TULSA, Okla. — Less than one minute into the interview, Marty Jacobs is crying real tears.
The type of tears that come from years of struggling, and when thoughts of what could have been creep into one’s mind.
But through those tears, Jacobs’ face lights up when discussing one of his sons — Joshua Jacobs, one of Alabama’s two 2016 running back signees. Joshua is the middle child of the five Marty raised as a single father after he and his wife divorced. Marty knows that “things could have been bad,” but somehow the Jacobs family persevered.
“Sorry,” Marty said, wiping tears from his eyes. “It’s just starting to sink in that this kid is actually going to Alabama. This whole deal has been surreal. It’s just amazing.”
Joshua has become the face of his community on the north side of Tulsa, Okla. Teachers and coaches describe him as the “perfect kid.” Young players in the town come to McLain to watch him work out in hopes of absorbing some of his knowledge. Jacobs two younger brothers, one of which will be in high school next year, both train after school in hopes of one day earning an athletic scholarship as well.
That responsibility isn’t too much for Jacobs to handle.
“I never really thought about it like that, but I always told myself that if I make it, I’m going to change a lot around here,” Jacobs said. “This is the high-poverty area. Everything gets built, and then they come to us last – if they come to us. It’s so crooked that if someone donates money to this school, they’ll split it up and give it to other schools before giving it to us like it’s supposed to be.
“Growing up, my father always told me to give back. So I was already preparing myself for that. If I get the opportunity, I’m going to do it.”
“I plan on getting my degree”
In the area directly across from and surrounding McLain High School, you’ll find run down and abandoned buildings. It’s easy for a first-time visitor to get a snapshot impression of the town, but Jacobs believes the area has more to offer than what is seen on the surface.
“Some people think it’s worse than what it is. It’s not that bad,” Jacobs said. “But it is a struggle. There’s a lot you would see here that you wouldn’t see in other areas. It’s beautiful in its own way. It may be rocky just looking at it, but if you get involved in the community, it’s not that bad. The people aren’t that bad. There’s always a couple of knuckleheads, but it’s not that bad though.”
Jacobs embodies that. He’s been hardened by life’s struggles to a degree. His parents divorced when he was young, and growing up in a single-parent household with four siblings wasn’t easy. Football became his outlet.
“I could take out all the anger, and just be free,” Jacobs said.
To keep him on track, the influences on his life stressed the importance of education. Marty knows how quickly football dreams can be taken away. He was a star on McLain’s championship teams in the mid 1980s, but injuries and other factors derailed his career.
“I always told him, regardless of what we do, education comes first,” Jacobs said. “Football has always just been a tool to get doors open.”
Jacobs plans to major in natural gas and resource engineering while at Alabama. Marty studied it while attending the University of Oklahoma before life and kids forced him to drop out and move back home.
“My first goal is to stay on top of my grades,” Jacobs said. “I don’t plan on leaving early. I plan on getting my degree before I leave school. It’s not a lot of young African-Americans kids with degrees where I’m from so I’m trying to get my degree.”
“Alabama … never felt like a realistic thing”
Heading into his senior year, Jacobs remembers not having any scholarship offers.
Wyoming and New Mexico State were the first two schools Jacobs recalls offering him a chance to play Division I football. Even though he was in their backyard, Jacobs said Oklahoma and Oklahoma State didn’t get involved until later on in the recruiting process, and didn’t have clear plans for how they wanted to use him. But that didn’t stop Jacobs and those around him from trying to get his name out there.
“The way my father raised me, I guess I’m just a different breed,” Jacobs said. “People have been told no around here so much that they just give up instead of fighting. When you fight, they see that good things happen like me. I didn’t have no scholarships going into my senior year. Nothing. I just worked for it. At the end of the day, hard work is going to pay off.”
After the college football season ended, things heated up. Jacobs remembers getting a visit from an Alabama coach. After watching film on Jacobs, Crimson Tide running back coach Burton Burns made the trip to Oklahoma to see Jacobs.
During that visit, Burns didn’t start the conversation with football. Jacobs recalls the coach just “wanting to meet me.”
Jacobs remembers being at basketball practice, and Burns stepping away for a phone call. Ten minutes later, everything changed.
“He came back like, ‘Man, we want to offer you.’ It was crazy. He said, ‘I talked to Saban, and we need you.’ It was a whole crazy week.”
But what changed during that time?
“He (Burns) just told me they’d never seen my film, and once they saw it, it was over,” Jacobs said. “The way it played out, it felt like it had a higher purpose. He told me there’s never been a story where a kid comes from a small school to getting an offer from Alabama in one week.”
Saban told a similar story on National Signing Day. With most of Alabama’s prospects, players have been thoroughly evaluated from the time they were at least juniors and tabs are kept on them from the moment the staff is made aware of a prospect. But Saban didn’t see Jacobs’ tape until Alabama was done with the national championship. Saban’s theory on why Jacobs wasn’t as highly recruited as other prospects centered around the fact that Jacobs played wildcat quarterback, and didn’t always take snaps as a traditional running back.
But Jacobs’ quickness, speed and hands all stood out once the coaches started evaluating him.
“Just very, very impressive to the point that we go up and see him, and Burton calls back and says — we thought something was wrong with the guy maybe he’s too small or whatever — and he said ‘No, this is a pretty good looking guy and I watched him practice basketball and he’s very athletic and very explosive,’ and I said, ‘Well there’s got to be something wrong with the guy,’” Saban said.
“And we kept searching and searching and searching and never really ever found anything, and I know quite a few people offered him late. We were in need, we were searching. We wanted to make sure that we got two running backs.
“We only had a had a couple or three guys on scholarship and that’s the least we ever had at that position, and nobody coming back that has significant experience. We got one early that we really, really liked and then just never ever found the next guy or had an opportunity to get the guy that was really interested or close by here. This really worked out well for us.”
The weekend before signing day, the Jacobs family had a plan. Whichever school Joshua visited that weekend would be the school that would get his signature on signing day. That school happened to be Missouri. But while heading to Missouri, the Jacobs got a call from an Alabama area code. It was Saban, which meant the Missouri visit had to be cut short.
“Alabama was a dream school for him,” Marty said. “This is a team that he watched on TV, and would say ‘I would love to play for them.’ But it never felt like a realistic thing. God is good.”
On the surface, Jacobs’ story comes off as a tale of luck. But there’s something to be said about the perseverance of a young man staying true to his dream even as others didn’t initially notice his gifts.
“I always knew that if I got a chance to go somewhere, I was going to do something with,” Jacobs said. “I was going to make the best out of it. I’m trying to say this in the most humble way possible, but growing up and winning and seeing yourself play better than the people getting big offers, you think like, ‘Why me?’ But at the end of the day, everything worked out.”
“You could see the hunger come out”
Jarvis Payne coached Jacobs throughout his career at McLain High School. Payne always knew Jacobs was a “very talented kid.” Jacobs didn’t need to be pushed because he was “always dedicated, always focused.”
After playing in six games as a junior due to injury (rushed for 948 yards and 13 touchdowns in four games), Jacobs came back for his senior year completely locked in.
“This past year, you could see the hunger come out and him go to another level because he expected to be great,” Payne said. “His leadership started to take over. His knowledge of the game picked up this year. He got a little bigger too. He really committed to the weight room, and it really paid off.”
Jacobs averaged 245.8 yards per game and 15.1 yards per carry as a senior. He totaled 2,704 rushing yards and 31 touchdowns, and was named first-team All-State in 4A by the Oklahoma Coaches Association and OKPreps.com. He finished his career with 5,372 rushing yards and 56 touchdowns.
“I told him, ‘There’s going to be a point on this team where you’re going to have to lead,'” Marty said. “‘You’re going to stop being the shy guy or the laid-back dude, you’re going to have to step out.’ He did. He did it with an alpha attitude.”
It was a long, winding road for Jacobs to get to Alabama, but he enters a backfield that doesn’t have much depth.
Jacobs, along with fellow 2016 signee B.J. Emmons, will join Bo Scarbrough and Damien Harris as Alabama’s scholarship running backs in 2016. This is the most inexperienced and thin Alabama’s backfield has ever been under Saban.
“It was actually surprising because they were telling me there haven’t been many situations where a kid could come in and play their freshman year,” Jacobs said. “I’m in a real good situation right now. I can see where I can contribute.”
Added Marty, “I’m happy for him. I know he’s ready to compete. I’m excited too because we really didn’t have anyone here who could make him push himself. I want to see his full potential. I want to see what his limit is.”
He’ll be pushed a lot at Alabama as the Crimson Tide will likely need him to step up and contribute in year one because of a lack of depth at running back.
If he ever gets tired of competing, all Jacobs has to do is think of the community back home that is rooting for him.
“A lot of people are counting on me,” Jacobs said. “Like I said, I’m kind of the face out here so I can’t really mess up. From this area, I’m the first person to go anywhere big in the last 10 years. By people watching me, they’ll get motivated to do bigger things. That’s helping the community because more people will go out and do better things.”