INDIANAPOLIS — Vakaba Turay didn’t want to hear it.
Not when the football coaches entered his clothing tailor shop in New Jersey. Not during the first 80 minutes the coaches sat in his house putting their sales pitch on him.
Vakaba Turay was not going to let his son, Kemoko, who had only briefly flirted with football as a high school freshman, return to the sport during his senior year of high school. Kemoko was a basketball player. Football, according to the West Africa-born Vakaba, was too dangerous of a sport.
But after one colossal promise, an athletic scholarship offer without having any game film and a college graduation, the pass-rushing Kemoko was one of the Indianapolis Colts‘ four second-round picks in last spring’s draft.
“I was the first person in my family to graduate,” Turay said. “My dad has been a tailor for 45 years. My mom braided hair. It was a struggle for us growing up. We had no electricity. We used to bathe ourselves out of pots because we didn’t pay our water bill. I couldn’t have a job because my mom always wanted me to stay focused in school and not be distracted. So I did that. She always said sports and school is your job. I feel blessed to be where I am, especially when you think about the road I took to get here. But it’s only the start. I have a lot of work ahead of me.”
Hard work could pay off for Turay because the opportunity to play as a rookie will be there. The Colts have desperately been looking for a pass-rusher since Robert Mathis had 19.5 sacks in 2013, and general manager Chris Ballard has repeatedly said they need to be able to dominate on the offensive and defensive lines. The Colts are switching to a 4-3 defense under new coordinator Matt Eberflus.
“I’m a very flexible guy when it comes to talent,” Turay said. “If they need me as a pass-rusher or if they need me at end. If they need me as a pass dropper, everything. I’m bringing everything to my plate. I’m going to work on everything — a new craft and everything. I have a great support system that work on me.”
Some people have dreams of playing in the NFL at a young age. Their rooms are lined with posters of their favorite players and closets full of jerseys while their parents spend countless dollars matching them with the best trainers, coaches and high schools with the goal of one day reaching the NFL.
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The thought of playing a varsity high school football game, let alone in the NFL, never crossed his mind. His prior football experience was when he played in a handful of games while on the freshman team at East Orange (New Jersey) High School. It wasn’t until the spring of his junior year while as a member of the Barringer (New Jersey) High School track and field team that an assistant coach broached the idea of playing football to him.
“Kemoko comes out to the track and I immediately start wondering where the hell has this kid been,” said Nhemie Theodore, who was an assistant track and football coach at Barringer. “He’s 6-4, skinny, but he’s long and has big hands. It was clear right away that he had incredible athletic ability. He kept saying he didn’t want to play football. He’s a basketball player and he only did track for fun and that his parents didn’t like football.”
Theodore wouldn’t take no for an answer from Turay. He borderline pestered Turay every opportunity he had. Theodore guaranteed the soon-to-be senior he would get a scholarship if he played football. He was so confident he went as far as to tell Turay that if he didn’t get a football scholarship he would pay his tuition to any college in the country.
“The head coach and all the kids on the track team were sitting there and they knew I was telling the truth,” Theodore said. “That’s how confident I felt in him. I was dead serious.”
It wasn’t until they were on their way to a track meet in Maryland that Turay went up to Theodore and said, “OK, Coach, let’s do this. Let’s give it a shot.”
But only half of the battle was complete for the Barringer coaching staff. There was something bigger that still awaited them. They had to convince Vakaba Turay to let his oldest child play a sport he perceived as violent.
“Football is not an African sport,” Vakaba said. “We always thought it was too physical. One day they came into my tailor shop and they said they wanted Kemoko to play football. I was very aggressive about him not playing football. I told them no, he plays basketball because he’s very good at that.”
But just as Kemoko is persistent in pursuing quarterbacks, Barringer High School football coach Darnell Morgan kept bull-rushing Vakaba to change his mind. Morgan and Theodore spent about two hours at the Turays’ house talking to Vakaba. The reality was Turay was an undersized forward on the basketball court and landing a Division I scholarship was going to be tough for him. The odds were better for him on the football field.
“Mr. Turay is so polite and respectful,” Theodore said. “Most people after they get no in their head, they’re like you have to get out of my house. But since he wasn’t trying to hurry us to leave and he was being so hospitable, we kept giving our pitch, kept giving our pitch, and eventually he saw the persistence and determination in our faces and he finally agreed. It wasn’t until about the last 20 minutes of the conversation where he was leaning toward letting him play.”
Turay wasn’t very knowledgeable about football early on, so Theodore taught him the basics of being a defensive end to try to speed up the process since he was fast, strong and elusive.
“I just told him to put your hand in the ground, watch the ball and when it’s snapped, bend around the corner and go get the quarterback,” Theodore said. “Just do that and the rest will come.”
The quest to land Turay a football scholarship started with a camp at Temple University in June before his senior year. Turay, according to his high school coaches, was one of the camp’s top defensive players. The Temple coaches liked him but didn’t want to offer him a scholarship until they had actual game film of him.
Temple’s loss ended up being Rutgers’ gain.
The Barringer coaches took Turay almost 30 miles south of Newark, where the high school is located, to Rutgers University where, again, Turay stood out during the Scarlet Knights camp. This time, though, there was a scholarship offer for the lightning-quick Turay afterward.
“They offered the scholarship but wouldn’t let him commit because his parents weren’t there at the time,” Morgan said. “I’m elated at the time and I just knew his father would be ecstatic, too.”
Vakaba Turay thought the coaches were “f—ing kidding” when they returned to his tailor shop and said his son had received a Rutgers scholarship offer.
“I asked them how they did it because I didn’t know how the process worked,” Vakaba said. “I walked to the back of the shop and came back to the front and had them tell me again to make sure it was true. They explained it to me, but I couldn’t believe it. I was so happy and so surprised.”
Turay went from having never played a snap in a junior varsity or a varsity game to leading the state of New Jersey with 19 sacks and 105 tackles as a senior. Other schools tried to recruit Turay as he was recording sack after sack, but his loyalty remained with Rutgers.
NFL teams took notice of Turay after he recorded 7.5 sacks as a redshirt freshman. As impressive as Turay’s career total of 15.5 sacks at Rutgers was, what happened May 13 was even more important: He saw his family members tearing up in the stands as he became the first person in his family to graduate from college. Turay graduated with a degree in information technology/informatics and plans to work in coding, software development or web design after football.
“It was beautiful,” Turay said. “My mom and dad always kept telling me to make sure you graduate. I’ve constantly been told school comes first before anything.”
Vakaba Turay let loose a long, drawn-out laugh when asked if he would have regretted his decision had he forbade his son to return to the football field for his senior year of high school.
The scholarship. The college degree. Being selected in the second round of the NFL draft and landing with the Colts, where Turay will have an opportunity to make millions of dollars after watching his family struggle for so long.
“I was really happy,” Vakaba Turay said. “I told my son, you graduated and to be drafted in the NFL, it’s a bonus. The main goal was to graduate from college. I don’t take education lightly because not everybody graduates from college. He being my first son, I encouraged him to focus and lead. Be the best he could be because in this country the sky is the limit.”
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