METAIRIE, La. — The buzz surrounding Alvin Kamara was still just a light hum at this time last year — about a week before the New Orleans Saints rookie offered his first real glimpse of what was coming with a 50-yard touchdown run in the preseason.
Flash forward 12 months, and Kamara is now one of the NFL’s most dynamic rising stars: The reigning NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year, who just made a cameo appearance in Drake’s newest video, did a photo shoot for GQ Magazine and sang Ella Mai’s “Boo’d Up” on stage during a commercial break at the ESPYs last month.
Kamara is bursting with confidence and charisma. But even he admits he didn’t see this coming at this time last year.
“No, nah. I ain’t Miss Cleo,” Kamara said with a laugh. “I was just working, working. I think my message was consistent throughout the year, like, ‘I’m just working. And whatever comes, it comes.’ So I’m just blessed.”
The Drake video came about, Kamara said, when the two stars “linked up” in Los Angeles during ESPYs week. Drake let Kamara know that he’d be in New Orleans shooting his new “In My Feelings” video a few days later and asked him to take part.
As for Kamara’s own musical performance on stage at the ESPYs, he said producers had spread the word a few weeks before the show that they were looking for people to help liven things up in the auditorium during commercial breaks — so Kamara eagerly volunteered, even though he hadn’t sung anything formally since eighth-grade choir.
Kamara laughed even harder when a reporter asked him, “How much fun is it to be you?”
“It’s cool, you know. I mean, it’s just a lot of blessings,” said Kamara, who was conducting his post-practice interview while leaning on a new customized electric scooter that he received from the Los Angeles-based Bird company.
“From doing what I did on the field to seeing it translate into off the field. A lot of fun things and a lot of great opportunities I’m being handed. But it’s football time now. You know, have another great year and see what’s going on,” Kamara said. “Offseason is offseason. There’s a time for everything. And right now it’s football time, so I’m locked back in with my team.”
Of course, it’s hard to ignore the idea that Kamara’s 2018 offseason is playing out like the plot of almost every sports-movie sequel. He has done everything but fight “Thunderlips” in a charity wrestling match.
But Kamara insists he is too driven to rest on his rookie accomplishments. He said he and the Saints’ Defensive Rookie of the Year Marshon Lattimore — who has become a close friend — are both the type of guys who ignore their press clippings and want to accomplish even more in Year 2. Maybe, they suggested during Kamara’s recent youth football camp in New Orleans, they can go from sweeping the NFL Rookie of the Year awards to sweeping the league’s player of the year awards.
And it’s not like the limelight is new to Kamara, who was a high school football star outside of Atlanta before he began his college career at Alabama and later transferred to Tennessee. His uncle is renowned hip-hop producer Kevin “Coach K” Lee. And he is close friends with the members of the hip-hop group, Migos, who have made their own meteoric rise in the entertainment industry.
As both The Undefeated and Sports Illustrated chronicled last year in detailed profiles about Kamara’s personality, he exuded star power even before he became a NFL star. From his dreadlocks and piercings and the gold grill he sometimes wears during games to his unabashed love for Airheads candy to dancing in the stands with Saints fans after touchdowns to partying into the wee hours of the night in New Orleans after wins.
As I joked with another reporter who said Kamara is still “down to earth” despite his newfound fame, I don’t think “down to earth” was ever the right phrase to describe such an exuberant and eccentric personality.
But it is fair to suggest Kamara seems like the same person he was one year ago.
“I think he’s handled all that stuff well,” Saints coach Sean Payton said. “He’s a smart guy. Super smart. So there can be X amount of noise away from the building, but I think he’s real level-headed. And to some degree, he’s been around that before with family members that are in the [entertainment] business. And I think he handles all of that real well.”
Payton raved about Kamara’s football IQ last summer, too, saying it reminded him of how intelligent Hall of Fame running back Marshall Faulk was when Payton coached him in college.
That was also one of the first things Saints quarterback Drew Brees mentioned when asked about Kamara’s development in Year 2.
“We try to keep the guy humble, but he can do some things. He’s made a couple cuts in this camp where I’m just like …,” said Brees, who was shaking his head from side to side in a show of disbelief.
“He’s got a skill set that’s very unique, very rare. What I love most about him is his approach and his demeanor,” Brees continued. “I don’t think he’s getting too far ahead of himself. I think he understands what it takes to be a great player in this league. I think he’s got a great mentor, veteran, and teammate in Mark Ingram.
“Maybe things have come a bit more naturally for Alvin, but there’s that process that takes place with the preparation and everything else. You’re never gonna win out there just on raw talent, alone. And I think Alvin understands that and I think he’s intelligent. One of the most intelligent guys I’ve been around when it comes to just absorbing the game and then being able to go out and execute it.
“It’s just one day at a time with him, but man, you feel like he’s a weapon that defenses have to figure out a way to deal with.”
Here’s a scary thought for NFL defenses: What if Kamara is even better in Year 2?
It’s hard to imagine Kamara topping the 7.7 yards per offensive touch that he averaged in 2017 — since that was the highest average in NFL history for any player with at least 200 touches.
And it would even be asking a lot for Kamara to top his 1,554 yards from scrimmage or his 14 total touchdowns (including a franchise-record 106-yard kickoff return).
But then again, his role in the offense should be even bigger — especially with Ingram serving a four-game suspension to start the season.
Remember, Kamara was still just a role player for the first month of last season before the Saints traded away veteran Adrian Peterson to create room in their crowded backfield. And it wasn’t until late in the season that he started to emerge as a slight leader in the timeshare with Ingram — as they became the first duo in NFL history to both surpass 1,500 yards from scrimmage in the same backfield.
Payton has stressed that he thinks it would be foolish to just overwork Kamara by giving him an extra 15 touches per game during Ingram’s suspension. But chances are, Kamara will get all the important touches — including much of the red zone work and no-huddle, hurry-up drives.
Kamara hasn’t campaigned for a bigger role in the offense, but he hasn’t shied away from it, either.
“I feel like I can take some more touches,” Kamara said. “I feel like I can do everything.”
An understatement, to say the least.