Most high school kids wake up in the morning to an alarm clock, set at the time of their choice, and often have the luxury of hitting the snooze button a few times. But Kayvon Thibodeaux isn’t most kids.
The No. 1-ranked player in the Class of 2019, a defensive end sought by every college program in the country, rises at 5 a.m. to the sound of text message after text message from coaches trying to persuade him to pick their school.
“I’m on the West Coast and a lot of the coaches are in the East, so I’m waking up at 5 because my phone is going off,” Thibodeaux said. “I get flooded with messages and then I can’t even reply to the people who are trying to tell me something.”
That’s normal for him.
That’s what comes with being a 6-foot-5, 234-pound prospect from South Central Los Angeles who is one of the most talented football players in the country. Thibodeaux has embraced being bombarded by college coaches over the phone and fans on social media and has dealt well with all the expectations and attention that come with the label of being the top prospect, but he says all that is just work. In his personal life, Thibodeaux doesn’t want those closest to him to think of him as the No. 1 prospect, or an outstanding football player, but rather as their friend Kayvon who happens to excel on a football field.
“It’s not even that I want a normal life, it’s that that’s not who I am,” Thibodeaux said. “The whole facade of being the No. 1 — if you look at me like that, you’re looking at something the public has made. My football life has no impact on my regular life and how I live on a day-to-day basis.”
Thibodeaux says he has a work life and a personal life; when he’s playing football or handling the recruiting process, he clocks in and puts his full focus on the task, but once that’s finished, he’s just a regular high school kid. Most of his friends don’t even talk to him about football — unless it’s Madden.
Thibodeaux’s cousin Janon Curry and one of his closest friends Zeek Bishop love playing Madden after school. When the football season is over, the three use 3 to 5 p.m. to do any homework and take naps, but from 7 to 10 they are battling it out on the virtual football field.
“That is his thing, but he’s the worst at it,” Bishop said of Thibodeaux’s Madden skills. “I’m the best, then his cousin and then him. He always plays as the defensive end, which we’re like, ‘We understand you’re a defensive end, but you can’t do that in this game.’
“Because he plays D-end, I just run the read option and he gets destroyed.”
Bishop is Thibodeaux’s teammate on the Oaks Christian football team, so they probably talk about football more than most of Thibodeaux’s other friends, but most times he’d rather talk about politics or changing his community.
“He’s a really smart guy,” Bishop said, “and when you’re the No. 1 football player in the country, sometimes that’s all you are. He doesn’t want to be seen as just a football player because he’s a lot more than that.”
Even throughout his recruiting process, Thibodeaux has tried to find time to pursue interests outside of football.
During an official visit to Florida State, Thibodeaux also stopped by FAMU, an HBCU in Tallahassee, where he toured the university’s archives that focus on African-Americans’ contributions in politics, science, education, athletics and more. While on a visit to Alabama, he stopped at Birmingham’s 16th Street Baptist Church, which was bombed in 1963 during the civil rights movement by members of the Ku Klux Klan.
“I know these schools have a great [football] program, but I feel like more student-athletes should go check out the history,” Thibodeaux said. “There’s a lot of history in the football world and college world, so every time I’m going to a place where I have an opportunity to learn some history, I like to.”
Thibodeaux wants to go into journalism to be a broadcaster once his football career is over. He has also thought about becoming an attorney and talks about getting involved with his city council and helping people who don’t have the platform he does.
“It’s because I’m trying to change the standard of athletes,” Thibodeaux said. “LeBron [James] is someone I look up to, and he set the path for setting the standard. It’s not really about football. Everyone wants to be football, football, football, but what if football doesn’t work out? Football is only the 0.1 percent, so we have to figure out another way to succeed other than football.”
“It’s not really about football. Everyone wants to be football, football, football, but what if football doesn’t work out? Football is only the 0.1 percent, so we have to figure out another way to succeed other than football.”
Making it to the NFL is still his dream, and although he might clock in and clock out, his full focus is on being the best football player he can be when he’s on the field.
He knew surrounding himself with successful people would help him achieve that goal, so he and his uncle Ivan reached out to trainer Travelle Gaines, who typically trains only NFL athletes in Calabasas, California. Gaines has worked with Reggie Bush, Todd Gurley, Saquon Barkley and a handful of other top athletes in his gym, Athletic Gaines.
When he heard from Thibodeaux, he met with him and decided he would make an exception and train the No. 1 recruit because of the sacrifice he was willing to put in and how hard he was willing to work to reach his goals.
“Kayvon said, ‘Whatever you want me to do, I just want to get better,’ so I said, ‘Be here at 6 o’clock in the morning,’ and he said he’ll be here every day,” Gaines said. “I thought since he goes to Oaks Christian, he must live around here. Then I saw he was driving from two hours away in L.A. and leaving his house at 4 a.m., I knew he was a special kid.”
Gaines has been around elite athletes but says Thibodeaux’s mind and physical ability make for something he hasn’t seen since he worked with Jaylen Brown, who plays for the Boston Celtics.
Thibodeaux takes his work life seriously and applies those principles to the recruiting process as well. Curry says his cousin will sometimes tell the family he’s going to take a few hours in his room to himself to get some work done and take care of obligations that pertain to recruiting, calling and texting coaches, calling reporters for interviews and whatever else might be asked of him.
Since Curry, only six months older than Thibodeaux, doesn’t play sports or know much about the recruiting process, he didn’t really understand what the process entailed or how in demand his cousin really was.
It wasn’t until the two took visits to a few schools that Curry realized his cousin was an anomaly.
“We went to Alabama and Florida State, and it was fun to see how much these coaches say to get these [recruits],” Curry said. “They said so much, I don’t even remember what they said. But watching that, it was like, ‘Wow, you’re really talented in football,’ and it kind of made it all real for me.”
On Dec. 15, his birthday, Thibodeaux will announce which college program he will play for — currently he is still considering Alabama, Florida State, USC and Oregon — and the recruiting process will become real for him, as well. After he announces and signs with that program during the Dec. 19-21 signing period, all the texts and phone calls will drop off.
He’ll get to campus and will no longer be the No. 1-ranked recruit, which is fine with him.
“I’m just a kid from South Central L.A. with a dream to make it to the NFL, to be successful and have a family,” Thibodeaux said. “God has blessed me with a talent, but I just want you to look at me as that’s my talent. I’m Kayvon, and football is one of my talents; I’m not Kayvon, the football player.”
That means the fans singing his praises, or opposing fans cutting him down, on social media, the other football players aiming to prove they can beat the No. 1 player at an offseason camp, or critics saying his game performances weren’t good enough for the top-ranked recruit. He hears it, but he doesn’t allow it to consume who he is.