The question was not fully in the air when UAB football interim head coach Bryant Vincent broke out in a smile.
At the time, his mind raced a thousand miles an hour. Fresh off practice, he was processing what happened over the past two hours, organizing the upcoming meetings in his head and thinking about what’s next.
It all slowed down when he heard the question.
What does it mean for Kadeem Telfort to walk across the stage inside Bartow Arena on Saturday and receive his college diploma from UAB?
“Warms my heart,” Vincent said. “Obviously, we want to win championships here at UAB, and that’s our goal. But to see young men overcome adversity and reach milestones that have never been reached [in their family] is pretty special. He’ll be a guy we talk about here for a lot of years, just everything he’s overcome and the man he is, the player he is, the teammate he is. The sky is the limit if he wants to continue to be the best version and strive to be the best version of himself.”
Not long after, the 6-foot-8, 320-pound Telfort sat down in the program’s multi-purpose room inside the UAB Football Facility to tell his story. The first question was on the same subject.
“It means a lot, because I’m the first to graduate high school in my family, and I’m the first to graduate college,” said the 23-year-old Telfort, who will graduate with a General Studies degree. “I have one older sister, eight little sisters. Just me graduating high school did a lot for my little sisters, and me graduating makes them want to go to college. Now, they have something to look forward to.”
A day later, following the Blazers’ latest fall camp practice, Telfort received a rousing ovation from his teammates when he was given the cap and gown he will wear on Saturday. The ovation continued as Telfort jogged to the team’s locker room, triumphantly holding the cap and gown in the air. Saturday’s scrimmage will be pushed back until the afternoon so Telfort, the only UAB football summer graduate, can attend the graduation ceremony in the morning.
“We didn’t want to make him choose between a scrimmage and graduation,” Vincent said. “If we do that, what are we here for? This is special.”
Not every step that Telfort has taken came in the right direction. He made mistakes. He faced roadblocks and obstacles. He survived through some unforgiving streets in the Miami neighborhoods of his childhood.
All the motivation he needed came from within the walls of his home.
“At first, I didn’t like it,” Telfort said of being the only male in a large family. “I didn’t have a father figure to teach me this, that and the third. My mother taught me. Just living with a whole bunch of women, I learned early on how to treat a woman, what to do, what not to do. I don’t know. Honestly, it just taught me a lot. My mom and my older sister taught me quick; at 6, 7 years old, I kind of knew what was going on around me.”
He didn’t grow up on the football field because, well, his size never fit his age. He was always too big to play in his age group. He played a few years but had to compete against kids much older. His mother got tired of him coming home beat up and made him quit football.
“She said they were too big for me. In reality, we were the same size. They were just older,” Telfort said.
In 8th grade, he earned a scholarship to a private school and played on the varsity team. The next year, he went to Miami Norland Senior High with no thoughts of playing football. On the first day of school, he was spotted by a coach while walking down the hall and told to come out for the team. He joined the junior varsity team and never looked back.
“Once I realized you could get a scholarship and your parents didn’t have to come out of their pocket to pay for school, I went ahead and gave everything I got in football,” said Telfort, who transferred to Miami Booker T. Washington High as a senior, developed into a four-star prospect, chose from more than 20 reported offers, elected not to follow the expected path to hometown Miami and eventually picked the Florida Gators.
During his first college season, Telfort was one of nine players suspended from the team for a credit card fraud scheme.
“Coming in college, I was a bit immature [and] kind of felt like I was on top of the world,” Telfort said. “I hit rock bottom. I still had some attitude about myself and still felt untouchable.”
He left Florida and enrolled at Garden City Community College in Kansas. He moved into a dorm that, Telfort said, had 20 rooms on each side of the hall with two people to a room. They shared a bathroom that had five showers, four stalls and one urinal. They stood in line to brush their teeth. They stood in line to go to the bathroom. They stood in line to take a shower.
Telfort called home on his second day and told his mother he was headed home to get a job. Football was done. She told him that’s fine as long as he found a place to live. He stayed put.
On the field, Garden City CC head coach Jeff Sims chose the tough love approach.
“He really molded me into who I am today,” Telfort said. “Just imagine, you come out to the practice field every day and there’s a guy saying, ‘You suck, you’re big for nothing, you’re this, you’re that.’ At first, it used to get to me. He told me out of his own mouth, ‘I’m basically just telling you everything you didn’t hear all your life. People were telling you what you wanted to hear.’ That just stuck with me.”
Sims left following the season, and Telfort didn’t mesh with the new staff. He transferred to Highland Community College but was unable to play that fall because he transferred within the conference. He spent that fall on the scout team. College coaches forgot about him. But Bill Clark and the UAB staff remembered him.
Vincent flew to see Telfort in January of 2020. When he landed, there was 8 or 9 inches of snow on the ground. By the time he maneuvered through the snowy roads, it was late at night. Telfort and one of his coaches were waiting.
“We sat down and talked for an hour,” Vincent said. “I’m like, here’s the deal, I’ll show you the path if you meet me halfway. He had no offers. Nobody was recruiting him. He committed [that night]. He knew this was his only shot to make it. I could tell, [from] the look in his eye, he wanted to make it. He [had] that determination to prove everybody wrong that told him he couldn’t do it.”
Telfort did everything asked of him that spring and graduated. When he arrived in Birmingham, he weighed around 370 pounds.
“He was a guy who had been out of it for a while,” said UAB Director of Athletic Performance for Football Lyle Henley. “It was a matter of getting him back in the routine of being a collegiate athlete, especially one who performs at a high level like he does. We knew what kind of potential he had. Obviously, he had talent. You could look at the way he moved around, the way he did things in the weight room. He’s a strong kid. He’s a 6-8 guy who can bend. The thing was if you want to take that next step, you have to take care of the things when you leave the building every day.”
He was not ready to fully contribute at the beginning of the 2020 season. UAB visited Miami in the second week of the season and Telfort didn’t get in the game.
“I had players telling me my time would come,” Telfort said. “I didn’t see it. I didn’t see the bigger picture at the moment. Me and my mom are like best friends, I talked to her, and she just let me know you got here off work. Nobody just pulled up to our house and said come play here. You earned everything, so go earn it again. I just went back to work.”
The staff put him in as sixth lineman in short yardage situations the following week in a lopsided win over South Alabama. Two weeks later, he was in the starting lineup. The following week, he suffered a high ankle sprain against Louisiana. He was expected to miss two weeks but was back practicing in two days. By the end of the year, he was dominating opponents.
Last season, as a full-time starter, he was good. He was not great. His objective is to be great and that’s how he approached this offseason. He adopted a healthy diet. He didn’t eat after 9 p.m. and used water to quell any late-night hunger.
“Most big guys, we tend to eat until we’re full and two to three hours later, eat until we’re full again,” Telfort said. “It’s not supposed to be a big meal every time. Once I understood that, I started seeing progress. I got stronger, faster, just overall better in shape.”
These days, he’s tipping the scale at 317 pounds. His teammates voted him one of the team captains. He’s less than 24 hours from collecting his college diploma. Life is good.
“I’ve been through a lot, I’ve seen a lot, I’m just growing every day,” Telfort said. “For me to walk across the stage and my sisters get to see that, they’ll know anything is possible. No matter what you go through in life, once you determine [to] do it, you can get it done.”
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