In the early stages of his rookie season, he usurped aging Hall-of-Famer Adrian Peterson on the depth chart and filled Sean Payton’s “Joker” position, a nominal running back who can line up anywhere on the gridiron, specializing in finding mismatches. Fans soon realized his profound abilities to run and to receive and glimpsed shades of Reggie Bush and Darren Sproles, “Jokers” of the Saints’s past, in Kamara.
As a runner, his 6.1 yards per carry was a league best. He became the third rookie in NFL history to tally at least 800 yards receiving and 700 rushing. His 81 receptions placed second among runners and 13th overall. Kamara found the end zone 14 times, a mark that also ranked second in the NFL. He became the first rookie in over 50 years to catch and run for at least five touchdowns each and add a kickoff return score. A model of efficiency and productivity, he topped off an astounding first season with the Offensive Rookie of the Year Award, all while sharing the backfield with Mark Ingram.
Perceived as perhaps the most evasive player in the league, Kamara posted an elusiveness rating of 108.5, a significant 12 points greater than the next best total since Pro Football Focus began recording elusiveness in 2006. He is not only elusive on the field, however; his personality does not mesh well with traditional, buttoned-up cultures, both inside and outside the locker room, as his clashes with the establishment in his past reveal. For Kamara, fitting in has not always been as seamless as it has in New Orleans.
His journey to the Big Easy began in Tuscaloosa, AL. According to a profile of him in Sports Illustrated, soon after Nick Saban promised Kamara a collegiate career as a versatile back on one of the best teams in the country, that career was put on hold. A torn lateral meniscus forced the Tide to redshirt Kamara.
Having suffered the first major ailment of his life, Kamara responded negatively, cutting himself off from teammates, coaches, and trainers. The question “why” was a persistent inquiry in his head, he told SI. After serving suspensions in the Tide’s game against LSU and the Sugar Bowl, Kamara decided to transfer.
He then made a pit-stop at Hutchinson Community College in Kansas for one season and, before departing, earned Conference Offensive Player of the Year. He also began to don his famous bull nose ring, the first sign of the gradual unveiling of his identity.
Kamara then returned to the SEC, completing a transfer to Tennessee. Having appeared in 24 games over two years, he rushed for 1,294 yards on 210 carries, caught 74 passes for 683 yards, and found the end zone 23 total times. In Knoxville he dreaded his hair and began to flash a smile with his trademark gold grill, learning to embrace his personality.
Despite the productivity, Kamara played merely a supporting role for the Volunteers, splitting time with Jalen Hurd. Once again, he was uncomfortable. Tennessee, oblivious to his immense talent, did not adapt to his skill set and was unwilling to modify the offense to better suit Kamara. Still, he was efficient and produced enough to catch the eyes of NFL scouts. Per the SI piece, he was confident that he, if given the chance, would thrive in the NFL. After holding a workout with Kamara, Sean Payton and the Saints also believed in him, trading up in the third round on draft day to select him. The rest is history.
Given his troubles in the past, why has Alvin Kamara had so much success in New Orleans?
First of all, if Payton could craft the perfect Saint in a lab, he would look like Kamara. With nimble feet, soft hands, and a high football IQ, on the field Kamara has it all and fits perfectly with Payton’s Saints.
Off the field, his personality similarly dominates. If you read about him, or listen to his coaches, teammates, and friends, you will discover his rich, effervescent identity.
The culture of the NFL is one that denigrates the individual and extols the system. You can play in the league, but first your individuality will be absorbed into a collective body of players that together represents the mighty shield. Such are the norms a player faces when he enters the league.
An anomalous, outlandish free spirit, Kamara deviates from these customs. Having conquered tribulations, he fully embraces who he is. Even without support, he has remained true to himself.
The same could be said for the city of New Orleans, and that is why Kamara is an even better fit with the city he now calls home.