The child climbed into his father's car. Lush green trees whizzed along the Tennessee boulevard. Nashville came into view.
The father, a truck driver, bought hot dogs at a downtown venue, chatted with a client, then sat by his son as they munched their lunch a few miles from Vanderbilt's campus.
Then, as Jeremy Stevens drove through the West End, his 7-year-old son, JaCoby, peered through the window at the places he'd only seen on television: Vanderbilt Stadium, Hawkins Field, Memorial Gymnasium.
There's education in such a view, Jeremy believed. Dreams can find their form in reality, and reality can be placed into its proper context. How else could young JaCoby one day become a star safety at LSU? How would he one day return for his second game in his hometown stadium, when the Tigers (0-1) played Vanderbilt (0-1) on Oct. 3, 2020?
It was only practical.
Once home, the child professed the dream: "Dad, I want to play college football."
The father steered toward reality: "Well, what school do you like?"
"Vanderbilt," JaCoby said.
And then the father's proper context: "Well, who's gonna pay for it?"
JaCoby searched his father for an answer.
"Let me help you out," Jeremy said. "I'm not paying for your education. You can be an average student, academically, and you can be an average athlete and you can get your school paid for in America. So you better figure it out."
JaCoby stared. Pondered. Walked into the backyard. Processed what he'd heard.
It was only practical.
Anyone who has heard Stevens speak — who has asked him a question about a controversial topic, who has approached him after a tough loss, who has seen him speak before a crowd as a leader — knows the defensive back has a firm grip on conviction and reality.
The trait is rooted in a family that focused JaCoby on the truth. In the Stevens household, there was no Santa Claus. No Easter Bunny. Not even a tooth fairy.
Jeremy was at first unsure about raising their two kids without harmless traditions, but his wife, Dionne, reassured him: "You can say this: You never lied to them."
Along the way, they crafted their own traditions.
Once JaCoby lost his first tooth, the parents still told their son to place it under his pillow. When he asked "why?" they told him the truth: Because when you wake up, there's going to be money under your pillow.
They told him how they'd both caught their mothers trying to swap their teeth for cash, and they decided to make it a game for JaCoby: See if you can catch us!
The child awakened, reached his hands under his pillow and found the crisp paper bill.
"I didn't even know you were in the room!" he told his parents.
They smiled at him.
"We're in your room all the time," his father said. "We're always praying on you. Your momma's kissin' on you. All kinds of stuff like that."
A dedication to truth was going to be necessary, the parents agreed, if they wanted to raise their children to be critical thinkers, to have an awareness of what was really happening, to one day stand confident in their beliefs and have the courage and confidence to use their voice.
The truth is harsh sometimes, they both know, and Dionne says she's often accused of being a realist. She knows that life hits you two ways: good and bad; easy and hard.
Dionne, 45, was born in Bogalusa, and she said her own parents never shied away from telling her the truth. Hers was a family that had to carve out remnants of equality in a racist world using their own will.
Dionne's great-grandfather, Bill Crawford, was a member of the Deacons for Defense, an armed self-defense group founded to protect civil rights activists and Black families. The Ku Klux Klan had a stronghold at the time in Bogalusa — a mill town that was called "Klantown, U.S.A." in a 1965 article in The Nation magazine.
Dionne's grandmother, Geraldine Bennett, partook in the 106-mile civil rights march from Bogalusa to Baton Rouge in August 1967 — a 10-day demonstration against unequal representation in local and federal government, among other grievances, that became a fight for a Black person's freedom to march at all.
Bennett, in a 2011 interview with the Southern Oral History Program, called the march her "most memorable time" of the era. The group began with about two dozen people and picked up hundreds more in the Louisiana towns along the way.
The marchers were attacked in Satsuma. Bennett said rotten eggs were thrown at her head. She was hit by a firecracker. State troopers, sent by Gov. John McKeithen, could not hold back attackers from climbing over cars, and the marchers had to defend themselves in hand-to-hand combat with razors they'd picked up at barbershops in Albany.
"They harassed us every step of the way," said Bennett, who died in February.
The marchers still reached the steps of the State Capitol.
Dionne and Jeremy wanted to instill the same spirit in their son. Jeremy, 45, said they wanted JaCoby to not be afraid to use his voice, "because too many people have bled, died, been spat on for your right to speak, and a lot of times, they don't."
"You come from greatness," Jeremy said they told him. "You come from extraordinary people. If people before you can do what they did as far as fighting their battles and being conquerors, you can do the same thing in your life."
• • •
Buck Fitzgerald is a jokester, and he'd found the perfect opportunity for a prank.
He's also the president of the National Playmakers Academy, a Nashville-based organization that helps develop athletes as players, students and public speakers.
One day, the organization brought in local news anchors for media training. Each athlete sat in front of the camera and had to answer a series of drill questions. The local star high school safety's turn arrived.
So JaCoby Stevens, tell us about...
Fitzgerald waited for an opening, then hurled an insult at his pupil.
"It was more of a funny deal," Fitzgerald said, "and he looked at me with this serious look, and, like an attorney, refuted everything I just said. I was really just joking, but he was dead-ass serious. Dead serious. Just monotone, looking at me in the eyes, engaged in the facts and everything."
Stevens is "like a machine," Fitzgerald said, "like a computer." He's a practical, literal person who can compartmentalize facts, opinion, perspective and spit out a reasonable point of view.
Remember back in 2016, when Stevens was a five-star recruit, the nation's No. 1-ranked safety?
Former LSU coach Les Miles was fired, and when Stevens was asked about his commitment, he told reporters, simply: "I'll pay attention to see who they hire as head coach. If they don't mess with the defense, I'm still heading to Baton Rouge."
Then, over three seasons, when Stevens shifted positions from safety to wide receiver to H-back to safety to linebacker to safety again, he had a practical, short answer for the reasons.
"It was them trying to get me on the field," he said in 2019.
When LSU's secondary surrendered a Southeastern Conference record 623 yards passing in last week's 44-34 loss to Mississippi State, Stevens had a measured response.
"It's embarrassing," he said. "It's like going into a boxing ring and getting knocked out."
Dionne said her son has had the same demeanor since elementary school. He was the kid who always wanted things to be done right. It went so far, Dionne said, that his fourth-grade teacher used to call him Barney Fife, the by-the-book deputy in "The Andy Griffith Show."
It's part of what makes Stevens such a successful player, Fitzgerald said. He'll build on mistakes through trial and error. After he was flattened on a pass-rush attempt against Miami in 2018, they talked about how he should work on pass-rush drills with defensive ends.
Stevens studied defensive linemen all the way through 2019 spring football. He took mental notes and even mimicked their explosive grunts. Last season, Stevens ranked second on the team with five sacks — establishing himself as a dangerous enough pass rusher that LSU coach Ed Orgeron said they'll use him as a diverse "playmaker" this season.
"JaCoby makes you feel like you're Vince Lombardi," said Fitzgerald, a former defensive back who played on Tennessee's 1998 national championship team. "Everything you tell the kid, he does it. Not only does he do it, he gets unbelievable results you didn't even forecast."
• • •
JaCoby Stevens sometimes viewed his life like a video game.
He'd look to the future as if it were a leaderboard, a regimented checklist of accolades that needed to get done before the game was over.
Just before JaCoby left for college, his father derailed the theory with another series of questions.
"So what's next?" Jeremy asked.
"I'm going to LSU for three years and get drafted," JaCoby replied.
"OK. Then what?"
"I'm gonna go to the NFL."
"OK. Then what?"
"I'm gonna win two championships."
"OK. Then what?"
JaCoby stared back.
"Damn, son," Jeremy said. "When are you gonna live? When are you going to enjoy your experiences? That's not how life works. Stop trying to rush your goal or you're going to miss all your experiences."
Jeremy and Dionne wanted him to realize he was more than a football player. They wanted him to be an ambassador. They wanted him to visit other sporting events on campus, go to hospitals, speak to kids at elementary schools.
They wanted him to learn how to use his voice.
"I don't want to do that until I make some plays," JaCoby told his parents.
JaCoby focused on football. He worked on his backpedal. Perfected hurdle drills. Came home and jumped boxes in the high school field.
Even once JaCoby started to make plays early in his career, Jeremy said, he didn't feel like it was enough for his voice to carry any weight.
"Man, you'd be surprised," Jeremy told his son.
There is an internal battle, an insecurity in some young people, to know the right moment, the right time to finally use their voice. To speak their own truth, as Dionne says, and begin walking by their principles.
Football provided a natural moment last season, when Ole Miss quarterback John Rhys Plumlee gashed the LSU defense on zone-read runs for 212 rushing yards and four touchdowns in a 58-37 Tigers win in Oxford, Mississippi.
That's when things "boiled over" for JaCoby, his father said, and even though JaCoby couldn't remember for his father what he told his teammates, what the safety told reporters still carries heat.
“It’d be different if we were a bunch of scrubs on defense and we didn’t have the talent that we do have,” JaCoby said then. “My expectation is high, and we weren’t even near the expectation that I have for this defense.”
LSU's defense, then criticized for not holding up its end of the team, didn't allow more than 30 points again, and in only five more games, the defense produced 35 tackles for loss, 16 sacks, six interceptions and two forced fumbles.
It seemed JaCoby was prepared to check off one of his accolades. A third-year player, he was draft-eligible and likely would have been selected fairly high. But after the national championship parade on campus, JaCoby told his father: "I just want to come back and really enjoy everything. Enjoy whatever happens."
Since then, he has become the ambassador his parents hoped he'd become.
Protests swept through the nation after a White police officer killed George Floyd, a Black man, during an arrest in May. Voices against racial injustice rose across the country, and JaCoby emerged as a leader on LSU's 12-person leadership council.
The council met with Orgeron, and Stevens suggested everyone on the team register to vote. Orgeron approved the idea, and the players registered online.
As more and more controversies emerged during the summer, JaCoby and senior defensive end Andre Anthony organized a march to the office of interim university president Tom Galligan in late August, when nearly the entire team discussed race with Galligan, Orgeron and athletic director Scott Woodward.
"These issues existed before I was born — before all of us were born — and they exist now,” Stevens said later that day. “The best thing we can do is try to fight and change it.”
The LSU athletic department held a unified march two weeks later. Hundreds of athletes and coaches wore black "Tigers United" T-shirts. JaCoby stepped on a platform in front of the Pete Maravich Assembly Center and spoke before the crowd.
Now, the Nashville native is once again returning home. It may be a significant game, you might say. A moment in time that offers context in a 22-year-old's life and where it is headed.
Or, you could say, it's just the next game on the schedule.
It's only practical.