Davante Adams finally takes a breath, cozying into a chair in his kitchen. It's Tuesday, and he's getting married in four days. There are guests to call, boxes to unpack, furniture to re-arrange here in his new home in Danville, California. But his mind quiets as a woman comes over and drapes a towel around his shoulders.
Ebonie Hegwood, a longtime family friend, begins braiding his hair. Row by row, she smooths over each strand with a mixture of natural Jamaican beeswax and Eco styling gel. Twisting, tightening, patting, prodding, she works each section with the precision of a surgeon and the warmth of a mother. Tilting his head forward and tucking his chin in, Adams is a kid again. Her hands feel like home in East Palo Alto. Like the way life was long before he signed a four-year, $58 million extension in December to become the Green Bay Packers' No. 1 receiver this season.
"I've known him since the first day he was alive," Hegwood says. "Davante kept to himself. You only saw him on the basketball court in front of his home."
Back then, "Tae" was in love with hoops. He didn't play competitive football until 11th grade. He received only two college-scholarship offers, and he redshirted his first year at Fresno State. But the four-year-old boy who longed to quit his first YMCA basketball team because the other boys weren't serious enough (they were shooting at the wrong basket) has become vital to one of football's most storied franchises.
"I went under the radar my whole life," Adams says.
Maybe no longer. He leads the NFL with 22 touchdown receptions since 2016. He finally cracked the NFL's Top 100 for the first time, coming in at No. 45. And when the Packers cut Jordy Nelson in mid-March, Adams became Aaron Rodgers' undisputed top target.
"His ability to get off the line is probably better than anybody else in the league," says Luke Getsy, former Packers receivers coach, who now coaches at Mississippi State. "It doesn't really matter who's in front of him. He's going to attack them."
But Adams still doesn't feel respected enough. And he doesn't know how to ditch the prove-you-wrong, put-your-head-down, put-your-time-in mentality that led him to this point.
"He doesn't act like a celebrity," says Devanne Adams, his wife. "He's the same old Davante."
He's still the goofy guy who surprises her with Sour Patch Kids, her favorite. The gritty guy who was ticked off upon realizing a scar above his left eye had begun to fade (he relishes his battle scars).
There are scars you can see and those you can't, like fans branding him a "bust" and demanding his release during an injury-riddled 2015 season that featured only one touchdown and one too many drops. He also lost his QB last season to a broken collarbone during his contract year and suffered two concussions that gave him that left-eye scar. The hits from those concussions appeared so gruesome that his grandmother, Carolyn Brown, began to turn her head away every time he leapt into the air for another staggering catch. She was so terrified to see him sprawled out on the grass, legs and arms frozen, that she could not turn back to the screen for a few more games.
"I've been through everything, where nothing at this point could faze me," Adams says. "You have to appreciate the slow grind because success is not going to happen overnight. It can happen overnight, but that's not my journey."
Baby Jesus. That's what Adams' friends, family and Packers teammates began calling him as he popped up in his hospital bed after a Week 4 matchup in September 2017, assuring everyone he was fine.
Fine? Adams had suffered a concussion from a vicious helmet-to-helmet hit against the Chicago Bears, and he did not look fine. He lay motionless on Lambeau Field, except for faint, intermittent twitches. The hit was so brutal, it caused his mouthpiece to fly off. His mother, Pamela Brown, and Devanne were terrified. Getsy had never been so angry in his life. Carolyn decided her grandson didn't need to play anymore: "They're going to kill him out there."
But Adams felt normal. He had a slight headache but no other symptoms except a budding scar. He begged his family to let him leave the hospital.
"You good, bro? You good?" Nick Robinson, a close friend, kept asking the next day when Adams was finally home, enjoying a carne asada burrito from Taco Burrito Mexico, his favorite Mexican spot in Green Bay. "Davante was like, 'I'm 100 percent fine.' He really is Baby Jesus," Robinson says after Adams' speedy recovery.
To him, the hit could have ruined his chances of re-signing. It could have taken him out of football for good. He felt that way about the second hit and subsequent concussion against the Panthers in Week 15.
"Playing reckless like that, you could mess up people's livelihood, putting food on the table for their families," Adams says.
Adams is no stranger to injuries. He suffered a concussion against the Cowboys in 2016. He had ankle and knee injuries in 2015. He broke his arm three times as a kid. He once jumped so high for a layup in practice at Palo Alto High, he fell on top of his opponent and his head pounded the hardwood. He passed out.
During Adams' teenage years, Brown didn't want him to succumb to the dangers awaiting him in his East Palo Alto neighborhood. So she kept her son in sports to keep him from becoming "another statistic on the streets," she says.
As a single mother, Brown worked two jobs to support him, including braiding hair at night while he was at practice. She'd be so tired and her hand would be so stiff from twisting each strand, she had to crack her knuckles to continue braiding. Then she'd hop back in her black GMC Yukon and bring her son home. And then do it all again the next day. She didn't pursue romantic relationships. Instead, she opted to squeeze more hours out of her two jobs so she could afford to move her and Davante into a safer neighborhood near Stanford.
"I wanted to show him that life isn't just handed to you on a platter," Brown says. "You have to work hard to get what you want."
Adams never wanted her to have to pay for his college tuition, so he refused to miss practice or a game in hopes of earning a scholarship. He didn't even want to go to the Department of Motor Vehicles to get his license when he was 15 because that meant missing basketball practice that day. His mom forced him to get the license. He begged her to drive him to practice afterward so he could ball out for the last few minutes.
After suffering his concussion against the Bears, he didn't want to miss the Cowboys game the following week, so he suited up. During that game, Rodgers threw him a 12-yard touchdown pass to clinch the 35-31 come-from-behind win. Adams reached the end zone and chucked the ball into the stands in celebration.
"Do you know what I need you to do? I need you to get down on your knees and say a prayer," Brown told him, "because that was nothing but God. That was nothing but God wrapping his hands around you."
His NFL career began with a prayer and everyone wearing black. Adams wouldn't allow his 12 closest family members and friends to wear any other color. He couldn't have a repeat of the day before, the first day of the 2014 NFL draft, when he wasn't selected by any team.
"It was like a funeral for all the teams who passed on me," Adams says. "Especially for the teams that were high on me that didn't pick me. I just wanted to go nuts on 'em." The Packers selected him in the second round, 53rd overall. He didn't yet know where Green Bay was on a map. He had hardly ever experienced snow, either. But he was so happy.
The first thing he did? Call his new quarterback. Rodgers didn't pick up the first time. Damn, Adams thought. He'd have to compose the perfect text for Mr. Perfectionist himself. Adams struggled through each word.
You can't call him 'Aaron!' You don't have that respect yet.
"How are you doing, Aaron Rodgers?" he wrote. "This is Davante Adams. Just want to let you know I'm ready to get to work."
He would have to, since he was joining a stacked squad with Rodgers, Nelson and Randall Cobb, all of whom would challenge him daily. Rodgers would randomly sling the ball at his dome to see if he was paying attention during walkthroughs. (He often did with many rookies, Getsy said.) During Adams' first start against the Lions, he misread Rodgers' signal in the first quarter, thinking it was one route when it was a completely different one. Rodgers went off on him.
"I looked so stupid," Adams says. "Like a young puppy."
A talented young puppy, though. One with moon-bounce hops, quick-twitch speed and a 39.5-inch vertical. He's 6'1", but it sometimes seems like he has the catch radius of a 6'7" guy, as he can snag anything in front, behind or side to side. He's almost always open.
"Right from the beginning, he grabbed people's attention," Getsy says. "I don't know if he necessarily had the mindset yet, or the body yet, but he shined right away. His competitiveness came out."
Adams started to gain Rodgers' trust, especially when he torched the Cowboys as a rookie in a divisional-round playoff win with 117 receiving yards on only seven catches, including a dazzling 46-yard touchdown.
"For him to get thrown into the fire, put out there in an offense that is very fine-tuned and it was rolling, and getting to play with Aaron? It's a lot of pressure right away," Nelson says. "But he handled it extremely well."
The 21-year-old, who didn't even get his first winter coat until midway through the season, was the difference-maker in a 26-21 win over the Patriots in Week 13 of his rookie season. He notched his first 100-plus-yard game, but he dropped a touchdown right inside the red zone. That's all reporters harped on afterward.
Nelson, sitting in the locker next to Adams, turned to see if he was alright.
"You can't get comfortable," Nelson told him. "No matter what you do, they're going to find the one mistake and pick you apart."
Adams replayed every mistake in his head, sitting in his black Jeep with Pam and Devanne on a cold, rainy night in Green Bay in 2015. Over and over, he spun deeper into the web of sadness forming inside of him. The Packers had just lost, 17-13, to the Bears in a nationally televised game on Thanksgiving.
It was Adams' worst game of what would become his worst season. Only two catches on 11 targets. Three drops, including what would have been a 47-yard touchdown. After shaking cornerback Tracy Porter, Adams was in the clear with nothing but green ahead of him. But the ball bounced off his hands at the Bears' 32-yard line. It was humiliating.
He struggled to find the right words in his Jeep. The wrong ones tumbled out instead: "Oh my god, I'm so done with football.
"Don't say that," Brown said. "You don't mean that."
"I know. I'm just…frustrated."
He had been playing on an injured left ankle all season, one he estimates was at worst around 30 percent healthy. He first injured it during a Week 2 game against the Seattle Seahawks, and he then heard a pop in the Week 3 game versus the Kansas City Chiefs. He later tore his MCL against the Washington Redskins in the playoffs.
His burst—his bread-and-butter ability to blow past anyone in any direction—had always come easy. Now it was excruciatingly painful. He felt helpless, unable to get his body to move the way his mind instructed it to. And with Nelson sidelined by a torn ACL, Adams struggled against more physical, more talented defensive backs than he ever faced as a rookie.
Davante, Devanne and Pam returned to Davante's house. Davante was silent, his fork barely picking at the leftover turkey, ham and cornbread on his plate. He usually gobbles seconds after eating his initial serving, as Thanksgiving is his favorite holiday.
He walked to his room and didn't come out for the rest of the night. Every insult fans hurled at him on social media swirled about his head. He felt how fleeting fame was. Fans had loved him a few months ago after that Cowboys playoffs game. Now, in their eyes, he had the most butter-ball hands on the planet.
He's a bust. Garbage. Cut him! Biggest disappointment in the NFL. He's like a black hole of suck, sucking everything around him in and crushing it with his pure awfulness. He's not even good enough to coach high school football. That's what the Packers get for drafting out of fucking Fresno State!
The comments threatened to crack his confidence. But Adams wouldn't let them. He has always believed in his abilities when few did.
"No one has bet on Davante more than Davante," says Alistair Thompson, his best friend since sixth grade. "He has always been famous in his own head."
Not in an arrogant way, but in a way that you have to be when you're accustomed to fighting for a jersey. For minutes. For some modicum of respect. As a late bloomer to the sport, Adams wasn't chosen for All-American games in high school. Many thought he'd have a nice career at Hawaii or San Diego State, get a good education and move on.
So he grinded.
"He wasn't our best receiver his junior year. But he kept getting better and better and better," says Earl Hansen, his football coach at Palo Alto High. "I don't think he ever missed a practice in two years."
He surpassed expectations in college, coming off his redshirt year to form a nightmare duo with current Oakland Raiders starting quarterback Derek Carr. As a sophomore, Adams tallied a ridiculous 1,719 yards and 24 touchdowns on 131 catches. Once, Carr overthrew the ball, but Adams jumped about five feet off the ground to snag the catch, and he took it all the way to the end zone.
"That's when I knew he was special," Carr says. "This dude's for real."
"The thing that separates receivers from the top and guys that are just OK are the ones that don't mind the physical part of the game," he adds. "Davante is one of those guys."
Especially when challenged. Once, during a college weight-lifting session, a defensive back said he could outjump everybody on the nearby boxes. The DB jumped on the box and started taunting Adams. "Can you do that? Can you do that?" Adams didn't even have his shoelaces tied, but he jumped on the box anyway. Then came down. Then he put another box on top of the first one. He jumped on both. "Then he just walks off," Carr says. "Doesn't say a word."
He just wanted to prove that he could do it.
So when he shut the door to his room in 2015, after the nightmare Thanksgiving game, he vowed to prove that he belonged. "Fifteen  was a year that could have buried somebody if they were mentally weak," Getsy says. "That's not Davante. He's not mentally weak."
Getsy was on him the next practice, knowing his young receiver had all the gold; he just needed more mining. So Getsy challenged him with a new approach for 2016: Go at defenders. Let them have to react.
"When he attacked," Getsy says, "he turned into one of the best receivers in the league."
Adams felt ready, loose and like himself again as he took the field in Jacksonville for the 2016 opener. With the ball on the Jacksonville 29-yard line as Green Bay trailed by three seconds before halftime, Adams ran a perfect route to the goal line. With a defender draped all over him, he dove and caught the ball as he fell into the end zone for a touchdown.
The crowd, which included Packers travelers, erupted. Adams roared. It dawned on him that he had only one of these the entire previous season. He felt emotional. Not like he was on the verge of tears. But breakthrough emotional. He felt like he conquered the unconquerable.
And he wanted more. So did Getsy, with whom he developed a close bond. A few games later, Adams easily beat a corner and scored a touchdown against Chicago.
At the next position meeting, Getsy ripped into him. He felt like Adams didn't attack his defender and that he only scored because the defender was weaker, and Adams' natural athleticism took over.
"I don't care if you beat that guy," Getsy said. "I want you to beat any defender that's put in front of you. The best of the best."
Adams was silent at first. He nodded a few times. He realized his coach was right. Challenge accepted.
"I told him how great he could become," Getsy says. "You saw it: He just took off."
Adams finished with 12 touchdowns in 2016 and 10 more in 2017, even as defenses began to key in on him as Green Bay’s No. 1 receiver. Head coach Mike McCarthy called him the Packers' best perimeter player. Rodgers said he never lost faith in him.
"People started to respect it and see that it wasn't a fluke," Adams says.
It would be nice if the Davante Adams story ended here; if he could tie a bow around it, hug it, bask in it while enjoying his favorite meal of fried chicken, candied yams, macaroni and cheese and collard greens.
But of course, there were more obstacles to leapfrog over first. Like losing Rodgers in Week 6 of last season.
"Aaron getting hurt exposed a lot," Adams says. "Not taking away anything from Brett [Hundley], but any time you go from Aaron to any backup quarterback, it's going to be a huge drop-off. … Brett really cared and he really wanted to get better, which is tough, because you get thrown into the fire out of nowhere. He wasn't really prepared for it.
The Packers were spirling, but Adams vowed to pick up the slack despite suffering two concussions all during his contract year.
"It was really a matter of me putting as much as I could on my shoulders and doing as much for the team so we could continue to move forward," says Adams, who finished first on the team with 74 catches for 885 yards and 10 touchdowns.
In Week 14, Adams took over in overtime against the Browns. The Packers called a slip screen to him, and Adams spun away from three defenders, blazing upfield for the game-winning 25-yard TD in Cleveland. He then ran straight into the tunnel, breezing past any doubts that tried to hold him back.
Adams' head is almost entirely braided back at his home in Danville when Hegwood moves him to a different chair under a dryer. He leans back, letting the heat envelop his ears.
The 25-year-old recognizes things will be different this season, now that he is one of the league's highest-paid receivers. He likely won't be able to dupe fans who ask him “Are you Davante Adams?'” anymore. He'll line up against the toughest cornerbacks every time. And he won't be with Nelson, who taught him how to be a pro and attended his wedding.
"It was disappointing," Adams says of Nelson's departure to the Raiders. "I didn't see it happening that way. I just didn't see it not working out to where he wasn't on the team anymore."
It's Adams' time to take over Nelson’s No. 1 role, but he doesn't have the words to describe what that feels like.
"I've never had an 'I've arrived' moment," Adams says. "I don't like that word, 'arrived.' If you say you've arrived, then you've achieved your dream. You've done all you can. 'I'm the guy now.' I don't like that."
What's a better word, then?
He pauses for a few minutes, thinking. Robinson, sitting in the living room watching TV., cuts through the silence with a joke: "Bro, you need a thesaurus or something?"
Adams laughs. He eventually emerges with an answer: "Accomplished," he says. "I like that word. I feel like I've done a lot, but accomplished doesn't mean the end of the road. You can continue to feel accomplished. I know I'm not done yet."
Mirin Fader is a Writer-At-Large for B/R Mag. She's written for the Orange County Register, espnW.com, SI.com and SLAM Magazine. Her work has been honored by the U.S. Basketball Writers Association. Follow her on Twitter: @MirinFader.