Chasing Alvin Kamara: The NFL's Reluctant Star

The Saints' electric back knows exactly who he is, and if you aren't on board, deal with it.
photo of Master TesfatsionMaster TesfatsionFeatured Columnist IAugust 8, 2018

Alvin Kamara knew it was time to go. He spent this muggy Atlanta day entertaining spectators at his friend Quavo's star-studded flag football game, "Huncho Day of the NAWF," by scoring the first touchdown and penning as many autographs as he could. Once the game ended, and Julio Jones was named most valuable player, Kamara walked inside the locker room and ghosted out the back door.

Chasing Kamara around in his hometown is as difficult as a linebacker attempting to tackle him on any given Sunday. He's easy to spot, a compact frame at 5'10" with dreads resting comfortably around his neck, but difficult to contain. In a split second, the Saints running back can hit you with a real-life "B" button, effortlessly spinning outside of your peripheral, as he often did during his Offensive Rookie of the Year campaign last season.

But after an hour of waiting, through the same doors that Takeoff and Todd Gurley casually exited, there was no sign of Kamara. The parking lot, once crammed with dripped-out custom cars, thins out. His sister, Garmai Momolu, warned that, like a car engine in freezing temperatures, it takes time for Kamara to warm up to strangers. Except in this moment, Momolu was having a tough time reaching him, too.

From the airport to the game to the hotel, where he went to unwind, Kamara was on the move. Without a moment to himself, he was surrounded by athletes, rappers and fans throughout the day. That is until he bounced out the back door. Kamara is cordial to outsiders, but he is  protective of his space, reserving it for himself and his tight-knit circle.

These days, everyone wants to be around the chicken wing-eating, gold-grill- and nose-ring-rocking Kamara. Even beyond his thrilling season, effortlessly making the transition from backup college running back to one of the NFL's best offensive weapons, Kamara has a personality that can make the sternest NFL-boycotting fan consider purchasing his jersey.

"I've been asked, 'Describe him.' Man, I can't," says Chicago Sky guard Diamond DeShields, who has known Kamara since high school and is a close friend. "He's one of the most amazing people I know. But he's also so simple. He has his layers and intricacies—all these layers that make him this dynamic person."

Everything is a test with Kamara. Guided by his intuition, a gift he inherited from his mother of Liberian descent, he will watch how you respond and react in certain situations that will reveal your true character. He seeks to find an authentic person, and these tests determine how many layers he will peel back.

After frustrating coaches at Alabama with his off-field issues, Kamara says he has matured over the last few years and has visions of becoming an entrepreneur.
After frustrating coaches at Alabama with his off-field issues, Kamara says he has matured over the last few years and has visions of becoming an entrepreneur.Photo by Dustin Chambers

If Kamara doesn't sense something genuine, his walls don't come down. Even close friends can become distant memories if they act out of character.

"He will cut you all the way off like you don't exist," DeShields says.

It's why Kamara has been described as "weird" or an "asshole" by some within the NFL, but he won't waste headspace offering a rebuttal beyond a shrug.

Nearly three hours after the game, Kamara finally texts back his location.

"Just pulled up to Houston's on Peachtree," he says. Say no more.

After racing down the 30-minute drive to Houston's, I quickly spot Kamara, who is accompanied by Dave Raymond, Kamara’s business manager, and Lil Coach K, the official photographer of rapper Lil Yachty and the son of Quality Control Music co-founder Coach K.

They were in the middle of an active conversation until I walked up to their dimly lit booth in the back corner of the restaurant. The mood suddenly changes at the table. Kamara's wall is up and, naturally, Raymond and Lil Coach K follow suit.

The tension drags on for a few minutes as high-pitched piano keys echo across the room. Finally, the NFL's reluctant star sits upright, pouring his "boujee" Hildon mineral water and squeezing a lime slice into a glass while sternly asking, "So what you wanna talk about?"

His food preferences and facial features are like an orange rind, appealing to the eye with its bright color and texture, but an outer layer protecting the fruit it bears. It's not what makes Kamara special. These signifiers are just synonymous with black life in Atlanta, the real chicken-wing capital of the U.S. (sorry, Buffalo), where a satisfying bite of lemon pepper flats can be found from the rural suburbs to the strip clubs. Black men with dreads and grills are common in Lenox Square, the city's biggest mall, where they walk around head-to-toe in the latest Gucci or Ralph Lauren Polo.

Just one nose ring? In Little Five Points, a vibrant district in East Atlanta that embraces individuality and where Momolu would take her younger brother thrift shopping, that's conservative.

"That's the mystique behind [me]," Kamara says. "There's no person with an inside scoop, because I don't move around like that. Period. Unless one of these motherfuckers tell you. And guess what? Not happening."

It's simply the influence of the city that raised Kamara on display, and a trap. Don't fall for it.

WNBA star rookie Diamond DeShields has been close to Alvin Kamara, who joined her at the WNBA draft, since both were in high school together.
WNBA star rookie Diamond DeShields has been close to Alvin Kamara, who joined her at the WNBA draft, since both were in high school together.Michelle Farsi/Getty Images

"If you're distracted by that, then I know I don't even need to fuck with you," Kamara says. "You don't even have the depth to even fuck with me or the group of people I'm around."

What makes Kamara special is that he's always unapologetically Alvin, whether he's posing in the stands with Saints fans after one of his 14 total touchdowns last year, picking DeShields up from the hospital following surgery at Tennessee or ignoring the world to play Fortnite. His recently gained status as a young NFL star won't change how he operates, even if the outside world doesn't understand just how he does.

"Niggas put on capes in the league," Kamara says as he leans back in the booth. "They got a character. They got a persona they fulfill, a brand. I don't see a problem with it. Maximize your pockets. But what I put on, I ain't gotta put on no cape. I just do what I feel. That's what draws people. This isn't an act."

He's more comfortable when three more friends, and food, arrive. DJ Tonee, a childhood friend who’s now one of the biggest DJs in Atlanta after breaking in artists such as Migos, Rae Sremmurd and up-and-coming artist Retro, joined for dinner just as Kamara munched on spinach artichoke dip.

Kamara hangs out with the same group of friends, who compare themselves to LeBron James and his circle, the Four Horsemen. They're often on the road, achieving success relative to their fields, and rarely get moments to reflect together. The dialogue makes Kamara vulnerable for the first time when he thanks his friends for holding him accountable and not being the "yes" men NFL athletes often carry in their circles.

"We don't put the load on him," says Tvenchy, a New Orleans streetwear fashion designer sitting next to our booth with his friend, Ralph Carter. Tonee searches for a club to attend for the night. Quavo is hosting his birthday party at Empire, complete with a petting zoo in the club's parking lot. Quavo would eventually ride up to the front door on a camel for his grand entrance.

They decide against it, knowing it will attract clout-chasers and Instagram "influencers" that want to feel important. Instead, they plan to hit up a club called Josephine.

Kamara has warmed up significantly after the nearly three-hour dinner. He extends the invitation to the club and offers some advice before we left Houston's.

"If you just vibe, you'll figure out what you need to know," he says.

Only in Atlanta will you find some of the best nightclubs in strip malls, sandwiched between a beauty supply chain and a rent-to-own home furnishing store. The line was long outside Josephine around 2 a.m., but the ambiance was right for Kamara.

His section was rather empty compared to the rest of the club, consisting of the same people at dinner minus Tvenchy. They sat on top of two couches facing each other with two hookahs on the table—one occupied by Kamara, the other by Lil Coach K—as Tonee critiqued the DJ's mixes and hip-hop selection for the night. No bottle service; just complimentary rounds of drinks from the bar.

Kamara briefly stepped out of the section to dap up Falcons running back Devonta Freeman at his section, the only person he cared to genuinely acknowledge. Everyone else received half-hearted handshakes and head nods when they tried to spark up a conversation. He took a shot with Freeman before returning, one of two drinks Kamara had all night.

The section next to them gets seated. Two men in the section whisper to each other, questioning if that's actually the Saints running back casually blowing hookah smoke with Lil Baby playing in the background. His fame is becoming more difficult to hide by the day.

"I don't want to be a celebrity," Kamara says. "That's not my goal. I'm not interested in being the shit, or lit." The loudest aspect about Kamara the entire night was his outfit, a bright orange shirt designed by Tvenchy and volt yellow Adidas track pants.

The club lights turn on just after 3 a.m. Kamara flashes the flight itinerary on his phone that he procrastinated to book until after dinner. He has to jetset to Miami at 5:50 a.m, where he trains during the offseason to make it to his 11 a.m. workout at Florida International University. He's confident he'll make his workout as he leaves for the airport.

"I'mma hit you up," Kamara says before we part ways.

Maybe he was asleep. Or maybe it was another test. Regardless, Kamara was not responding to my calls or texts after we both landed in Miami. It's nearly 1 p.m., and there's no sign of Kamara on FIU's campus for the last two-and-a-half hours.

"Mannn I couldn't find my damn phone. Shit was in my bag this whole time," Kamara finally responds at 2:12 p.m. following his workout. He found his phone tucked inside one of his shoes, but he didn't skip leg day that morning.

We meet up two hours later in Davie, about 15 minutes west of Fort Lauderdale, at Athletix, a tiny physical therapy facility inside a Jewish Community Center that attracts a number of NFL athletes. He receives treatment on his quads and hips and then grabs an elastic band and a body ball for an intense hip-flexor and core-activation workout. We leave to head to Smoothie King, where Kamara stops after every workout to order the same drink: a strawberry Hulk with no bananas, which he says he hates though he's never had one, and extra peanut butter.

"I don't eat mushy foods," says Kamara, who didn't eat a peach cobbler his chef made during the offseason because it was gooey. "I just vividly remember not fucking with foods, like, 'Nope, I'm not eating that.' Some of the shit I've never even tasted. Like that shit nasty."

Kamara says the vigilance with which his friends protect his privacy allows him to maintain a mystique none can breach.
Kamara says the vigilance with which his friends protect his privacy allows him to maintain a mystique none can breach.Photo by Dustin Chambers

As complex as Kamara can be, the walls he once hid behind don't feel present. The simplicity DeShields sees in Kamara's core becomes evident both in his daily routine and his taste.

"He's just real," DeShields says. "When you get to be in the space of a real person, I'm talking really real and not that fake woke, you get drawn to him."

"Ain't no other way to call it but basic," says Twin, someone who has been a "big bro" to Kamara since high school. "All the stuff people would think that a NFL rookie would do, he still lives like he ain't made no money. He's still Alvin."

We walk over to Publix across the street. As we wait in line for Kamara to order a chicken tender sub with just pepper jack cheese, salt and pepper, he explains why he's so observant. His father was in and out of his life as a child. He knew something didn't add up then, but he just watched as his father eventually disappeared when his family moved. He hasn't had a relationship with his father since then.

"That shit I can say made me observe, watch people, watch what their intentions are, watch why they do things and how they do things, and consistency in their character and shit like that," Kamara says. "Cause you can say one thing, but your actions say otherwise. I don't know. That's a trust thing.

"You can act a lie to a certain extent. You can show a lie to a certain extent. You can be somebody you're not to a certain extent. But soon enough, you've got to reveal who you are."

When the Saints traveled to Tampa Bay in December, Kamara's father unexpectedly awaited outside the visiting locker room. Kamara just kept walking. He signed autographs and took pictures with fans—ignoring his father's repeated attempts to get a response—and then hopped on the team bus

"Didn't even look at his ass," Kamara says.

Kamara would rather consider Momolu, who is 10 years older than him, as his second parental figure in the house. She drove Kamara and his brother to school, and she also showed them the importance of self-love. Kamara took that message and made it his own, creating a spontaneous lifestyle that can involve a cameo in a Drake music video.

"Alvin's a floater because he likes himself," Momolu says. "When you're comfortable with who you are, you can move however you want to move. Whatever the day calls for is whatever you decide."

As he eats his sandwich, Kamara pulls out his phone, bypassing the 260 unread texts to open up Twitter. He doesn't like searching his name on social media, knowing the habit of reading about himself can make people turn into "a whole fucking asshole," but he's determined to find his favorite highlight from his rookie season.

He has a buffet of Madden-like highlights to choose from, but he digs up the Saints' Week 12 loss to the Los Angeles Rams. Right before halftime, Drew Brees dumps the ball off to Kamara in the flat. He outruns two linebackers and a safety, eludes the cornerback and then runs over another safety, moments before avoiding an attempt to shove him out of bounds. Kamara finally went down, but not before he dragged three defenders.

Kamara desires to keep those he trusts fully to a select few.
Kamara desires to keep those he trusts fully to a select few.Photo by Dustin Chambers

The 21-yard reception displayed all the skills—speed, strength and agility—that earned him a Pro Bowl nod and the recognition by his peers as the 20th-best player in the league. He accomplished all this despite being behind Mark Ingram and Adrian Peterson on the depth chart to start the season.

Kamara balled out individually, though his rookie season was cut short sooner than he and the team had hoped. They were 10 seconds away from the NFC Championship game, up 24-23 after erasing a 17-point deficit at halftime, when the Vikings pulled one of the most improbable finishes in NFL history. Safety Marcus Williams whiffed as the last line of defense to tackle Stefon Diggs, who stayed in bounds to score the game-winning touchdown as time expired.

"It's a certain point where you fucking just do everything could do, and shit still don't go your way," Kamara says about the game dubbed the Minneapolis Miracle. "That's how I felt about that game. I felt like we did everything. We came all the way back, and then shit just happened like that. That's like some one-in-a-million-type shit.

"I couldn't even be mad. I was mad, of course, but it was like how does that even fucking happen? That's not even real. It's almost not realistic, like what the fuck?"

Kamara says he got over the game fairly quickly but was frustrated to see the Vikings allow 38 unanswered points in a blowout loss to the Philadelphia Eagles, who defeated the New England Patriots two weeks later in Super Bowl 52.

"We'd beat the shit out of [the Eagles] cause we was rolling," Kamara says. "If we won [versus Minnesota], I knew nobody was gonna stop us cause we came all the way back."

The conversation gets Kamara excited for the upcoming season. He described 2017 as an "experiment" year for the Saints, and he believes everyone in the locker room knows what they are capable of accomplishing in 2018.

"We know what the standard is," Kamara says before pausing for a few seconds. "So, yeah, fuck Minnesota."

The next morning, Kamara went back to FIU to work out with Andreu Swasey, the school's assistant strength and conditioning coach. It's a small group that includes Packers tight end Jimmy Graham, Lions cornerback Teez Tabor, Browns rookie wide receiver Antonio Callaway and Kamara's godbrother, Prince Judah, who is in a reggae rock band and carries the same level of mystique as Kamara.

Callaway begins puking to our left after running up the stadium stairs repeatedly on this humid day. It's his first time training with Swasey, who challenges athletes mentally through his workouts.

"C'mon now! Let's get money," Kamara yells at Callaway, though Kamara has never met him. Kamara doesn't play with his workouts. He prefers small groups that hold each other accountable. None of those social media workout montages, either, because working out isn't meant to be a show. The only workout video on his Instagram account—a viral clip of him dragging a Jeep with a rope attached to his waist and carrying a squat rack with weights over his shoulders—he posted reluctantly, and he did it to give the trainer some well-earned publicity. Kamara was randomly drug-tested the next day.

No matter if he's at a celebrity flag football game, a club or in the locker room, Kamara is not one to act like someone he is not, say his friends.
No matter if he's at a celebrity flag football game, a club or in the locker room, Kamara is not one to act like someone he is not, say his friends.Photo by Dustin Chambers

"The kid's got it, man," says Graham, who nearly became teammates with Kamara but couldn't reach an agreement with the Saints during free agency. "He's mentally strong. He leads by example and encourages people. It's pretty cool to see so young."

In between sets, Kamara ponders what it takes to tackle him in open space. He led all running backs with forcing 29 missed tackles as a wide receiver last year, according to Pro Football Focus.

"Until you really try to tackle him, you don't really understand it," says Tabor, who played at Florida and faced Kamara at Tennessee.

It's mind-boggling to think the same running back who dominated the NFL was a backup for the Volunteers behind Jalen Hurd, who has since transferred to Baylor.

Kamara had the intentions of playing at Tennessee for a season and declaring for the draft to conclude a collegiate career that included pit stops at Alabama and Hutchinson Community College. The lack of touches forced Kamara to stay another season, hoping for a bigger role to build his draft stock. His usage didn't change the following year, but he declared after his junior season anyway.

"I feel like what happened at Tennessee, them coaches just be wanting you to bow down and not be yourself," says Tonee, who played football at Morehouse College but stopped after tearing his quad twice. "And when you're not for that, they'll sit you. When you look at the film from Alvin's last year and Jalen Hurd, ain't no way in hell Alvin shouldn't have been starting. But it's all about who the coaches pick, and who they like."

The situation became a blessing in disguise. Kamara was taken in the third round by the ideal city to embrace his personality in New Orleans, the ideal head coach to properly use his diverse offensive skill set in Sean Payton, the ideal quarterback to observe what it takes to be an all-time great in Drew Brees, and the ideal mentor to help guide him at the position in Mark Ingram.

Kamara led the NFL in yards per carry as a rookie and finished sixth in yards gained from scrimmage.
Kamara led the NFL in yards per carry as a rookie and finished sixth in yards gained from scrimmage.Kelvin Kuo/Associated Press

"I think that's what helped my success," Kamara says. "It's easy to work in that environment. Everybody wants everybody to do good, and everybody's supportive of everybody's goals."

The next day was technically Kamara’s off day, but he spent the majority of his day at Athletix to work out, hit the field for speed training and receive treatment. We return to the same metal chairs outside Smoothie King after he finishes.

As he sips on his strawberry Hulk, Kamara wonders if he would've gone higher in the draft had he changed his appearance. Selected as the fifth running back off the board—behind Leonard Fournette, Christian McCaffrey, Dalvin Cook and Joe Mixon, who was captured on video punching a woman in the head in 2014—Kamara says there were NFL scouts and executives during the draft process who told him to cut his hair and take his nose ring out, including one NFL executive explaining how a team’s head coach wouldn’t approve of his look.

"I might have [gone higher]," Kamara says. "But if I wasn't myself, I wouldn't have been as successful this year."

Kamara's individuality has often clashed with football's militarized structure. It did at Tennessee, where he was a backup, and at Alabama, where he didn't play a down after leading Norcross High to its first state championship his senior year.

"I just feel like he couldn't be himself at Alabama," Momolu explains. "Look at Alvin now. Now think about Alabama players. He wasn't going to evolve to that—not at Alabama. It wasn't going to happen. I think he sensed that he couldn't be himself there, and I think that's what really triggered it."

Kamara also felt invincible after being one of the top running backs in his high school class. He didn't think he was better than anyone, but he thought he earned the right to do whatever he wanted. The 18-year-old was too prideful to let that go, and he acted out in ways an immature teenager would.

Kamara and his teammates purchased BB guns at Walmart one night and fired them off randomly around campus, shooting up a pizza driver at a traffic light and a Waffle House window. They also cracked a large panel of the school's engineering building. He eventually got caught, receiving a $3,000 bill that Kamara says Tennessee paid off when he transferred.

After an officer warned Kamara not to set off any fireworks on campus on the Fourth of July, Kamara propped open the front doors to his dorm building and lit "a big-ass thing" of fireworks. The smoke filled the building, setting off fire alarms and bringing the fire department.

"Once you get in that dream, that's what you're living in," Kamara says. "I was just living, man. Can't shit touch me."

Kamara's main goal was to play as a true freshman in a talented backfield. It unraveled when he suffered a knee injury during fall camp, forcing him to redshirt. His inability to suit up only exacerbated an ongoing problem.

"I think he felt like he let himself down a little bit and didn't reach the goals he set," says Mark Hocke, former Alabama co-associate head strength and conditioning coach, who is now at Louisiana-Lafayette. "He kind of felt like he had failed. I just remember talking to him like, 'Please, just be patient.' But he's a headstrong dude, and sometimes your strength can be your weakness too."

Kamara says that Alabama scheduled therapy sessions for him with Michigan State professor Dr. Lionel Rosen, dubbed as the "The Wizard" by former Alabama players for how he can "brainwash" players to believe in a common goal, but even he couldn't get to him. Kamara says a member of Alabama's coaching staff called his high school coach, sharing how Kamara had been "possessed by the devil." Alabama declined comment on the matter.

He was eventually suspended before Alabama played in the Sugar Bowl. In January, Kamara called up Coach K and Lil Coach K to pick him up with the intentions of transferring.

Kamara compared his wild eight months at Alabama to "getting a fresh new pair of motherfucking all-white Air Force 1s, and you just shit on 'em." He says he wasn't mature enough to apologize to Nick Saban and his coaching staff at the time to work through his issues. A fresh start was necessary.

He was arrested a month after leaving Alabama and charged with four petty crimes, including driving with a suspended permit and not wearing a seatbelt, and it was enough for Kamara to spend the next year humbling himself. Although he had other Division I offers, he went to a junior college for a season to spend time alone and address his immaturity and the pride built up from playing football.

If that same intuition leading his every move hadn't informed Kamara to pack one duffel bag and move to a random, frigid Kansas town, it makes you wonder how close we were to never experiencing his rookie season—from the stunning highlights to the stories of his walking home from the Superdome after games, a habit Momolu and Twin both say Kamara will likely need to change this season.

If Kamara could go back in time, he wouldn't change a thing. Even his stint in Tuscaloosa isn't viewed as a failure.

"I think that was a stepping stone," Kamara says. "I was in the fucking pokeball in 'Bama, and I fucking evolved into some other shit."

When asked which Pokemon he evolved into, Kamara pauses.

"Motherfucking, what's that big dragon shit? That orange motherfucker. Charizard."

Kamara is proud of his growth over the last five years. He's comfortable with who he is at 23, but who will he be 10 years from now?

Based off his actions, it's a question he's obsessed to answer. Kamara is on the verge of superstardom, and he moves as someone bracing for the inevitable through his work ethic and his desires.

"I'm trying to set myself up to be like a motherfucking real entrepreneur and like a real businessman," says Kamara, who hopes to get into real estate in the next two years. "I don't know how it feels to have a billion dollars. I'm trying to see what that's like, though; you know what I'm saying?"

Even as everything changes around him, his ambition to be a great football player remains. His identity as Alvin hasn't changed. He's aware of who he's around, how he has to move differently, and how he doesn't have to take every endorsement deal thrown his way. He's been in the limelight since high school. He knows how to handle success and fame while still figuring life out in the background.

His tests and walls make you question if there's more he hasn't displayed. Despite the honesty in his responses, Kamara’s complexities contradict in ways to create this alluring identity we won't fully grasp as outsiders of his inner circle. It’s harder to understand Kamara’s world than it is to just write him off as an asshole. In reality, he’s one of the realest players in the league.

When asked what he wants people to take away from this story, Kamara replies, "Whatever they want to take away from it."

"Sometimes I confuse myself, I ain't even gonna lie," Kamara admits. "I be like, 'What the fuck?' Now I'm thinking about how I want somebody to view me or interpret me."

"But at the same," Kamara continues, "I don't give a fuck. However you view it is how you view it. I'mma still be me."


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