KAYVON THIBODEAUX SAT in Mario Cristobal’s office on a recruiting visit, searching for answers.
As the No. 1 prospect in the country, he was trying to wade through the thousands of text messages and recruiting pitches from coaches hoping to persuade him to attend their schools.
But Thibodeaux was tired of coaches telling him how they could win a championship together, or how they could help him reach the NFL. He told Cristobal he wanted to go in a different direction. What can Oregon do for Thibodeaux off the field? How can he make a difference in the community? How supportive would Cristobal be in Thibodeaux exploring his interests outside of football?
“I remember looking at him thinking, he’s got to wake up to 450,000 text messages with the same redundant recruiting blah,” Cristobal said. “And I sat there with him and had a really good conversation about the plan for him and how he wanted to prove his best to Oregon. It was about betterment, it was about working at the craft, and I thought that was huge.”
Cristobal answered his questions openly and honestly, saying the star recruit would have every opportunity to explore his dreams as long as he gave everything he had on the field.
Some college coaches questioned Thibodeaux’s love of football because of how much he spoke about his other interests and ambitions. He loves football, but he knows he has an opportunity to be a positive example for the youth in his neighborhood. He wants to have the financial stability to start a charter school for young kids, design his own shoe and be a role model for children who come from a similar background as he did in Los Angeles.
Thibodeaux led the Pac-12 in quarterback pressures (34) and quarterback hurries (27) a year ago. Though he has battled an ankle sprain as a junior this year for ninth-ranked Oregon, which hosts Cal on Friday (10:30 ET, ESPN/ESPN App), he has solidified himself as one of the top projected picks in next year’s NFL draft.
But Thibodeaux doesn’t define himself by his sport, and he hasn’t scratched the surface of what he wants to accomplish on — and especially off — the field.
“The only reason people care about this story is because of football, and the only way I’ll be able to open a school and do anything I want to do is through football,” Thibodeaux said. “I’ll never lose sight that football is what got me here and that football is the platform.”
ANTONIO PATTERSON WAS teaching at Angeles Mesa Elementary School when he saw Thibodeaux for the first time. Patterson saw him towering over all the other children and thought he was a teacher’s aide.
Thibodeaux was in the third grade.
Once he realized he was actually a student, Patterson wrote his name and number on a Little Caesar’s napkin because he ran a youth football program and thought this adult-sized child should play. He greeted Thibodeaux and his mother, and after introducing Thibodeaux to football at 8 years old, he became somewhat of a mentor on and off the field.
Patterson knew Thibodeaux was special early on. He remembers watching Thibodeaux, at nearly 6-feet tall in fifth grade, prancing out onto his elementary school’s stage, wearing a reindeer costume as Rudolph, guiding his classmates and Santa Claus in a school play.
As if he needed anything else to make him stand out among his peers, his personality and confidence shined as bright as his red nose. Even at a young age, there was always more to Thibodeaux than his size.
“I always tell him that he’s going to be the president one day, because he has the gift of gab,” Patterson said. “Growing up, I always reminded him that he was going to be the biggest person in the room, he was going to be the loudest, the most charismatic, but just make sure that the things that come out of your mouth are trustworthy. Kayvon is before his time, he understands the umbrella he has and all the people who are under him that rely on him and that umbrella.”
“The only reason people care about this story is because of football, and the only way I’ll be able to open a school and do anything I want to do is through football. I’ll never lose sight that football is what got me here and that football is the platform.”
Oregon defensive end Kayvon Thibodeaux
Part of why he understands that is because he hasn’t forgotten where he came from.
Thibodeaux grew up with his mom, who was a cosmetologist who worked from home, in South Central Los Angeles, “a place where children are susceptible to negative influences,” Thibodeaux said. His dad lived across town and helped when he could. Money was tight and everyone around him was trying to get by.
Patterson used to take his son, Justin, and Thibodeaux to McDonald’s when Thibodeaux was young. Not having much money, Patterson would get each kid a salad and one chicken sandwich to split up among the three of them.
He’d go into Little Caesar’s, order a pizza and ask for the pizza to get cut twice as many times as it normally would so the kids thought they were each getting two pieces of pizza. It wasn’t until Thibodeaux got to middle school that he realized what was happening.
“He knows that if he had access to some of the things he would be able to provide, the kids around here will be fast-tracked,” Patterson said. “There was no blueprint, there was no one that came before him that reached back and gave back. But he sees the difference and what help could do, and whenever you see a difference, it brings light to the situation.”
Patterson and the coaches around him figured out very early that Thibodeaux was gifted on the field. High school coaches from Dorsey, Crenshaw and Junipero Serra were all in packed stands to see him in his under-14 league.
Thibodeaux started out at Dorsey High School, playing as a tight end and defensive end on the freshman team until the playoffs, when he played in three games on varsity. In those three games, he recorded nine sacks.
He had 17 sacks as a sophomore at Dorsey, but transferred to Oaks Christian in Westlake Village, California, to play football in 2017. He knew transferring would give him a better opportunity to achieve his goals. He grew into his position and into his body, and as he worked his way to the No. 1 ranking, his recruitment took off.
The differences between the schools and surrounding areas were night and day, as some of the students at Oak Christian drove more expensive cars than the teachers.
The annual tuition at Oaks Christian runs $37,225, and the average home price in Westlake Village is $1.2 million, according to Zillow.
“Going from [South Central] to [Oaks Christian] will show you the slated opportunities and resources available,” Thibodeaux said.
THIBODEAUX KNEW THERE was a target on his back once he got to Oregon, coming in as a five-star, all-everything, top-ranked recruit.
“He didn’t think of himself as being special and he didn’t want special treatment, nothing like that from the coaches,” Oregon offensive line coach Alex Mirabal said. “I thought that was very refreshing, and I think that’s why he’s been able to establish himself and become a heck of a football player because he’s always constantly yearning to learn.”
At the time, Oregon had a veteran offensive line group with Penei Sewell, who was selected in the first round of this year’s NFL draft, Shane Lemieux, who was picked by the New York Giants in the fifth round of the draft, and a handful of other established players.
Thibodeaux treated each practice session like a series of game situations, which at first created battles and rose tempers.
“He came in right from the start, ready to take somebody’s job,” Sewell said. “I remember one practice, he got in a little scuffle with the offensive linemen. He came ready to play, wanting to play right away.”
It was a minor mix-up that didn’t escalate to anything notable, but it was the start of Thibodeaux becoming a leader on the team and pushing his teammates to compete at the highest level.
“He really doesn’t want any more hype, he just wants to go play his best football,” Cristobal said. “He’s working right now at an ungodly rate, like what he did the other day in the weight room. That guy couldn’t squat 405 [pounds] when he got here, and yesterday he was doing single leg reverse lunges with 405 reps.
“I’ve never seen that before — that’s different.”
Thibodeaux constantly asked Mirabal about what he saw on film from the opponent’s offensive line as he scouted games. He pushed his teammates — and himself — in the weight room and on the practice field.
“I never bragged and acted like I was the guy coming in, because we all know high school means nothing,” said Thibodeaux, who led the team in sacks (three) and tackles for loss (9.5) last season. “So, it was just that it was no fear. It was, I realized that I’m here now and nobody cares how old you are. If you’re on the field, you’re playing and it better be your best.”
Thibodeaux’s charisma makes others naturally gravitate toward him, and his work ethic sets the tone for what is to be expected at Oregon. He went from being a freshman learning from veterans to a leader in the stat book as a sophomore to the team leader younger players look up to.
“Some of these freshmen are like, ‘Wow, that’s Kayvon Thibodeaux,'” Cristobal said. “His legacy is going to be how he does things, because when you’re that prominent player, there’s a large percentage of guys who are going to do exactly what you do or mimic you in some way. I think he’s realizing that, and I think that’s probably the best part.”
He still has accomplishments on the field he has yet to achieve. Thibodeaux’s first goal is to win a national championship. His second goal is to win the Heisman Trophy, which would make him only the second defensive player to do so. He’s aiming for 20 sacks and perfection.
What he doesn’t want, yet, is to think of what comes after college football.
He’s being talked about as the potential No. 1 pick in the NFL draft, but similar to his recruitment, he only sees that as hype. It’s all just a distraction that could take him off of his path and away from the goals in front of him.
“[The NFL] is so far away that I have to tackle this moment. I’ve probably realized if you take it too broad, you’ll miss everything in front of you,” Thibodeaux said. “I feel like there are a lot of stories of guys who are highly rated before the season and they look too far ahead that when the season comes, they don’t perform. Social media is fake and the hype isn’t real, so I just focus my attention on what needs my focus so my coach, my school, everything that I’ve done so far has me aligned to focus and really hone in on this season.”
Football has always been what Thibodeaux did, not who he was. Holding that mentality gave him the notion that the more success he found, the bigger the platform he would have.
EDUCATION IS A big part of Thibodeaux’s focus — he believes it is the most important way he can make a difference — and he eventually wants to start a charter school for kids, similar to LeBron James‘ I Promise School. Thibodeaux wants to show kids that come from the same situation he did that they can make it too.
He wants to start by giving grants, a scholarship fund and educational opportunities to those less fortunate, and eventually grow his efforts into a full-fledged school.
“One thing I’ve realized is what we need to change the community is the education system and with our youth in the future,” Thibodeaux said. “I’ve been having people pointing me in the right direction on how to open a school. Hopefully I’ll get in touch with LeBron one day, be able to figure out how he did it and the ups and downs he had.”
He’ll likely make enough money in the NFL to donate and give back, but the opportunity to profit off his name, image and likeness have also helped. He has partnered with United Airlines, released an NFT with Nike founder Phil Knight and designer Tinker Hatfield, and started his own cryptocurrency. All of those contracts, which amount to roughly $400,000, are helping him get closer to his goal.
“I have made two major allocations towards my foundations, the first being the piece of art created by Tinker Hatfield was auctioned off and the earnings will be put toward the foundation,” Thibodeaux said. “As of now, aside from opening a charter school, which allows underprivileged children to attend expense free, we are looking to partner with Boys and Girls clubs across America to contribute to their education and mentorship programs.”
On a recruiting visit back in high school, Thibodeaux saw Knight, a prominent Oregon alum and booster, and told him he would make his shoe one day, a bold prediction since Thibodeaux plays along the defensive line.
“A couple months later, I said, ‘Uncle Phil, when are you going to make a shoe for big, fast guys like myself,'” Thibodeaux said. “Fast forward to recently and I’ve been able to have talks with my equipment team and the team at Nike and, not necessarily create a shoe, but they’re taking my opinion on the next shoe they’re going to release and how they can make it better for guys my size.”
He has also leveraged the Oregon network to negotiate internships in broadcasting. Thibodeaux knows his football career will end one day, and he’s already trying to gain experience in the booth. COVID-19 prevented some of his opportunities — he was planning to tour a few studios within the sports media industry, as well as commentate an LAFC match.
In his mind, his life won’t only be defined by how many sacks he records or what trophies he wins. It will be defined by the impact he makes off the field.
But he also knows that football is the vehicle to give him those platforms and that he hasn’t reached the pinnacle just yet. If he wants to get that shoe deal, have the resources to start a school for underprivileged children and help his community, it will depend on what he does on the field.
That high school kid who sat in Cristobal’s office asking for opportunities probably couldn’t have imagined how quickly his off-field goals could be realized in a world of NIL and NFTs.
But he knows how those opportunities are tied to the thing he does better than just about anyone else – creating havoc in the opponents’ backfield and helping his team win games. And as the season hits the home stretch and Oregon looks to make a College Football Playoff run, Thibodeaux welcomes the outsized hype that comes with being a former No. 1 recruit and potential future No. 1 NFL draft pick.
“My expectations are higher for myself than anybody else,” Thibodeaux said. “My strength coach made a joke and said, ‘I realized what kind of person you are, that you like to tell everybody your goals, so everybody can hold you to them.’ That’s me. I’ve never shied away from a challenge and everything’s a competition, so once I realized the position I was in, I had to either win or lose.”