HORN LAKE, Mississippi — When Andy Orr, the principal at Horn Lake High School, speaks with a freshman or a new student at the beginning of the school year, he first looks for a straight-A student who’s also the highest-rated football player in the state of Mississippi. He looks for Nakobe Dean.
Once Orr finds Dean, he points and says, “Be like him.”
Orr doesn’t point at Dean for his athletic accomplishments, though those are substantial. He points at Dean for his performance in the classroom and his behavior in the halls. He hasn’t made a B since an eighth-grade typing class. He never gets in trouble. Two years ago, when Dean had surgery for a broken left wrist, he came off the anesthesia asking for math problems.
Dean leads a disciplined life with a strict schedule. Every day, he comes home and eats a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, if not two or three. He always uses crunchy JIF peanut butter and Welch’s grape jelly on wheat or whole grain bread. He never cuts the sandwich. Once, when the family was out of grape jelly, he used maple syrup.
“I can’t stand peanut butter by itself,” Dean said as he scrunched his face.
During the school year, Dean will eat his snack, study for a few hours then work out before dinner. Sometimes he will study again. When Dean takes trips he always brings his backpack and a book in the car. If the sun sets, Dean turns on a light to continue reading.
“When we deviate from that routine he shows it,” said Dean’s mother, Neketta Dean. “He gets irritated and exasperated.”
As much as Dean maintains a consistent routine, his room at home is not a reflection of his sometimes rigid schedule. On a day in mid-July, Dean’s room is a mess. He hasn’t made his bed. Random objects litter his bedside table. Clothes begin to form a pile.
While Dean stands in the doorway of his room, clutching the frame as he rocks back and forth, a smoke alarm in need of a new battery beeps periodically behind the door. Neketta bought batteries a while ago. They are somewhere in Dean’s room. He can’t find them.
“I have to clean it today ‘cause my mom will kill me,” Dean said.
Every semester since sixth grade, Neketta has rewarded a perfect transcript with $100. She doesn’t give allowances. “If you want to earn some money then let me see your grades,” she said. She has given him more than $1,000.
“I always was scared if I didn’t make that grade she was going to keep me from going to practice,” Dean said.
Dean turns to leave his room and walk downstairs, but before he does, someone finds the batteries for the smoke alarm. They were hiding on top of his dresser, under a pile of recruiting mail.
Dean could brag about his life. He has dozens of scholarship offers from premier college football teams. He’s a versatile, five-star linebacker who had 147 tackles (25 for a loss) with nine sacks as a junior. But when colleges send mail to Horn Lake, he picks it up, puts it in his book bag and doesn’t say a word.
He has whittled his list to Alabama, Georgia, Texas A&M, Mississippi State, Ole Miss, Florida State and LSU. He won’t make a decision until December. As he considers schools, he looks for the best education he can find — he wants to major in engineering or pre-med and is interested in prosthetics — without sacrificing his chance to win a national championship.
“There’s a lot of 6-foot, 220-pound kids playing football,” Horn Lake head coach Brad Boyette said. “They’re all over the country. When you put in his athletic ability, his speed, a 41-inch vertical — this is why this guy is so special. He has unbelievable talent.”
Dean has a vision for his life, but there are temptations everywhere. He has seen crime up close and once left a party because someone started shooting a gun. He’s aware of the pitfalls that could derail his life. The key is to avoid them.
So even though Dean has already accomplished so much, he approaches his life as if he has accomplished nothing. In one corner of his room, blankets and a comforter cover Dean’s old trophies. He realized if he spends his life pursuing more of them, he’ll never feel fulfilled.
“I used to glorify trophies,” Dean said. “Now I want to throw them away.”