On Archer road in Gainesville, Florida, in the shadow of the I-75 bypass, sits a Waffle House. Sunday mornings find it filled with the usual; families passing through on their way to Disney World; some in their Sunday best, stopping by for a quick bite before church, and other’s who are just now heading home from Saturday and begging for coffee. You know, the usual crowd.
Over in a booth, just enjoying the peaceful morning, sit two regulars; well, semi-regulars. This father and son duo make it a point to share a Waffle House breakfast whenever possible, and it’s usually possible after a Gator football home game.
The young man is Jalen Tabor, freshman cornerback for the Florida Gators, and across from him is his dad Willie.
Jalen is Willie’s only son so he treasures these breakfasts’ together. Every now and then other family members will join them, depending on who could make it for a game. But Willie is at every game, jetting in to wherever that week’s matchup may be from the Tabor’s home in Washington D.C.
Since the team travels back to Gainesville immediately following away games, it’s the one’s in The Swamp that Willie really loves best. Not just for the game itself, but more so the breakfast that follows.
“I look forward to that and he does too. We talk about schoolwork and life down here and then of course we talk about the game. That’s our special time that we can have.”
During that special time, Willie veers away from any correction talk concerning the game. While they’ll discuss it in general, he tries not to get into any particulars with Jalen, knowing that his son already has plenty of coaches, but only one father.
“We talk about the game but I don’t talk about what he should’ve done or could’ve done. He knows that. Him and his coaches, of course they’re going to talk about that. But I don’t get into that. He has a lot of pressure as it is, he doesn’t need any extra pressure from his dad saying, ‘Why did you miss this block?’ He knows what he did wrong; he knows what he did right. I let the coaches and him figure that out.”
The existing pressure can get to a young man, especially one thrust into the limelight as a freshman at a school that’s long been a cornerstone of the SEC. But if it gets to Jalen, he won’t show it.
“I very rarely see him with a sad face,” Willie notes.
“He’s very quiet…He really doesn’t try to let anything get him down. If he’s down you really probably won’t see it unless you know him. ”
The thing is, not many people do know him.
He keeps his circle small according to his dad, which is somewhat fitting for a guy who plays a position often referred to as an island, due to the individual play it requires.
Plus he’s still a new kid on the block for Florida fans.
As a last second commitment to the Gators (he committed four days before enrolling in classes), those that follow recruiting didn’t get to spend a lot of time with Jalen on their radar.
Now that he’s suiting up in a Florida uniform, he must abide by the athletic departments rule of not letting freshman speak to the media. For now Jalen must do his talking on the field, and so far, he’s had a lot to say.
Getting his first start against Tennessee, the Friendship Academy alum came in and accumulated five tackles (four solo & a sack that gave the Vols a 13-yard loss), two pass break-ups (one of which was a touchdown saving breakup) and a forced fumble/recovery that set up the Gators only successful and eventually game winning touchdown drive. That’s quite a statement and one that head coach Will Muschamp echoed following the game.
“Jalen Tabor for a freshman had an outstanding-for any player-had an outstanding game,” head coach Will Muschamp said following the game.
He followed that up against LSU with seven tackles — four of which were solo & another sack. After starting again versus Missouri, Tabor only amassed 1 tackle, but that hasn’t really hurt his stock.
Tabor’s name is starting to float on the wind around Gator Nation, through the Spanish moss and filtering through the palm trees, growing a little louder each week. On a squad that seems to have become anemic, here’s a young guy that promises to be a bright spot for a while.
One person that isn’t shocked by any of this is, of course, his father.
“I knew he had that capability; it’s just letting everybody else see what he can do.”
He’s also pretty sure about the prediction of him only getting better.
“He doesn’t shy away from hard work so you gotta expect a lot more of this from Jalen. He’s a hard worker; he doesn’t know when to quit. For him to tackle on anything people say he can’t do, he loves proving them wrong.”
Muschamp agrees, saying, “He’s just a guy that continues to improve.”
None of this should be particularly surprising. Jalen was ESPN’s number four cornerback in the country coming out of high school, something Willie, like any father, humbly brags about.
“As his father you understand ‘ok my son is ok, my son is good’ but when you start reading about him in ESPN, he starts going up on charts…Really there’s not words I can say to express how someone feels. It’s almost the same feeling as when your child is born; extensive pride all the way around.”
That pride has always been there, in one way or the other, and football has been a big part of it for much of Jalen’s life.
He first stepped onto the gridiron at age five when the game was just flag football. After getting older and a little bigger, the competition stepped up in rec ball. So did Jalen’s talent. He played offense and defense, only coming off the field during kickoffs, and kept that playtime until ninth grade.
Once in high school at Friendship Academy, he stayed on both sides of the ball, albeit with a few more breaks. He loved the offense
but in his junior year, when it came time to pick a specialty, he went with defense, locking in at corner. According to Willie, it was “just something he loved to do.
He loves that one on one, me versus you. He loves that. That big competition.”
That love of football’s competition get’s a little gentler when combined with the love for his family, especially at reunions. He takes the field with who ever wants to play a little ball, but it’s not the same Jalen who has started terrorizing opposing players in the SEC.
“I remember several years ago we had our family reunion in Tampa and he loves playing with the little kids. All his little nieces and nephews and cousins he just loves playing with them. He’s so gentle with them. It’s real funny. You see him on the field and it’s one thing but you see him off the field and he’s like this big little giant.”
The giant comparison is fitting, since according to Willie, a self professed New York Giants fan, he brought his son up to be the same. He would watch Giants games every Sunday with his dad and friends, soaking in more and more football.
But for a few years that was nothing more than a hobby and it seemed the biggest competition in Jalen’s life was going to be roaring flames.
The grandson of a firefighter, Jalen appeared to be following in his footsteps. It certainly showed in his entertainment choices, which Willie now laughingly remembers.
“I remember the movie Backdraft and he, I think I watched that on a Saturday ten straight times. He was about 6. He knew every line of the movie.”
The only thing cooler than fire though is Denzel.
“And then he saw Remember the Titans and that was it. He knew that one line; ‘Petey, how many steps in a mile…Petey you take this ball and you run every one of them’ or however it goes. He loved that.”
“That was about the time he kinda said ok I want to play football. And it was nothing that I or his mom pressured him, he just wanted to do it.”
The pressure has stayed off, with both parents supporting Jalen through some of life’s biggest choices. His parents separated not long before Jalen turned 10 but have continued that practice of letting their son make his own choices, and support him whatever that may be.
This was put to the test when Jalen’s recruitment reached a head. During the Under-Armour All-American game Jalen sent some shock waves around college football when he committed to Arizona over Alabama. That was on January 2, 2014. One week later, he decommitted from Arizona and chose Florida instead.
“I’ve always told Jalen once you make a decision, this is the decision you’re gonna make, you’re gonna stick with it. And when he changed to Florida I talked to him and he said ‘Dad this is what I want to do’. I told him, I can’t get out on that football field, I can’t get in those classes but what I can do is be there when I can. And that was pretty much the extent of the conversation.
Sometimes you gotta become a young man to a man and I think that’s one of the steps he had to take.”
Jalen stuck to this commitment and now as Gator, Willie has stuck to his.
“We have a saying. Where he go, I go.”
Much of Jalen’s family has followed, including 16 family members showing up to see his first start against Tennessee. Perhaps the most special so far has been Jalen’s uncle who was able to make the trip to Gainesville to see him play against Kentucky. That uncle passed away on Tuesday before the Missouri game.
There’s still a lot Gator fans don’t know about Jalen Tabor, other than the noise he’s making on the field. But as they learn more , and inevitably start to talk about him more and more, his father will continue to watch proudly, and quietly from the stands.
“As long as he sees me and we see each other and he knows I’m there, that’s all we need.”
The 6-1, cornerback with tattoos all down his left arm and a Superman logo tattooed on his chest comes across as a player who would do a lot of talking [on and off] the field but the only talking Tabor has done this season is with his play.
He saves the talking for Sundays. That’s when his most important conversation take place. The accolades of gridiron glory will continue to pile up but they’re just white noise in comparison to the time spent sitting across a Waffle House table with his biggest fan.