Heisman contender Tate wants to blend in

(Credit: khalil_tate on Instagram, Feb. 2, 2018. Caption: “Who would’ve thought…”)

TUCSON, Ariz. – In the midst of the pre-season Heisman Trophy hype, Khalil Tate just wants to be happy.

In Bovada’s way-too-early initial “favorites” for the upcoming college football season, released on Jan. 23, Tate was given the third-best odds in the nation to win the 2018 Heisman Trophy

Ask him about his expectations for the upcoming season, and the University of Arizona quarterback will tell you what he really cares about in life.

“As long as we win, and everyone around me is happy, that’s my personal mission. It should be everybody’s personal mission to help those around themselves be happy,” he said.

Tate grew up in Inglewood, California. He burst onto the college football scene as a sophomore in 2017, becoming the first player in history to win four consecutive “Pac-12 Player of the Week” awards.

He went from sitting on the bench, to watching himself on the opening segment of SportsCenter in one night, after rushing for 327 yards and racking up five touchdowns in a victory at Colorado.

This thrust the true sophomore into the national spotlight, and it hasn’t stopped shining on him since.

After the Colorado game, everything changed – everything except Tate.

“I’m not sure much can faze Khalil Tate. If you ever talk to him, you get that sense,” said Zack Rosenblatt, former UA reporter for the Arizona Daily Star and current 76ers writer for NJ.com.“It’s hard to get anything out of Khalil Tate. He’ll talk about his teammates and he’ll give credit to his offensive line. But whether it was before he started playing, or after he became a superstar, he kind of maintained that same level of being humble.”

Tate said that he’s never been the type to want the limelight, “I just like to blend in and be like everybody else.” He lives by the phrase, “Try not to take social media so serious.” It’s even his Twitter bio.

Credit: @KhalilDTN on Twitter.

He thinks that Twitter is time consuming – he doesn’t even have the application on his phone. Tate said that he downloads it whenever he wants to say something, and deletes it after he sends the tweet. He doesn’t look at any replies.

His real obsession is with the game of football, something that’s been apparent since he was five years old.

Khalil’s brother, Akili, is three years older than him. Akili said that when he started playing Pop Warner youth football for the Inglewood Jets at the age of 8, the 5-year-old Khalil would stand on the sidelines and wait for his practices to end.

Khalil wasn’t old enough to play yet. “After practice, all the kids would still be on the field, and he would play with them and run around, tackle them and stuff like that,” said Akili.

Once Khalil was old enough to play, his games would start around 8 a.m. The games for the “older kids,” like Akili, didn’t end until around 7 p.m. Khalil would stay at the Inglewood High School stadium the entire day.

Akili and Khalil Tate at the 2017 Hiram College Graduation.
(Credit: @khalil_tate on Instagram. May 13, 2017.)

When Akili played, Khalil was always in attendance with his jersey on. “Growing up, when he used to play football, I would always try to be on his team. I would always try to follow in his footsteps,” Khalil said.

Akili ended up playing wide receiver for Hiram College in Ohio. He and Khalil attended the same high school, Junipero Serra in Gardena, California. Akili’s state championship team included future NFL players such as Adoree’ Jackson of the Tennessee Titans. “That was the closest we’ve ever been to playing with each other, because he (Khalil) traveled with the team,” Akili said.

Khalil’s father used to record his Pop Warner football games. According to Akili, the footage was bad. “He’d be so into the games while he was recording that he’d stop recording the play and yell out at Khalil or another player,” he said.

“What ended up happening was, they just said, ‘Akili, you should just record.’ So I ended up making videos of the games.” Akili found a passion for filming. He would even interview Khalil’s coaches after the games ended.

This passion turned into a makeshift talk show. Khalil and Akili used to set up three TV trays and put a sports related blanket on top. “We’d have two chairs, and we’d sit behind the trays. Behind us, there was a television that we’d show the highlights on,” Akili said.

They called their show “Tate & Tate in the morning,” a tribute to the then-popular ESPN talk show “Mike & Mike.”

Khalil’s circle is small. He noted differences in the way people act toward him nowadays. He called it “bittersweet” when people that he didn’t know too well tried to become closer to him after he achieved success.

16-year-old Akili (left) and 13-year-old Khalil working out. (Credit: Akili Tate)

When Khalil wants a highlight tape done, his brother Akili makes it for him. Akili’s filmmaking brand is called “Kelly Flicks.” Khalil’s tapes usually include music from the rapper Casey Veggies, who grew up a few blocks from the Tate family in Inglewood. He and Khalil are still close friends.

“I like using people around me to grow. Not using anybody else that I’m not familiar with,” he said.

When dealing with the media, Khalil can be classified as, “Laid back, chill, pretty quiet and not verbose in any way,” said Michael Lev, the UA football reporter for the Arizona Daily Star. “He doesn’t like to talk about himself that much, but at the same time he’s really confident in himself,” he said.

Tate doesn’t look for the limelight, but that doesn’t stop him from receiving media attention. According to Lev, after Tate would finish his post-practice interviews at Arizona’s Lowell-Stevens Football Facility, he would head over to a group of couches and take phone calls from publications such as Sports Illustrated, Bleacher Report or Sporting News. Lev called this the “Khalil Lounge.”

Lev may have mined the “sneaky-cocky” side out of Khalil in an interview following the Arizona-Oregon State game last year. Tate had a 71-yard touchdown run during the game. While he was running for the end zone, an Oregon State player seemed to have an angle on Tate, but Khalil turned on the jets and seemingly outran the entire OSU defense.

Lev asked him, “Did you think that guy had an angle on you on your 71-yard TD?” Tate immediately replied, “What guy?” Lev still doesn’t know if Tate was serious. “I mean, it’s really funny. He may have just not even seen the guy, or it might have just been his sneaky cocky side,” he said.

As the season went on, the national media started to push Tate into the Heisman Trophy conversation. Tate couldn’t avoid it. “I try to ignore it as much as possible, but it is real. I can’t deny it that much, I just use it to set a personal goal for myself. Below winning a championship of course,” he said.

(Credit: ESPN, Nov. 14, 2017)

Rosenblatt, Lev and Akili Tate all mentioned that Khalil didn’t seem to change at all as the season went on, even though the expectations and pressure built up on a weekly basis.

Rosenblatt, who used his Heisman vote for Baker Mayfield, followed by Bryce Love and Lamar Jackson respectively, said that in order for Tate to receive an invite to New York’s trophy presentation this year, he needs to be the clear reason why Arizona competes for a Pac-12 title.

Lev formerly covered Heisman hopefuls for the USC football team while working for the Orange County Register. He said that Tate differs from other Heisman contenders – such a former USC quarterback Matt Barkley – in the sense that Barkley had buzz coming in, but Khalil came out of nowhere for a “meteoric rise.”

“Those following the Arizona beat, or those who followed recruiting closely (knew of Tate), he was hardly a household name. But, in that one performance against Colorado, he became one,” said Lev.

When asked how he stays level-headed, Tate said, “I’ve been like that forever. I’ve never really liked the attention. A lot of people would. I’ve kind of just gone through with it. I bear with it.”

“As long as they’re talking about you, you must be doing something right,” he said.

Zach Smith is a reporter for Arizona Sonora News, a service from the School of Journalism with the University of Arizona. Contact him at zacharysmith@email.arizona.edu

Click here for a Word version of this story and high resolution photographs.

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