To keep entertained, all they needed was an NCAA-regulation football, and the turf practice field in which their eldest sibling calls home.
And when Kareem Ali was asked for the ultimate reason for his verbal-commitment switch from the University of Maryland to Temple last July, he gave a quick look toward the field and pointed at the answer.
“My little brothers, my family, my [high school] coaches coming to see me practice, it doesn’t get any better than that,” Ali said. “Me going far, being a phone call away, it’s not a drive away.”
Ali’s family, including 9-year-old Kahlil, 7-year-old KeRon and 4-year-old Keyon, are able to travel roughly 25 minutes from their hometown of Pennsauken, New Jersey to Temple’s practices. And whether it’s next season, or in 2016, the freshman defensive back will be a short drive away on Saturday afternoons, playing his college football at Lincoln Financial Field in South Philadelphia.
He graduated from Timber Creek High School in December so that he could take part in spring football, and has often found himself drilling with the first-team defense since practices started up three weeks ago.
“That is probably one of the best decisions of my life,” Ali said of his early enrollment at the university. “Coming here early, getting the winter workouts in first and getting acclimated to that, and then getting to spring ball and starting to get the plays down … just getting to learn that, it’s fast, it’s quick, but it’s great. I’m picking it up faster and faster, day by day. It’s all film and learning.”
Until his ultimate decision in July, though, it wasn’t going to be that way. Not at Temple, anyway. After a spring practice session concluded at the football team’s Edberg-Olson Complex last Tuesday, Kareem Ali’s younger brothers took the field.
Ali was heralded as New Jersey’s No. 2 defensive back prospect of 2015, behind Alabama commit Minkah Fitzpatrick, when he signed with Temple in November, and he could’ve gone just about anywhere.
As Rivals.com ranks Ali as the 10th-best player in New Jersey’s 2015 class, and 33rd nationally among all defensive backs, potential suitors began to stockpile toward the end of his high school career, as he was sought by the likes of Florida, Wisconsin, Michigan State, Louisville, West Virginia and Penn State, among his 23 offers.
And once he verbally committed to Maryland last June, Ali said he was intrigued by a coach who didn’t give up.
“He didn’t say, ‘You know what, Kareem? You’re committed to Maryland, I’m not going to talk to you anymore,’” Ali said. “He was open arms. He invited me up here to come to the camp, watch practice … why go somewhere else? This guy never gave up on me from day one. He recruited me since my sophomore year when he first got the job, why go somewhere else?”
“A lot of guys gave up on me, let me go and he never did that,” Ali added. “He was a different coach, and I respect that.”
Along with its close proximity, Ali’s tie with Temple runs through his bloodlines.
His father, Kareem Ali Sr., was a member of the football team from 1993-98, while his mother, Tasha, also competed for Temple’s women’s track & field team in the mid-’90s. Furthermore, Ali has spent his first few weeks in Temple practice gear working under defensive backs coach Fran Brown, whom Ali said is a second cousin to his father.
“Fran, he’s like family to me,” Ali said. “He never talked to me about recruiting outside of being up here. When we were back home, he’d talk to me regularly, I’d call him regularly, he’s been there for me since I was little. Like I said, why go against the green? Why go against something I know?”
“I was excited for him when he committed to Maryland, I was upset that he didn’t come see me first, but I didn’t care about it,” Brown said. “When he said he wanted to come back, I pushed that thing as fast as I possibly could. … Once he told me he was going to come back to me, I knew he wasn’t going to decommit. “Any of these guys, once they like me, once they start talking to me, it’s a wrap.”
Since Ali kicked off his collegiate career earlier than much of coach Matt Rhule’s 2015 recruiting class, his new coaches have had the opportunity to give him an early look when most of the team’s incoming freshman class won’t take to Temple’s practice field until the summer.
“He’s getting a lot of reps,” Rhule said of Ali after the team’s practice session last Tuesday. “He’s obviously very talented, very intelligent. It’s going really fast for him. We have veteran receivers – big receivers – and so, for him, it’s a lot at once. We play a multiple defense and he’s having to learn it. But again, he’s really talented and I think he’ll compete to get on the field [next season]. Long term, he’ll be a big-time corner for us.”
Rhule, who called Ali a “Temple baby” on National Signing Day in February, signed 20 newcomers for his 2015 recruiting class, including a program-best two four-star commits in Ali and running back T.J. Simmons, according to Rivals.com. And, at the school where both of his parents once attended as student-athletes themselves, Ali said he wants to help build a football program that has enjoyed just three winning seasons since his father’s last collegiate season in 1998.
“To see what’s going on here, what Coach Rhule is building up and bringing, why not join them?” Ali said. “Why not be that key addition to this? I came, I committed … you have a lot of people who want to play football and just get better, and not be too far from home.”
“Just start something right here in Philly,” he added. “We’ve never had it at Temple. Why not?”
Andrew Parent can be reached at email@example.com, 215.204.9537, or on Twitter @Andrew_Parent23.