TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — When he arrived at Alabama, Josh Jacobs spent his first few months sleeping on the floor in his dorm room. Not because he didn't have a bed. But because after years of sleeping on couches, on motel floors and in the back seat of his father's maroon Chevy Suburban, he was more comfortable there.
Forget about the football reality he faced as a 3-star running back recruit out of a little-known high school in Tulsa, Oklahoma, joining an assembly line of 5-star players at the sport's mecca.
"I got my three stars when Alabama offered," Jacobs clarifies. "But before then, I didn't have any stars."
The idea that he would be living out his football dream seemed impossible on the nights he worried about where he would sleep or what he would eat. But years later, that's what he's doing. Despite the lack of star power once attached to his name, the 225-pound junior running back has blossomed into one of college football's most intriguing NFL prospects.
"He might be my favorite player on the team," says one NFL scout.
Adds another: "Man, he's a legit one. He's a top dude when he comes out. He runs pissed off."
If it looks like Jacobs is running with purpose, that's because he is. He runs for his three-year-old son, Braxton, who he hopes will never experience a childhood like his own. And for his father, Marty, his greatest inspiration.
"Football has always been an outlet for Josh," Marty says. "He puts so much emotion into running the ball."
For much of his life, Jacobs kept his journey and emotions concealed. Even some of the family's closest friends were kept in the dark. But now that he's found peace and success at Alabama, he's eager to open up.
"It's therapeutic to me," he says. "I want to talk about it now."
Nick Saban was puzzled. The player he had just watched on tape was clearly good enough to play at Alabama. In fact, as he watched Jacobs glide his 200-pound frame through entire defenses, he assumed there had to be something wrong with the running back out of McLain High School in Tulsa. Up until that point—a few weeks before national signing day—interest in Jacobs from major programs was weak. Saban needed to know why.
Perhaps it was that his high school program was out of sight on the recruiting trail, having struggled stretching back to the days when Jacobs' father played on the offensive line.
Or perhaps it was the shoulder injury that forced Jacobs to miss a good chunk of his junior season—although he still managed to amass nearly 1,000 rushing yards and 13 touchdowns in limited action.
Used predominantly as the team's Wildcat quarterback as a senior, Jacobs finished with 2,704 rushing yards and 31 touchdowns. He averaged more than 15 yards per carry.
His performance landed him offers from Division II schools and then Division I New Mexico State. Wyoming, a higher-profile Division I school, eventually offered, which felt like a breakthrough at the time.
Even the schools that did show interest did so on their own terms. TCU wanted him as a cornerback. When Jacobs expressed his desire to stay on offense, he says the assistant coach told him there were 1,000 players just like him he could recruit.
"I still think about that conversation all the time," Jacobs says.
To jump-start interest, Jacobs joined Twitter and began sharing his senior highlights. In many ways, this was the turning point. Missouri caught on and offered him a scholarship—a moment that set his recruitment in motion. Oklahoma quickly followed. "It was a whirlwind after that," Jacobs recalls.
In mid-January 2016, after Saban watched his highlights, Burton Burns, Alabama's longtime running backs coach, traveled to McClain and watched Jacobs play basketball. He saw everything he needed to see. Jacobs had the physicality, skills and personality Alabama covets.
"Before the internet and before the recruiting services, situations like Josh Jacobs' used to happen all the time," Burns says. "That's why I still love this. … You're recruiting in its purest form."
On February 3, weeks after Burns made the trip and only a few days after Jacobs took his only visit to Alabama, he committed to the Crimson Tide over Missouri and Oklahoma. Hours after he announced his decision, his son Braxton was born.
Marty Jacobs, Josh's father, had a vision of what his life would look like when fatherhood arrived. There'd be two cars, a big home and a healthy, loving family.
He had come close to throwing that all away as a young adult. Decisions he made. People he associated with. Situations he put himself in that he has since shared with his children—hoping they wouldn't fly as close to the sun as he did.
When he married, he left that life behind. But money was always tight. Eventually, in 2006, Marty and his wife separated. Josh and his siblings stayed with his mother as Marty fought for custody of the five children. Rather than wait for the decision on custody, Josh decided to move in with his father.
At the time, Marty had just moved out of his apartment. With nowhere to live, the two spent a week sleeping in the family Suburban in Tulsa.
Marty would park on the street. Josh would sleep in the back while his dad sat reclined in his front seat, some nights with a pistol in his lap for protection. "I don't ever remember him going to sleep," Josh says.
At the time, no one knew how bad things were or how difficult the next few years would be.
"It was disappointing for me because I didn't how bad it was," says Driver DeWitt, Marty's closest friend. "I was around them all the time, and I had no idea. But Marty is an independent man. He didn't want to ask for help."
Marty ultimately won custody of his children. Not long after, he injured his eye applying powder coating at work and ended up losing his job, making money tighter than it already was.
In the months that followed, the family lived in several different motel rooms. The goal was to find the best nightly rates at places that still served continental breakfast so his kids could eat before school. At night, food was sometimes scarce.
"There were a lot of times I saw my dad come up with food for us, and he would never eat," Josh says. "I always wondered if he ever ate or not, and that's something that used to really bother me. To this day, I don't know how my father did it."
As difficult as it was packing six people into one room, they made the best of it. There was laughter and joy. But there were also fights among siblings and tears. Marty wanted his children to share their struggles with their counselor at school. When they refused, he had them write poetry about their difficulties that they would read out loud. They would even rap their emotions, one to the other.
The family moved in and out of various apartments, never truly unpacking. Even when they finally found a home, right around the time Josh began high school, it took a while to settle in. Although the situation was much improved, Josh still slept on the floor or the couch. By then, that was what was most comfortable to him.
Stability came for him largely through football. Even then, with his profile slowly blossoming, there were moments he felt it might all slip away, as it nearly did for his father and many of his friends.
"I've experienced things that could have turned differently for me," Jacobs says. "I have friends right now—people I was cool with and played sports with—serving murder and burglary charges. Where I'm from, it's easy to get in trouble."
The week he was offered by Alabama, his journey took on new meaning. He thought about the opportunity the offer represented and the adversity he had endured to get to that point—trials he says no child his age should ever have to face. Days later, when he signed with the school, he realized not only how far he had come but also how far he could still go.
His left hamstring, recently torn, still wasn't quite right. And his left ankle, which was fractured months ago, throbbed every time he tried to change direction. Each week, he felt himself slipping further down one of the deepest depth charts in all of sports.
It was December 2017, days before Christmas, and Jacobs was contemplating his exit from Alabama. Not because he didn't like it. The injuries and the fight for playing time had grown exhausting.
His father talked to him almost every night, hoping to convince his son to stay. "It's going to pay off," he told him. "You just gotta believe me."
Jacobs had injured his hamstring before the start of the 2017 season. He then hurt his ankle five weeks into that season—playing the rest of the year limited and in pain.
In Alabama's thrilling victory over Georgia in the national championship game, Jacobs carried the ball only three times for eight yards. He finished his injury-filled sophomore season with 284 yards on 46 carries. After the season, he had ankle surgery.
"I'm not going to lie to and say I didn't think about leaving," Jacobs says. "At the end of the day, I just felt like there was a reason why I came here."
The year before, as a true freshman, Jacobs had emerged as an immediate option for Saban. Because of his ability to catch and run, he played meaningful snaps and finished with 567 rushing yards and 156 receiving yards.
"He's a very versatile player in terms of the kind of receiver he is," Saban said in December before Alabama's College Football Playoff semifinal against Clemson. "Inside runner, outside runner. Very effective player. He’s been a fantastic addition to our team."
In most programs, Jacobs would be the featured back. But at Alabama, he splits carries with two of the nation's elite runners: Damien Harris, 247Sports' No. 1 running back in the class of 2015, and Najee Harris, 247Sports' No. 1 running back in the class of 2017.
This season, even though Jacobs has the fewest carries of the three, he has scored the most touchdowns: nine rushing, one receiving and one by kick return. He has rushed for 384 yards and caught 11 passes for 118 yards, and his kick-return average of 30.6 yards is tops in the SEC and third in the nation.
At 225 pounds, Jacobs can be a bruiser if he has to be. He's also elusive enough to run past defenders while playing a variety of roles on an offense that has no shortage of weapons.
"Oh, he's a stud," says Alabama quarterback Tua Tagovailoa. "The exact way you see him out there on the field in the game is exactly how he practices. He practices really, really hard. It's not surprising for me to see Josh performing the way he's performing."
The full skill set was on display on a frigid Saturday in November. With Alabama up comfortably on Mississippi State, fans began to filter out of Bryant-Denny Stadium. But that was of no concern to Jacobs or the many family members who had traveled to watch him.
For the first time since arriving at Alabama, he carried the ball as many as 20 times in a game. Despite running at one of the best defenses in the country, he finished with 97 rushing yards and scored two touchdowns. His father, uncles, cousins, aunt and Braxton watched from the stands. It was the first time his son had ever seen Jacobs play live.
Back in Tulsa, Braxton cheered his father every time he was shown on TV. But on this day, wearing an Alabama hoodie, he ran toward him after the game and wrapped his arms around his waist.
"It's not about just me anymore," Jacobs says. "We made it the best out of the circumstances we were dealt. But I want things to be different for him."
Jacobs will likely face a decision at the end of the year. As a junior, he could declare for the NFL draft. He could also return for one more season to potentially improve his draft stock. That such a decision awaits is a luxury not lost on him. But on this day, that could wait.
The family celebrated Jacobs' performance with Burns, the coach who started him on this journey.
Then, as the night wound down, Jacobs and his son retreated to Jacobs' room.
That night, the two of them slept comfortably in his bed.
B/R’s Matt Miller contributed to this report.
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