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Josh Jacobs goes from homeless in middle school to potential first-round NFL draft pick

Last Thursday afternoon, on the second floor of a high-end fashion store overlooking Fifth Avenue in New York, Josh Jacobs wove between a rack of $US425 T-shirts and a display of fashion sneakers with price tags approaching four figures. Jacobs had a couple of hours to kill, a precious commodity during a whirlwind schedule in advance of the NFL draft, where he is considered to be the best running back available, likely the only one to be taken in Thursday's first round.

Josh Jacobs in action for Alabama last year.

Josh Jacobs in action for Alabama last year.Credit:AP

Jacobs had been to New York once before, as a child on a school field trip. He wanted to experience the city in a way he never could have imagined then, and in a way that carried significance few could understand. He showed a friend who had joined him a pair of sneakers, off-white with gold and metallic blue accents.

"Them tough," Jacobs said, signaling his approval.

"Them tough," his friend affirmed.

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Jacobs picked up one of the shoes and asked a hovering salesman: "Say, y'all got these in 11 1/2?"

Jacobs treasures shoes. He owns more than 150 pairs, because he carries with him the hurt of owning none. Jacobs became an athletic star at Alabama, a violent, versatile running back who plows through smaller tacklers, bursts around larger defenders and dusts linebackers on passing routes. Before his college career, Jacobs grew up on the north side of Tulsa, raised and protected with four siblings by a doting father who did everything he could under trying circumstances.

For Marty Jacobs, Josh's father, that meant bouncing from hotel to hotel, hunting for the best deal on a room that included free breakfast. It meant late nights and early mornings and skipping meals so his could kids were never hungry. For a short stretch, it meant living with Josh in his maroon Chevy Suburban, refusing to fall asleep and keeping a gun nearby.

"The closer we get, the more you're like, this is real," Marty Jacobs said in a phone conversation. "I would have never imagined the path it took to get to where he is."

Last week, the path led to shops along Fifth Avenue. Jacobs tried on the 11 1/2s and liked what he saw.

"I remember, I used to be mad about not being able to get, like, new Jordans that came out," Jacobs said later, riding through Manhattan in the back of a GMC Yukon. "We took turns getting shoes."

Once, in seventh grade, Jacobs received a pair of black-and-red Air Jordan 13s. He had them on his feet so much he wore out the soles. He never forgot how good pulling them on for the first time made him feel. His life has changed, but when he asked the salesperson for the fashion sneakers to be shipped home to Tuscaloosa, Alabama, it brought him back to those Jordan 13s.

Jacobs is predicted to be picked in the first round of the NFL draft.

Jacobs is predicted to be picked in the first round of the NFL draft.Credit:AP

"Same feeling," Jacobs said. "It's kind of the reason why I'm big with shoes now."

As a teenager, Marty Jacobs envisioned a simple life with a wife and children in a happy home. He was raising five kids with his wife – four they had together, plus her child from a previous relationship – when she asked for a divorce. The life he envisioned evaporated, replaced by hard choices and difficult sacrifices.

Marty would eventually gain custody of all five children – Josh was the middle in age – after a protracted divorce proceeding. At first, believing he would have to pay child support, he downsized to a one-bedroom apartment. When that apartment fell through, his old landlord had already found a new tenant. Suddenly, he was homeless.

"If it was just me, I'm cool, I can hang at a buddy's house," Marty said. "But some of my buddies did some things I didn't want my kids around. I had to tell Josh, 'We're going to do some things'."

Jacobs was in fourth grade, and his siblings were staying with his mother while custody was being decided. Marty would pick Jacobs up from football practice, take him to a drive-through for dinner and find the safest place he could for the night. For a week and a half, father and son slept in a Suburban. One night, a man approached the car. Marty didn't know if the man was just nosy or ill-intentioned, and he didn't want to find out. Marty pulled a gun on him.

Jacobs remembers only one thing from that week: His father was always awake.

Unable to find steady housing, Marty started living in hotels with all five of his children. For about six months, the Jacobs became an itinerant family, hopping around Tulsa in search of the best weekly rate. They bonded, and most car rides included more laughter – many prompted by Alicia Keys singalongs – than tears.

"I understood what was going on, but I didn't think it was as bad as it really was," Jacobs said. "I guess I kind of normalised everything."

Marty laboured to make life normal for his children. He would talk to God and say, "I don't want to screw them up." He would pack up the car late at night, so his children wouldn't see him moving their lives. He organised sports equipment and schoolwork so they could get to day care and school on time, even if it meant he'd arrive late to work most days.

Once, he kept his kids in the car as he ran into a shopping plaza to pick up dinner. In the parking lot, two men got into an argument, and one of them brandished a gun. As he walked back to the car, seeing his kids inside, Marty walked between the men, calm and stone-faced. He didn't want his kids to be scared, and he believed the best way he could was to look like he was unafraid.

"If I look back as a teenager, I would have never imagined this for my children," Marty said. "But it could have been worse. I could have been one of those fathers that left. But I didn't. I could have done some things that made it easier. But I can't raise them behind a wall, you know what I'm saying?"

Friends pleaded with him to place the kids in a shelter, but he said he knew they would be safer with him, even in a hotel. Even his kids told Marty he needed to eat and sleep more. Stress piled up. "Emotionally," Marty said, "I never had a chance to deal with the divorce. I think a lot of that started playing a part of my body, too." He found it difficult to work at an oil and gas company, and when he hurt his eye on the job, he went on worker's comp.

He soldiered on, trying to live by the mantras he repeated to his family. "Go through life understanding you already have a no. We're looking for a yes," he would tell them. "If someone says yes, that's a win. If someone says no, that's not the end of the world. We have already have that."

By the time Jacobs reached high school, his father had saved enough to move into a house in a rough neighbourhood on the north side of Tulsa. Jacobs remembers hearing police helicopters circling overhead and gunshots outside his windows. "It was bad to the point where young kids, like 13 years old, were catching bodies, killing people," Jacobs said. "It was tough." His family and neighbours recognised his athletic talent and protected him, but he was tempted by the life he saw many of his peers living.

"It would have been easy to sell drugs or rob people," Jacobs said. "It would have been easy to do things like that. But it wasn't worth it. You're selling a certain amount of drugs, the return on it is like, you might as well have just saved your money. It was like, was the risk really worth it for the quick money?"

Jacobs excelled in every sport, playing everything from baseball to tennis, and when he put on a football helmet, he felt like a different person. But he never dreamed of the NFL. When he thought about his future, he saw himself at college not dominating on a football field, but majoring in engineering. Schoolwork came naturally to him, and he took calculus at McLain High. None of his coaches or classmates knew about his home life.

Still, he wondered why major college football programs overlooked him. As a junior, Jacobs led the state in rushing, and yet his only scholarship offers came from Wyoming and New Mexico State. Local reporters didn't believe his coaches when they called in Jacobs' single-game rushing yardage totals, some of which climbed into the 400s, so coach Jarvis Payne invited them to games to see for themselves.

"We had a more popular school up the street, and we were overlooked because of our environment," Payne said. "Their thinking was, 'Nothing really came out of McLain, so we're just going to keep on moving'."

During Jacobs' senior season, out of the blue, his direction chRead More – Source

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