better job of speaking out for what’s right and not being quiet because we’re getting paid a lot of money to be quiet,” he says.

An African-American studies major who plans on finishing his degree the summer after his rookie NFL season, Jalen says he never felt the direct impact of racism as a player at Florida, but noticed its effect on the community around him.

“They shelter us because we’re making money for them,” he says.

He mentions that Gainesville is not far from the prison in Raiford, where the state’s death row inmates are housed. While at Florida, Jalen gradually realized that most of the faces he saw on local news coverage had skin shaded like his.

He’s not sure what he would do if he were forced to choose between an NFL contract and the freedom to speak his mind, but he has a plan in place to avoid facing that choice.

“I’m going to play so well and I’m going to be such a good person that they’re not going to be able to get me out of there,” he says.

Jalen wants to control his own image, and he is already good at marketing himself. When he did not go to SEC Media Day in 2016, he held his own via Periscope. He declared for the draft in January and announced his decision in a goodbye letter to Florida published in the Players’ Tribune.

He admires the Ball brothers, Lonzo, LiAngelo and LaMelo, whose father LaVar has made headlines this year for, among other things, a war of words with Nike. LaVar Ball issued a public warning that BBB, the apparel brand he created in his kids’ honor, will one day eat into the marketplace that Nike, Adidas and Under Armour currently dominate.

“I think that’s amazing,” Tabor says. “I feel like that’s what I want to do, have my own cleat one day and stuff like that. Your own brand? That’s what’s best. You don’t want to be a part of somebody else’s brand.”

 

Insider and outsiders

There’s a man in a black shirt, black pants and a black hat with a green gator on the cap hanging out by the door of the auditorium. That’s Ty. Midway through last season, Merri decided it was worthwhile to have someone with Jalen 24-7.

“People think I’m crazy,” she says. That includes Jalen, who sometimes doesn’t like having Ty, a family friend, come with him every time he goes out.

“Just protecting his best interest,” Merri says. “You hear about all of these bad stories coming up this week, and it’s really bad this year. Kids getting into a fight at a bar, that was actually his teammate [Caleb Brantley], another kid who did something in a hotel room.”

“If you have that, someone there that’s looking out for you, those things either won’t occur or they’re consciously thinking ‘Let’s go. You can’t hit her back,’ or ‘You’ve gotta go.’ You know what I mean? ‘You can’t be doing this.’ And that’s important. People don’t realize that that’s very, very important. It may seem like babysitting but hey,” she says.

Ty is not here because Merri doesn’t think Jalen knows right from wrong. She is sure he does, because she made sure during those days when it was just the two of them living down the street from Friendship on South Dakota Avenue.

Jalen’s days of football practice and class were followed up by life lessons with Merri. A sample of her curriculum: “Women 101, Guns 101, Drugs 101,” she says.

“We’d sit down and I’d say, ‘Can you carry this pill without this prescription cup?’ People don’t know that,” Merri says. “If you put, let’s just say Oxycodone or Tylenol 3, because sometimes he would take Tylenol for his body, can you carry that around without the prescription bottle?”

“Well of course he said yes, because he didn’t know, but you can’t, that’s illegal. Just little stuff like that,” she says.

How to handle money was a major topic before Jalen went to college. It will become one again once he signs his first NFL contract. They’ve already had conversations about saving for the future and about how a second contract isn’t guaranteed but they haven’t “in-depthed it” yet, Merri says.

Money is also a major reason Jalen’s family thinks having Ty around is a good idea. The months leading up to the draft are full of outsiders looking for an in with a soon-to-be millionaire.

“He’s got a big heart, he can’t say no, and we can’t be there,” Patel says.

Jalen does have a history of getting into trouble, though nothing that would give an NFL team major pause.

Tabor was cited for marijuana possession once and suspended twice, once for reportedly refusing to take a drug test and a second time for fighting with teammate C’yontai Lewis in practice. He missed both the 2015 and 2016 season openers as a result.

With every incident, he’s had to place a call home to Merri.

“I didn’t want to, but I had to,” Jalen says.

Asked what words were typically exchanged on those calls, Jalen exhales sharply. His eyes widen and he shakes his head.

“A whole bunch of stuff,” is all he says.

A call with bad news, though, is better than no call at all.

“I’d rather him call me and we put out the fire than him be scared and me get nervous,” Merri says. “I’ve never been nervous any time I’ve gotten a phone call because that just makes kids say, ‘Oh, I’m not calling her.’ You know? And so I’d rather have that.”

Jalen said there was a time when he didn’t have to call, though, that proved to be a pivotal moment.

He hadn’t stopped smoking after his marijuana citation and, one day, while gassing up his car, police officers showed up. He saw them coming and quickly stuffed the little bag of contraband he had on him into the gas compartment.

The officers searched his vehicle thoroughly, dumping out the bag of chips and can of soda he had in the front seat. But they never checked the gas compartment. Jalen said thinking about what might have happened after his second offense scared him straight.

“I just [saw] all the plays in college flash before my eyes,” he says.

 

One more lesson

Jalen takes pictures, signs autographs and passes out Florida Gators wristbands with the gaggle of students who stayed behind after he finished speaking. Soon the group is told to get to class, and to walk quietly on their way there. Jalen asks about an old teacher.

“She still up on the third floor?”

Jalen’s hope is to start a charter school in D.C., just like Friendship, once his NFL earnings start coming in. He and Merri have prepared a patent application for the name New Foundations D.C., which is what they want to call the school.

“If I can give these kids a little bit of light to help their situation that means the world to me,” Jalen says.

In Merri’s mind, she sees Jalen walking the halls of New Foundations waving to students, or heading out to watch football practice. She of all people understands that her son would not be where he is without the help of others, and it’s important to her that he pays it forward.

The school has a secondary purpose, too. It’s a constructive project, something Jalen can focus on in the limited time he has that isn’t consumed by football, and a reminder that he doesn’t play in the pursuit of luxury alone.

“Keeping his mind straight and making sure that he remembers that there’s more to life than just football, there’s more to life than just the glamour,” she said.

“Let’s keep concentration on where we came from, make sure we’re able to give back, stay focused. You’re on a platform. Everybody is watching and you’ve got to remember that because they look up to you.”

As she talks, her language morphs. At first she is describing what she wants for her son. But gradually, it becomes clear she is still speaking directly to Jalen — a mom trying to squeeze in one last life lesson before the pros call.

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