They were all duped — all of them except Mom.
Mom knew. Not because moms always know, but because Son told Mom his secret — the one he would announce soon enough to a stunned room, the one he had kept from the outside world for at least three months.
This was his version of “The Decision” — without the fanfare and spotlight, but with an announcement ceremony at his home in Ruston. Aside from a handful of teammates, a small group of coaches and his tight inner circle back home, no one even knew there was a decision.
Oh, but there was. K.J. Malone had a choice: Leave the LSU football team to start the next phase of his life (being a U.S. Marshal), or stay for his senior season to be the team’s starting left tackle.
“They invited a good many people to their house,” said Billy Smith, a 61-year-old cardiologist in Ruston, a family friend of the Malones and a longtime LSU football season-ticket holder. “Nobody knew exactly what was going on. I kind of surmised that he was going to hang up the cleats. We heard through the grapevine he might end his career and go into the justice system. That was the direction he was headed. I had made my mind up that that was probably what we were there to hear that day, and I was disappointed about it.”
Like a highly touted recruit choosing a surprise school, Malone told the dozens of family members and friends before him that he would return to LSU for his senior season.
There were happy tears, high-fives, hugs, kisses. It was a celebration.
He had told his mother hours before the big announcement, during a phone conversation on the drive from Baton Rouge to Ruston.
“He didn’t want anybody else to know anything,” said his father, Karl, the two-time NBA MVP they called "The Mailman." “He had a select group of people that came over to hear his decision. He said, ‘I just want to finish what I started.’ ”
He’s en route to that now.
K.J. Malone and the Tigers scrimmaged Saturday in Tiger Stadium, this year's first spring practice inside the 102,321-seat structure and the fourth overall. It completed the first week of spring drills. Five weeks and 10 practices remain before the spring game April 22.
Karl Malone planned to watch Saturday’s scrimmage from inside the stadium, his eyes on the 6-foot-4, 305-pounder wearing No. 63. He’s soaking in every snap, he said, making sure he watches every move, each block his son levels on defenders.
Karl is aware that he only has 10 more months of this. K.J. knows, too.
“It’s just weird to think,” K.J. said, “that there’s no turning back after this year.”
He nearly turned back with a year of eligibility left to begin his career in law enforcement.
K.J. — it stands for Karl Junior — is destined to join the U.S. Marshals Service, the oldest American federal law enforcement agency and a group responsible for things like fugitive investigations, prisoner transport, protecting officers of the court and operating the Witness Protection Program.
K.J.’s eyes have been set on law enforcement for a while. He comes from a military family. A grandfather and uncle were in the Air Force. Even Karl was headed toward joining the military, he said. But then he grew to 6-foot-9 and chose the hardwood instead.
There’s more behind K.J.’s obsession. This summer, five law enforcement officers were gunned down in Dallas, and three were killed in Baton Rouge.
“Just because all of the stuff going on this summer with the cops,” he said. “It made me want to help the community and help the world.”
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Specifically, K.J. wants to defend national monuments. He told his father that a while back.
“I said, ‘What?’ ” Karl chuckled while reciting the story. “He said, ‘Yeah, Dad. I want to be part of the group defending out national monuments. That’s the front line of freedom. We defend what’s ours.’ ”
K.J. would likely be in Salt Lake City right now if he had made a different decision at that January announcement in his home. He potentially would be managing one of the Malones’ car dealerships there while beginning the process of joining the U.S. Marshals.
That’s delayed for, at least, a year now — and potentially longer if he decides to give the NFL a crack, he said.
For now, his focus is on winning a championship and improving players younger than him — which, on the offensive line, means everyone. K.J. is one of just six players on the roster who has been on the team for at least five years. The group includes outside linebacker Corey Thompson (who's in his sixth year), fullback J.D. Moore and defensive linemen Christian LaCouture, Frank Herron and Greg Gilmore.
Being the old man isn’t always a good thing. It was one of the many reasons that, by the midway point of last season, K.J. leaned toward leaving school early. LSU had fired coach Les Miles, and K.J. knew all of the offensive linemen who signed with him would be gone. He felt alone, he admitted.
“I’m the only one left,” he said.
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The decision weighed on him through October, November and much of December. He kept his parents updated and occasionally asked for their thoughts.
Many figured he would leave.
His father, thinking he had seen the end of his son’s football-playing days, lit up a cigar in the stands at Kyle Field as LSU capped the regular season with a win at Texas A&M. Fans around him bristled at his illegal activity, and Karl spent much of the time hiding the cigar from Texas A&M security personnel.
Meanwhile, his mother, Kay, began planning to rent out K.J.’s condo in Baton Rouge and move her son to Utah, his birthplace and where he plans to return after football.
“We were in limbo until two weeks after the bowl game,” Karl said.
K.J. spoke to players about the decision, meeting with running back Derrius Guice and quarterback Danny Etling, Kay said. They all urged him to return.
The final moment came in an impromptu meeting between new coach Ed Orgeron and K.J. in the weight room just before LSU's bowl game.
“I was working out,” K.J. said. “He just told me how much he wanted my leadership next year and how much I can help the younger guys. That kind of helped seal the deal.
“A lot of people dream about the opportunity we get to play. That was one of the main things I had to put in my mind: Did I want to stop? A lot of people asked, ‘Why? Why would you?’ Me thinking about all of the kids and me growing up being an LSU fan and actually having an opportunity to play, I wanted to go one more time.”
So, here he is — the old man of the offensive line, the grizzled veteran who might be used more than ever this season.
New offensive coordinator Matt Canada is known to shift his tackles presnap and involve them in the offense in more ways than just blocking. At Canada's last stop, Pittsburgh, two offensive linemen scored touchdowns.
"When he saw those Pitt offensive linemen getting carries and throwing passes and scoring touchdowns," fourth-year junior Will Clapp said of K.J., "he got excited."
K.J.'s fellow offensive linemen were pleased by his decision, in part because of the food that comes with it.
Kay Malone is half-Filipino. She owns a restaurant in Ruston and loves cooking for everyone, including a dozen 300-pounders. She cooks in K.J.’s condo while players are practicing or working out, wraps the food to keep it warm and then hurriedly leaves before they rumble into the place.
“I don’t stick around,” she said.
K.J. is like his father when it comes to food, Kay said. He gets consumed by one food for weeks at a time.
“All the sudden, he’ll want pork chops, and he’ll want them for two weeks,” Kay said. “He’ll then want Filipino, and he’ll want it for three weeks.”
Kay gave her son a message during his decision-making process last year. First off, she said, don’t rush. Secondly, “You start somewhere, you end there,” Kay told her son.
K.J. decided to do just that, even though he duped everybody at first.
“To me, this is the best time,” said Smith, the doctor from Ruston and one of the many surprised by his January announcement. “He’s been on the scout squad. He’s taken his licks for a long time. Now it’s his time to really shine and be a major player.”