Before Aqib Talib helped the Los Angeles Rams reach Super Bowl LIII, he was a shutdown cornerback at Berkner High School (Richardson, Texas).
He could go up and get 50-50 balls with ease on offense.
But the play head coach Jim Ledford remembers most of the athlete wasn’t on one of those two sides of the ball.
When asked, he immediately recalled a special teams play.
In the final regular-season game of the 2002 season, with a playoff spot on the line, Berkner faced Plano. With about 30 seconds to play, Plano scored a touchdown to tie the score 16-16.
Ledford: “They’re fixing to kick an extra point. Their kicker had never missed an extra point in his whole career at Plano. We called timeout, we bring Aqib over and we tell him he has to block that kick in order for us to have a chance to go to the playoffs. And we put him right in the middle and he — I won’t ever forget it. He looks at me, he goes, ‘Coach, I’ll get it.’ And I’ll be dad-gum, if he didn’t block that kick.”
The game went into overtime. Berkner won and made the playoffs.
“I won’t ever forget it,” Ledford said. “We tell him we have to have that kick and he has to get it, and he looked right at me and said ‘Coach, I’ll get it,’ and that sucker leaped from the middle and blocked that kick.”
Any way Talib could get a hand on the ball, he would.
Talib’s talent meant he would rarely see the ball on defense as quarterbacks avoided his coverage. The lack of tangible impact frustrated the athlete. But his presence at CB was much more important than it would be on the offensive side of the ball; Berkner ran the triple-option offense, so even if Talib were an every-down WR, he wouldn’t get much action.
To appease him, Ledford would occasionally put him on offense and call a play for him.
“We’d throw the ball up to him. Cause he’d just go up and get it,” Ledford said. “We weren’t real proficient at throwing the ball at that particular time. But we could throw it up and he’d go up over everybody and get it…. Every time we’d ask him to do it, he’d do it.”
At 6-foot-1 with good hands and a 38- to 40-inch vertical, Ledford thinks Talib could have also made a natural receiver.
“In today’s world, he would have probably been a wide receiver,” Ledford said.
Playing in 2003, though, Ledford saw more potential in Talib as a corner.
“We knew, if we could convince him to stay there at defensive back, because he’s about 6-foot-1.5, we knew that as he got to the college and we felt like if he worked at it he could get to the pro level, he would be something special,” Ledford said.
Talib realized the possibility too, but the eureka moment didn’t come on the football field. It came on the track.
“I don’t think Aqib realized how good he was until his junior year, probably junior year in track to be honest with you,” Ledford said. “We’d ask him to run track and he didn’t really want to and we were putting some pressure on him to do it. He finally agreed to and next thing you know he goes down the back stretch in the sprint relay and he just walks on everybody. We knew at that point that there was something special there.
“Aqib always had a lot of confidence, but when that happened, I think it really came to the forefront that he was a special athlete.”
Over Ledford’s 37 years as a head coach – 19 at Berkner — he has coached 11 players who ended up the NFL including Phil Dawson and Detron Smith. Talib’s among the most gifted, if not the most.
He has continued giving back to the school. Talib hosted a camp in which 250 students attended and when he opened an indoor facility, he invited the team to train there for the grand opening.
“The kids love him when he shows up on campus,” Ledford said. “The last two years he’s helped us get money for shoes, stuff like that for our kids each year. Nobody talks about that piece of him either, but that’s Aqib.”