DeKALB – He knew it was cold up north. At least that’s what he’d been told. Raised in central North Carolina, Jasmin Hopkins’ childhood was green Christmases and muggy summers. Snow was a novelty. “Beautiful” lasted all year.
He couldn’t picture northern Illinois in January, not without ever visiting. But he tried. Before leaving the first time, Hopkins grabbed a faux fur hat from a teammate. It was supposed to be a joke, the fluffy flaps covering his ears sure to draw a few laughs. He thought it was perfect to break the ice. He wasn’t seeking protection from it.
Hopkins arrived in DeKalb, wearing only a sweatshirt because he didn’t own a coat. His Blackberry read minus 3 degrees. With the wind, it felt colder. The hat wasn’t coming off.
“I swear I never knew it could get to the negatives,” Hopkins said. “I never knew that in my entire life. I just thought it went to zero.”
He was shocked, but he didn’t need convincing.
Linebacker Jordan Delegal hosted Hopkins the first night. When it was time to leave for the hotel, Hopkins tried to open Delegal’s car door. It didn’t budge. Delegal told him it was unlocked ... and frozen.
When he entered the hotel room, Hopkins reached for the phone and dialed mom.
“It’s too cold,” he told her. “I can’t do it. It’s impossible.”
That night, a promising NIU career almost derailed before it could begin. But for Hopkins, culture shock is nothing new. Neither is adversity.
Friends and family describe Hopkins as the most motivated person they’ve ever met. He’s been told his 5-foot-9, 180-pound body is too small, and refused to listen. He’s persevered through junior college, endured gut-wrenching losses in football and life and adjusted to fatherhood – all in four years.
All to end up here, the starting running back on what could be the first NIU football team to win a Mid-American Conference championship since 1983 when the Huskies play Ohio on Friday in Detroit.
Just like his small frame, Helen Clark told her son to let the cold be someone else’s concern. Before saying goodnight, she reiterated the lesson she’d always taught. Never let another person predict your future, she said. You hold your destiny in your hands.
“You have to make the most of it,” she told him, knowing he would. It was the only reason Hopkins ever made it to DeKalb.
‘SOLD ME A DREAM’
Hopkins stepped out of the rented Chrysler 300, and the odor was unmistakable. Even now, more than three years later, he remembers his first impression of Fort Scott, Kan.
“It smelled like cow poop,” Hopkins said. “I was like, ‘Oh my God, what have I gotten myself into?’”
It was a place Hopkins never expected.
Grades prevented him from receiving a Division I scholarship out of East Gaston (N.C.) High School. When he arrived at North Carolina Tech, a Charlotte-based preparatory school Hopkins hoped was a direct means to an end, he learned a new NCAA rule forbid prep school players from avoiding junior college.
Hopkins saw the long, winding path ahead and preferred something simpler. He was finished with football. Maybe he’d work in retail. Maybe he’d flip burgers. But the words gridiron and pigskin didn’t figure in his future.
“All I can say is I was lost in my life at that time. I really was,” Hopkins said.
Then one of his Tech teammates, Cordell Gibson, told him about Fort Scott Community College. He had three days to pack everything he owned and make the 17-hour drive to the next stop in his college football career. With a little coaxing, Hopkins agreed. Gibson rented the car.
“He sold me a dream,” Hopkins said. “He was like, ‘Bro, they’ve got turf field and everything.’ “
Hopkins stepped out of the 300, into a place that was flat and boring. The campus had three buildings – one dormitory, gymnasium and facility for classrooms. Hopkins said the McDonalds passed as fine dining. Walmart was the town mall.
“And that’s pretty much it,” he said.
When he neared the football stadium, he called head coach Jeff Simms to ask where to go. Surely, these cow pastures weren’t the destination. Simms said he saw the rented 300, and Hopkins found out the dream wasn’t so grand.
“One thing about being out there,” Hopkins said, “it does help you focus on school and football. There’s nothing there to distract you, at all. You can’t go out to a party and drink. You have to do something really stupid to get in trouble out there.”
That, he learned, was the point.
With Hopkins, Simms admits he’s “blind with loyalty.” The first thing he says is he can’t contribute to a newspaper story on his former star running back for space reasons – he could fill 100 pages with compliments. He calls Hopkins an “oompa loompa who plays like Shaq.”
Simms wasn’t always so fond.
Hopkins, Simms said, was discovered like many great players – by accident. He left for Fort Scott with a linebacker and defensive lineman, both Tech teammates. Simms was more interested in them. More than one person needed coaxing.
“The first time I saw Jasmin Hopkins on film, I had the same impression everyone else has: ‘I don’t want that itty, bitty running back,’ “ Simms said. “Really, he was just a bonus.”
A bonus Simms never intended to keep. He made it perfectly clear. Every day, he told Hopkins he was no good. Too small, too slow, too soft. The insults never ended.
“He’s not a guy who does well with compliments. He really doesn’t,” Simms said. “You have to challenge him. If somebody would’ve always been around me and Jas, they probably would have thought I hated him.”
At first, Simms’ disses were uncensored honesty. Fort Scott had a 12-man rule, meaning only 12 out-of-state players were allowed on their roster. He wasn’t wasting a precious spot on that itty, bitty running back. During practice, he got in the freshman’s face and promised to recruit someone better. Those first couple weeks, Simms guesses there were 15 competitors.
“Ain’t no way I’m making this team,” Hopkins told himself each night. After three days, he called home. Mom said he could do what he wanted. It was his destiny, not hers. One day, Hopkins watched his Tech teammates return home. They had enough.
He stayed. He persevered. And, 15 challengers down, the roster spot was his. When Simms told Hopkins a couple days before fall camp, he didn’t mince words.
“If you make the 12, you’re not allowed to get hurt,” Simms told him.
“I know,” Hopkins said.
“I don’t think you understand,” Simms reiterated. “If you break your leg, you’re going back out and running the next play. No excuses.”
The conversation triggered an attitude. He was too small, too easy to overlook, to spend time in the training room instead of on the field. The next two years, Hopkins led the nation in carries and yards. Simms says he was never hurt, or at least he never admitted to being hurt.
“Even in his sophomore year, because he was carrying the ball 30 to 40 times a game for us, I would take him out of practice to save him,” Simms said. “But he would fight to get back into the reps because he was scared somebody was going to beat him out.”
Then Simms paused.
“That’s what I love about Jasmin Hopkins.”
The attitude carried over to NIU. When former coach Jerry Kill saw Hopkins in the training room, he threatened to call Simms. This season, Hopkins played through a hip pointer and other “banged up” injuries. He said he didn’t feel healthy until the past two games. But he still is second in the Mid-American Conference with 16 touchdowns, and second team all-MAC. With two games left, he also is on pace to surpass 1,000 yards.
Teammates and coaches aren’t surprised. It’s part of Hopkins’ natural competitiveness, and they’ve seen it in the biggest games.
'HE'S ALWAYS HAD THAT ATTITUDE'
The “snow angels” weren’t meant as disrespect. Hopkins understood, even as they blurred through his tears.
Emotions were intense, and they varied dramatically. This was the NJCAA Football Championship game. A fight broke out between Blinn and Fort Scott prior to kickoff, and the ensuing four quarters were like two battering rams bludgeoning each other. Fort Scott lost, 31-26, after an 84-yard punt return touchdown with 15 seconds left.
The winning team’s star, quarterback Cam Newton, stormed the field. In euphoria, Newton laid flat and motioned his arms and legs into snow angels, the same celebration the future Heisman winner and No. 1 overall NFL draft pick flaunted after leading Auburn to the SEC championship and BCS title the following year. Hopkins, the game’s unanimous MVP even in defeat, trudged through rain and sleet to his locker room.
“Everybody knew he was the best player on that field,” Simms said of his star, who finished with 188 yards on 35 carries. “He played in the same game as Cam Newton, was a unanimous selection over him … and his team lost. How about that?”
It would be impressive to anyone else. Hopkins didn’t care, especially not in the aftermath.
Clark stood under the gray sky outside the Fort Scott locker room for a half hour. Hopkins’ teammates came out without him. She asked where her son was, and they said he was still in his pads, blaming himself.
She was worried about that.
“He was just a person who, if they didn’t win a game, he’d take the whole game on his shoulders like everything was his fault,” Clark said. “He’s always had that attitude.”
Another half hour passed before Hopkins walked through the door. Clark could tell he’d been crying. “We should have won that game,” he said, over and over, each time shaking his head in disbelief.
One year later, he remembered the scene while exiting the Northern Illinois sideline at Ford Field in Detroit. The Huskies last-second loss to Miami (Ohio) in the 2010 Mid-American Conference title game felt like watching the same horror movie again. A fluke play cost everything. Shock ensued. Tears fell because, like the junior college national championship, Hopkins had no clue how else to react.
“It was the same thing,” he said. “The same thing.”
But when he left with his mother on that crummy, 2009 day, NIU hadn’t even entered his mind. By then, Hopkins had proved himself – at least at the junior college level. He was named the National Junior College Player of the Year and wanted to head home to North Carolina, until he learned the Tar Heels weren’t interested in a junior college back. In fact, no BCS programs were interested. A handful of mid-majors, all with warm-weather climates, offered a scholarships. That was it.
A friend of former NIU coach Jerry Kill, Simms told Hopkins he’d “be an idiot” not to head north. That’s how he found himself thawing inside a DeKalb hotel room. The cold only partly induced Hopkins’ homesickness. He was new to numb toes, but it wasn’t the hardest part. That had nothing to do with what was at Northern Illinois, and everything to do with what wasn’t.
Hopkins’ son, Julian Tallent, 2, was born during his second junior college season. At first, it wasn’t a joyous occasion. When Hopkins called Mom with the news, his voice shook. Clark cringed.
Now, Clark is a proud grandmother. Then, she couldn’t see past the hard work that inevitably would be wasted, the rushing yards that would lead to a dead-end job. The long, winding path Hopkins started after North Carolina Tech wasn’t meant to lead to nowhere.
“I can’t describe the feeling when it’s your child, and you send them off to better themselves, and then this happens,” she said. “You’re mad at first because you’re scared that it’s going to interrupt his life with him moving forward. I was scared he was going to quit school, come home and go to a regular job. I didn’t want to talk to him.”
After “a few choice words,” Clark hung up. She didn’t talk to her son for a week. She needed to reflect.
“I had to come to the realization that we’re all human, and we all make mistakes,” Clark said. “I can’t live his life for him. He had to do that.”
Simms had seen the football-star-to-dead-end-job routine before. Too many times, he says. And too often, it plays out the same way.
“Sometimes, they can use a birth of a baby or tough circumstances as an excuse to fail,” Simms said. “The truth is, no you can’t. Because you can’t get anything but a $7-an-hour job. You’re no help. In fact, you’re a burden because you’ll be another mouth to feed.
“What I tried to get him to understand when he was at Fort Scott was that he wasn’t in a position to take care of anybody at that time.”
Simms made sure Hopkins’ focused on football. For Julian. For their future. To this day, that hasn’t changed.
“He’s playing for more than himself,” NIU running backs coach Eddie Faulkner said. “You see that out on the field, 100 percent. He’s got a chip on his shoulder like he’s playing for something more than himself.”
‘LIFE GOES ON’
After a year as backup, Hopkins was the man. He had won a position battle in spring practices and showed new NIU coach Dave Doeren he was more than a little guy. Fall camp began in August, and everything – finally – was going smoothly.
Then a Facebook friend posted the harrowing news, and his Twitter feed began filling up. Nick O’Brien, Hopkins’ childhood friend, was the latest U.S. soldier killed in combat.
Details trickled. O’Brien had been stationed in Afghanistan. He was on foot patrol, and there was an ambush. Others were injured. O’Brien was dead.
“It was really hard with him having a funeral and I couldn’t go to it,” Hopkins said. “It hurt a lot because you see the tweets and the statuses every day. Sometimes it’s just hard to get past it. But, life goes on.”
A few weeks later, Hopkins started a Division I game for the first time. It was against Army. O’Brien was a Marine, but the significance was not lost. With his son in the stands – the only game he’s attended this season because it costs roughly $500 of Hopkins’ financial aid for a round trip – Hopkins had what was a career-high 138 rushing yards. The next week at Kansas, he scored a touchdown.
In the end zone, Hopkins saluted.
“It’s just my way of paying respects,” he said.
He pays his respects every day. O’Brien was a former baseball teammate, a talented player who had scholarship offers before joining the military. Hopkins plays for him, and so much more.
The doubters have come and been converted. Hopkins faces another this week. Ohio coach Frank Solich said he wants to limit quarterback Chandler Harnish’s rushing yards Friday in the MAC Championship game. More disrespect.
“That’s a great feeling, honestly,” Hopkins said. “I’ll get a chance to really prove myself.”
Now, Hopkins is close to contentment. His long path led to an incredible opportunity, a chance to be the starting running back on NIU’s first MAC champion since 1983.
Hopkins doesn’t know what’s next, but he knows he’ll have a career beyond fast food. He’ll graduate in May with a communications degree. Next semester, he’s hoping to get an invite to the NFL combine in Indianapolis, a chance to again prove he plays bigger than he looks.
It’s hard for Simms to doubt his former running back’s chances. His mind traces back to a conversation he had with Hopkins’ coach at Tech, Tim Newman. Before coming to Fort Scott, Newman promised Hopkins would be the best player Simms ever coached.
Simms scoffed. There was plenty of competition. He already had watched defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul leave his program for South Florida and eventually become the New York Giants’ first-round draft pick. He coached Lavonte Davis, one of the most productive linebackers in Nebraska history who likely will be a first rounder.
“But his coach was right, 100 percent,” Simms said. “Jas was the best football player on our team. He’s a guy that nobody wanted, and he’s proven everybody wrong. Nobody will want him in the NFL, and he’ll find a way to make it into the league.”
But Simms snapped back into form before making any guarantees.
“I’m going to say no,” Simms said. “because I know that if I say no he’ll prove me wrong.”