How Eagles' Nakobe Dean embodied the new life of a college football star

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Editor's note: This story originally published on Dec. 29, 2021. Nakobe Dean was selected by the Philadelphia Eagles with the 83rd overall pick in the 2022 NFL draft.

ATHENS, Ga. -- Nakobe Dean's eyes are glued to the TV above him. Fresh off football practice and film sessions, the Georgia linebacker is in the middle of Pauley's, a loud restaurant in downtown Athens. The Monday night game in late November is on every screen, but tonight Dean's the main event, the reason everyone is there, wearing Georgia red, dropping off canned goods at the front of the store before coming up to say hello and take a picture.

In the midst of all the hoopla, Dean still can't turn off the part of his brain that gravitates toward the ball. As the TV crew breaks down Tom Brady highlights -- the Tampa Bay Buccaneers are playing the New York Giants, who have two Georgia alums, J.R. Reed and Tae Crowder -- Dean watches intently. Soon, in the middle of a play, he catches himself telling the linebacker where to go.

"I can't look at football and not think, 'What was supposed to happen right there?' or 'Why did you do that?'" Dean says later that night. "That instinct is just in me now."

Those who have known Dean since he was just a kid growing up in Horn Lake, Mississippi, would argue it has always been in him. But things are indeed different now. Offenses are more complex. Classes are harder. Life is busier. Stakes are higher.

The potential is, too -- along with the money. That's certainly new, or at least different. Ever since the NCAA approved name, image and likeness deals for college athletes in June, the money has been moving in broad daylight. Without any structured oversight from the NCAA and loose restrictions varying from state to state, the world of NIL has become, in the words of one marketing agent, the Wild West.

For players like Dean, NIL has added another dimension to their college experience. Navigating it has been both a challenge and an opportunity. From figuring out where the money is coming from, to where it's going and how it'll be taxed, to balancing it with all other requirements, football or not, players have realized they need a plan.

"When NIL deals started rolling in, my priorities were having them still let me focus on football and whether there was a way to give through the deals," Dean says.

As Dean stands at the advent of a new era for college athletes, he is playing out an ideal year in Athens. On the field, he has been one of the best defenders in the country, winner of the Butkus award, two games away from a national championship and a likely first-round selection in the upcoming NFL draft. Off the field, the new NIL rules allowed him to live out the values his mother, a lifetime community worker, instilled in him from an early age.

"THAT'S NO. 17."

A young boy says the words quietly like he's trying not to get caught. Dean is ready to tour RWDC, a biotechnology facility just 10 minutes outside downtown Athens, with 10 local kids, his mother, Neketta, and his girlfriend, Gabby. Dean, who is a mechanical engineering major, slips on a fluorescent green hard hat and tilts it forward just enough so that, somehow, it looks cooler on him than it does on anyone else in the room.

Even though the purpose of this trip is for Dean to show the kids a little more about engineering in hopes of one day improving diversity in the field, it's Dean who is the kid in a candy shop. As the hum of machines settles into the backdrop of pipes and giant vats set the scene, Dean studies samples of biodegradable straws and asks one of the company's founders questions about the process. He pulls one of the kids aside and tells him about how some of the machines work. You almost get the sense that if he had to, Dean would find just as much fulfillment here as he does on the field.

"He's a math whiz," Neketta says. "This is a kid who won a math competition in sixth grade that I didn't even know he had entered. I'd get his exams back and it would be 27 out of 27 correct. At 8 years old, he was already thinking in percentages. When it came to numbers, he always had the right answer."

In the past, No. 17 would have been able to visit the engineering facility, make informal connections and even get the ball rolling on the idea of an internship program once he made it to the NFL. Now, though, Dean can do all of those things and actually start and help fund internships for student-athletes right away, while also discussing the possibility of investing in the company in the near future.

"Being a football player here, it's kind of hard to figure out internships or co-ops if you want to do something else besides play," Dean says. "So I wanted to make that easier while also showing these kids that, even though they might want to grow up and play sports right now, there are also other avenues you can use to be successful if you don't make it on the field."

Dean has made it there, though. To watch him play football is to understand that though the grass under his feet is the same as his opponents, and even his teammates, he is operating on a different plane altogether. Whether by positioning or speed, Dean always appears to be at the right place at the right time -- right where the ball is. In 13 games this season, he has recorded 61 tackles, five sacks and two interceptions, including a pick-six. This seeming omnipresence has been there from the beginning, and it's easy for Dean and those around him to draw a line from the way his brain works in the classroom to how it does on the field.

"It's just helped me understand scheme and strategy faster," Dean says. "Growing up, I was always able to understand the little stuff coaches wanted me to do on certain plays quicker than most."

Brad Boyette, Dean's high school coach at Horn Lake High in Mississippi, remembers showing up to the annual practice the high school would hold with the eighth-graders from the local middle school and being immediately taken by Dean's ability to pick up not just drills, but coverages that would normally take kids at his level a few days of practice.

"Some kids mature early and they're physically ready, but there's no way they can handle the playbook and the calls and all the things that are going on," Boyette says. "But to have both at that age, that has only happened to me one time, and it was with Nakobe."

Dean became the first ninth-grader Boyette ever started on varsity. As a 15-year-old, he could hang with 18-year-olds physically and gain an edge mentally with the way he viewed the game. When Horn Lake made it to the state title game that season, Dean was reading opponents' plays to perfection. On a particular key play in that game, he recognized the motion the quarterback made and broke from his position to cover a surprise wheel route pass perfectly. Afterward, Boyette asked him what led him to make the move.

"I didn't think the safety would remember that was coming," Dean told Boyette. "Because we only went over it one time."

NEKETTA IS IN her element. There are hundreds of canned goods sprawled out on a table outside of the Boys & Girls Club in Athens from the watch party the night before. Along with turkeys donated by Trader Joe's and Athens Market through another NIL partnership and a $100 shopping gift card coming directly from Dean's NIL earnings, they'll make a package that will be donated to a dozen families in need in the area.

First, though, things need to get organized, and Neketta is taking over, calling out orders and almost doing a play-by-play of what's going on. "We gotta check the dates on the cans, and if the cans have dents, throw them out," she says. "We can't be giving that to people."

From the other end of the table, Dean smiles and quips, "Coach them up, mama."

As those on hand begin sifting through the cans, Neketta is organizing an assembly line in order to separate beans from soups and vegetables from mac and cheese. "We don't want people going home with seven peanut butters," Neketta says. "Canned food drives, I've done about a thousand of them. That's my thing."

What comes second nature to Dean is what Neketta has been doing her whole life. No matter what kind of resources their family had, her grandmother used to make them donate their time, at the very least. Once she had kids of her own and had to raise them as a single mom, Neketta worked long hours as the director of community affairs in Tunica County, Mississippi. This meant every time there was a community event, everyone knew Neketta's kids would be there. "They were community service kids," she says.

Neketta once organized a 5K run aimed at bringing together police and first responders and the local high school football team, which Dean was a part of. Her goal was two-fold -- raise money for the football program and bring officers into a shared space with a football team that was largely Black.

"You had police pulling Black people over for no reason," she says. "And so I wanted them to see each other in a different environment."

The Dean kids would not only shadow their mom through her endeavors, but get involved, too. They'd go to nursing homes and bring gifts and spend time playing games with those there. They would volunteer at the homeless shelters and partake in community cleanups or, in the case of Dean, volunteer at the local youth football program when he was in high school. As Dean got older, he realized that they too had been the beneficiaries of other people's service when he was younger.

"You're not getting rich off community service," Neketta says. "You gotta be committed and you gotta do it selflessly."

So it was no surprise that when NIL became a reality and offers started coming in, the Deans would look at it not as a way to primarily make money, but rather as a way to keep doing what they had been doing ever since Dean was a kid. It started first with a few deals before the season, then, after Georgia beat Clemson, there were more offers. Those doubled once Georgia got to No. 1 in the nation and only kept growing from that point.

Through Neketta's experience and their planning, the Deans have been able to establish a synergy between the NIL deals and the things they want to do with the money. The watch parties have become vehicles to get game tickets for local kids as well as the canned foods for families in need. The money from deals with Georgia Dairy, Eleveo, Athens Market, Publix and others has led to Dean being able to sponsor a bed for two months at the Athens homeless shelter. And the money from other smaller deals or matching by companies, including his agency, have allowed Neketta to also do what she does best: more.

The day of the watch party, while Dean was busy with practice and film sessions, Neketta was cooking up her own plan, trying to figure out how they could squeeze every bit out of their resources. The original plan was to get 10 meals from the restaurant that was going to host Monday night's watch party and take them to the shelter. But after a man walked up to her asking for money for blankets ahead of the cold front, she took the leftover money from NIL deals and, with Dean's approval, bought blankets and Chick-fil-A sandwiches and made hygiene packages to give out at the shelter. There, she stood not just handing things out but talking to people about whatever was going on in their lives.

Later that night, when Dean is able to rejoin following practice, film sessions, training room work and positional meetings, he is told how the impromptu giveaway went. He smiles. "My mom said I would have loved it."

THE FOLLOWING DAY, a few hours before the turkey giveaway, the Deans are back at the homeless shelter. They're getting a tour of the facility and seeing the bed that Dean is sponsoring. His contribution will help upkeep the bed, food and showers for one individual for two months. At both the homeless shelter and the Boys & Girls Club, staff members are quick to point out how, in the past, athletes from the area have been able to volunteer their time but not their resources in this fashion.

"None of this would have been possible or as impactful without the five to 10 NIL deals he has," Neketta says. "For us, [NIL] hasn't really been about making money, it's about using this platform to help others."

Dean, of course, is not alone in this endeavor. A number of athletes around the country have taken their NIL opportunities and flip them into impact beyond their own. Michigan running back Blake Corum also donated turkeys during the Thanksgiving holiday to families in need. Iowa's Tyler Linderbaum raised $30,000 through an NIL deal for the children's hospital.

"We were at the forefront of it. I had great people around me and we were able to execute a plan," former Oregon defensive lineman Kayvon Thibodeaux tells ESPN. Thibodeaux had numerous NIL deals including his own NFT and cryptocurrency. "I feel like we set the bar, and now there's going to be more opportunities, athletes are going to be more confident taking them."

"For 99.9% of these kids, it's not necessarily like life-changing money, so they have to understand they need to put half of it away for taxes," says Zach Soskin, who founded a management company that facilitates NIL deals for college athletes. Because of the NCAA's sudden decision to allow NIL deals, the educational aspect has been done on the fly. Some programs have partnered with companies, while others have brought in speakers. For Dean and his mother, this meant getting in touch with an agency that understood their plan and motivation. "Nakobe is 20 and has no kids," Neketta said. "So if he's going to have to pay most of the NIL money back, why not use it to give in a different way?"

One of the benefits of NIL, Soskin points out, is that players are having to learn how to manage money at lower stakes than they will have to in the NFL. The jump from no compensation to millions was, at times, a culture shock. As bigger brands settle into the NIL game, boosters get more involved and players get more creative, the money is bound to get bigger, Soskin notes. But for now, players are able to transition to the pros with some experience, knowledge, connections and at least some money on their side.

"I think it's great what they're doing, but it's worth noting that we're now counting on these 21-year-olds who are making sometimes tens of thousands of dollars to be the ones that are giving back and doing good," Soskin says. "How about the rest of the boosters and the coaches? it's always funny when we look for young kids to be the best example for all of us."

AS THEY GET ready to leave the shelter, Dean signs his sponsored bed, and a woman who is staying there asks him to sign two Georgia hats for two girls who were unable to be there. Neketta gives her a hug. "Trust me, this won't be the last time we're back here," she says.

Dean views his service as a natural byproduct of where he has ended up. For a kid who used to walk around Horn Lake talking with his childhood friends about how they'd make it out, or one who saw his stipend money at Georgia as more money than he'd ever had, Dean is still wide-eyed about where he finds himself.

It's why he eventually wants to start a scholarship at his high school, and use his engineering degree to make prosthetics for athletes who need them. After all, he was once that kid at the local Boys & Girls Club going on field trips like the ones he took the kids from Athens on, taking everything in and wondering who he could one day be.

As the Deans walk outside, the woman from the shelter turns to another man who's standing by the door. "That's Kobe Dean," she tells him. The man smiles. "I know."