Kayvon Thibodeaux couldn't help that he sprouted to 6'2" by age 13. He couldn't help that he charged through kids in his Pop Warner All-Star Game that year like they were hollow figurines. An ambulance was called when one boy couldn't get back up.
"He didn't mean to hurt anyone. He was just strong," says his mother, Shawnta Loice. "They couldn't stop him." Until referees did. They were so concerned for the other team's safety that they pulled Thibodeaux out and didn't allow him to re-enter the game.
Thibodeaux, known then as Diesel, weighed 10 pounds when he was born. The toddler would even crawl out of his crib, pour milk into his bottle, sip, then climb back into his crib and sleep, according to his uncle, Isaiah. Thibodeaux grew accustomed to cruel comments as he got older: He's too big! He's old! Just look at him! Parents demanded he provide his birth certificate. Kids would exclude him on the playground. He wasn't a troublemaker, but teachers assumed he was the culprit if something happened in class.
He has a red skateboard signed by Tony Hawk, but never learned how to use it because he thought he was too big to ride.
What made him an outcast as a middle-schooler now has him the nation's No. 1 overall recruit in the class of 2019, according to 247Sports. In October, the 6'5", 235-pound senior defensive end is expected to choose between Alabama, USC, Florida State, Oregon and LSU. "His upside is tremendous," says Charles Collins, his coach at Oaks Christian School in Westlake, California. He racked up 20 sacks and 99 tackles in 2017, including 70 solos and 28 tackles for loss to guide his team to a CIF Southern Section Division 2 crown.
Given Thibodeaux's speed, power and athleticism, some claim he's a once-in-a-millennium talent. Those closer to him are a little more measured with their analysis but still see his immense potential. "It'll be another 20 years until another Kayvon comes around," says Antonio Patterson, his mentor and former youth coach. "His intensity is like no other. He never takes plays off."
Yet in his daily life, he is still treated as the odd man out. He has grown accustomed to the stares and whispers that follow him and cast him as a threatening figure. "I walk into a room, and people are automatically intimidated by me," Thibodeaux says.
He transferred to Oaks Christian from Dorsey High his sophomore year for better academic opportunities. But the posh, predominantly white school was unlike anything he had experienced.
"He's like, 'I'm a big kid. I'm a big, black kid in a really white neighborhood,'" says Jordan Jones, a close friend at Oaks. "'I have spiky hair. I'm 6'5", but I'm not some kind of monster. I'm not some crazy guy. I hit people on the football field, but I'm literally just a normal person.'"
While people focus on his size, they miss his depth. He has a 3.8 GPA and is a bookworm who aspires to become a lawyer after the NFL. His brain moves as quickly as his first step. One minute he's discussing the politics of John Howard Griffin's Black Like Me, and the other he's reciting lines from J. Cole's "Love Yourz." He's a trash talker on the field and a sweetheart off it. A mama's boy, a class clown and a member of his school's chess club.
He rarely watches the NFL or college football. He couldn't tell you what channel ESPN is. He jokes he might do the worm on draft day should Commissioner Roger Goodell call his name. He dreams of transforming the South Central neighborhood he grew up in and now lives apart from.
"But everywhere I go, people just want to talk about how big I am," says Thibodeaux, who will compete in the Nike Opening Finals from June 30 to July 3.
It's a painful thing, when everyone thinks they know who you are but few really see you.
"KT!!!" A blonde-haired girl shouts his name, sticking her head out of a shiny, white car one afternoon in early June in the middle of Oaks' campus. "I was going down the escalator and I saw you and I screamed your name. I was like, 'I am way too loud!'"
He smiles, sitting on a nearby bench. "Ah, you should have screamed it 10 times, I would have looked. I promise. All right."
"You guys have practice?" she asks.
"Yeah. Hit me up on Instagram, though; I'm doing an interview," he says, polite yet to the point and slightly big-time (he does have over 11,000 followers). She persists: "Don't we have each other on Snapchat?"
He shakes his head as she drives off into Oaks Christian's parking lot, one filled with BMWs and Mercedes-Benzes. He grew up in South Central L.A., watching people float in and out of jail. He had avoided the gangs that hugged every corner. But his classmates in Westlake Village? They fly to places like Italy just because.
"I've never been the cool guy," Thibodeaux says. "It's fun how the tables have turned. … Now people are calling me like, 'KT, what we doing?'"
Attention chases him as the nation's top prospect, but he is still stereotyped. Thibodeaux says he's been told that he doesn't look like a 4.0 student or a chess player, though he has been an honor-roll student all his life. He was class president in fifth grade. Even before he could read, he'd scan the newspaper, and his little thumbs would be covered in ink from traveling along the pages.
When walking into a store recently near school, he was asked what sport he plays, despite wearing an Oaks Christian polo and not a football polo. He feels compelled to say something intellectual whenever he speaks, anticipating the dumb-jock assumptions people may have of him.
He's realized he can't control what people assume about him. As much as that bothers him, he says he refuses to shrink for others.
"I won't. A lot of dudes like to hush up. I have a friend who's very loud, but he lets people change who he is because he's intimidated of what they're going to think or going to say," he says. "For me? I will be taking a knee every game in high school this season."
"My school, they frown upon it. They don't want us doing it," says Thibodeaux, who says that he probably won't be taking a knee to call attention to racial inequality and police brutality during the national anthem in college.
But right now?
"Quite frankly, [my school] can't stop me from doing it. I won't be stopped. I won't let them tell me that I can't express my rights because I go on the field and I risk my life every time I go. Just to sell a ticket," he says. "College? NFL? They make millions. But I go to sell tickets. For me, I just want to show that nothing will change who I am."
Thibodeaux used to drive about 80 miles a day. His 1995 Ford Mustang, that he painted black, would chug along, cackling like a grandfather's bad cough.
On those long treks, from South Central to Westlake Village during his sophomore year, he'd think about who he was and who he wanted to be—who he was meeting and who he was leaving behind.
He'd think about the people back in South Central that say he has changed, that treat him like he already made it, since every BCS coach is on his tail. But they don't understand Thibodeaux is swimming through the in-between—shaky territory where he is so close to his dream he could grab it and so far from it that he fears it could disappear.
"People think I'm this superstar that I'm not," Thibodeaux says. "Nobody's writing me a check. I'm not living in a beach house. I'm regular old me."
Now that he and his mother have moved to Woodland Hills, a middle-class suburb in the San Fernando Valley, his commute to school is 40 miles. Thibodeaux has a white 2016 Kia Soul now, too, joking that his biggest burden in life is filling up his tank on Thursdays: "Four dollars a gallon, man! Come on!"
But there are burdens others don't see.
"I cry. I cry a lot," Thibodeaux says. His friend was shot 13 times in L.A. after being mistaken for somebody else. The boy was unable to finish high school, unable to live the life he deserved, unable to ascend in the way Thibodeaux has a chance to.
This is why Thibodeaux goes the extra mile to reach his goals. He'll often finish his first workout by 6 a.m. and will also work out before practice. "If our workouts were an hour, he'd stay for two more hours after, too," says Justin Patterson, his best friend. Sometimes he can hear his former coaches telling him: Don't be big for nothin'. He jokes that he cannot stomach ending up as the 6'5" guy who didn't make it in football. So he grinds and takes risks on the field.
"He wills things to happen," says Greg Townsend, Oaks Christian's defensive line coach, a 13-year NFL vet. "He can think of things that he's probably capable of doing, and he will try them. Usually pros take those kind of chances on their bodies, but he's doing it from an early age."
Football needs Thibodeaux, but he does not need football. When Thibodeaux talks, it's almost as if he has a seat in the clouds and watches the city down below, brainstorming how to create new roads not just for himself but also those around him. "He was always aware of what was going on around him," says his father, Angelo Thibodeaux. "I think that helps him make decisions, like, 'Hey, I don't want this life right here. I want more.'"
When he talks about his goals, this 17-year-old sounds like a 10-year NFL vet, someone of this moment and beyond it viewing his life as a movie script he's already written, lines just waiting to be delivered. He aspires to build a free, private school in South Central and be a mentor for young, inner-city kids.
"There's a lot of kids that say they came from nothing and made it. Every rapper came from nothing. Every athlete came from nothing," he says. "But how many came from nothing and became a Fortune 500 [CEO]? How many people own businesses? How many people are able to say he helped not just himself, but this whole community, turn from nothing to something?"
He wants to change the "scams and gimmicks" of recruiting, like how inner-city kids are expected to fork over $60 for a camp when their parents can barely make ends meet.
He sees through college recruiting, too, as coaches tell him he is great or that their program has won this many championships and had that many trophy winners. He is certain that nobody coming into his life at this point is genuine just to be genuine. "[College coaches] throw the lies, they throw all their resume, all this stuff that doesn't matter," he says.
"I'm not insecure about any of my abilities. There's not anybody that I'm scared to compete with," he says. "So if a coach tells me we want you to commit? Listen, I do it on my own time. Because now you're waiting on me. … Right now, I'm in a position where I'm calling the shots, I'm in control of my destiny."
He pauses. "This is probably the only time that I'll really be in control of where I go or what happens next."