Cover Story: J.K. Dobbins Will Be Back, And Still Be Great
The Ravens' second-year running back suffered a torn ACL in the final preseason game, but this is just another detour in his promising career.
By: Ryan Mink
This story was originally published on Sept. 1, 2021
This feature has been in the works for a few weeks, getting to the bottom of what makes J.K. Dobbins special as he was on the cusp of what everyone thought was going to be a monster second season that would make him an NFL star.
Then Dobbins crumpled to the turf and grabbed his left knee during the preseason finale in Washington. We all watched that hit happen, and cringed watching the slow-motion replays on TV.
"Look out," Ravens announcer Gerry Sandusky said. "This [pause] is a potential worst-case scenario."
After the MRI and reports came back that Dobbins, as feared, had torn his ACL, this story was headed for the trash. That's the first reaction when season-ending injuries happen. All is seemingly lost.
But thinking about it more, Dobbins' season-ending injury is just another chapter. What makes him special is the same stuff that will make him come back and still be special.
Shawn Hubbard/Baltimore RavensJ.K. Dobbins Is Competitive
J.K.'s father, Lawrence Dobbins, was one of the best athletes to ever come through La Grange, Texas, a small town located between Houston, Austin and San Antonio. He was a running back too.
Short in stature but faster than wind sweeping over a prairie, Lawrence's claim to fame was 70- and 74-yard touchdowns in the Leopard's state semifinal game in Houston's Astrodome, but La Grange still lost. On the track, he was a Class 3A state 100-meter champion.
Lawrence's parents pushed him to go to Lincoln University, a Division III HBCU in Philadelphia, where he ran for the 4x100-meter relay team that nearly won a national championship in 1999. But he loved football, not track.
So when his girlfriend, Mya Grounds, gave birth to their son, J'Kaylin Dobbins, Lawrence left school and came back to Texas. He enrolled at Blinn College, a community college where he had some friends playing football, and joined as a walk-on.
Grounds was also enrolled in college, commuting about 100 miles to the University of Houston at least a couple times a week to study finance. While she often had a book in her hands, Lawrence and J.K. were joined at the hip until he was about 5 years old.
"I had a great relationship with my father when I was a little kid," J.K. said. "He was my best friend. He wasn't that American dream dad, but he was a great man."
They were always outside, riding bikes, playing football, always competing. It didn't matter what it was - video games, Connect Four, or especially sports - Lawrence showed no mercy. J.K. recalls being in second grade when he first challenged his dad to a race.
"I was playing Pee Wee football, so I thought I was pretty fast. He burned me," J.K. said. "You know how people let little kids win? That was not my family. Nobody ever let me win."
Like most any kid would, J.K. cried a lot. But it also sharpened his drive.
"He was always challenging him to be better than him," Grounds said. "He was always telling J.K. he couldn't do something so J.K. would try to do better. For some kids, that wouldn't work well. For J.K., tell him he can't do something and he'll do it."
Their relationship was strained as J.K. grew older, however. Lawrence quit the football team and dropped out of Blinn College because he didn't see much immediate playing time. He was accustomed to being a star. When the game he loved was no longer in his life, he spiraled.
"When he quit, it was like his life was over or something," Grounds said. "He started messing up and getting in trouble with the wrong people and doing the wrong things, like drugs. I couldn't believe it because this is a guy that wouldn't even drink a soda."
When J.K. went to elementary school, Lawrence went to jail. He bounced in and out several times, including a couple sentences of longer than six months. J.K. has memories of going to visit his father in "some of the worst prisons you can think of in the state of Texas."
"Going there and seeing that stuff is not cool as a kid," he said. "But leaving was hard, too."
J.K. remembers crying in school just thinking about his dad. He would go to the bathroom, wipe the tears away and come back with a smile - just like his dad would want.
"They were so close; it took a toll on him," Grounds said. "Sometimes I would get a call from school and he's been to the counselor because his dad went to jail. I felt so bad for J.K. I was trying to let Lawrence know that he was hurting him but it was like he gave up on life."
Lawrence would write J.K. letters and include little drawings and a Bible verse. There was often some message about continuing to work. He kept challenging J.K., even from behind bars. Whenever he was out, he would be at his games.
Meanwhile, Grounds was working nights at a MHMR community center, taking care of people with mental health, intellectual and developmental disabilities, trying to provide for herself and J.K. while going to school. She did that job for eight years.
She left Lawrence and she and J.K. moved to another town about 20 minutes away. But Grounds wanted J.K. to still have that small-town life and be connected to Lawrence's large family, so she would wake J.K. up at 4:30 a.m. every day to go to his cousin's house before school so she could make it to Houston in time for classes.
"My mom is where my drive comes from," J.K. said. "She never made an excuse."
The last time Lawrence went to prison was when J.K. was in middle school. Police were searching for a friend he had staying in his apartment and Lawrence, who was on probation, lied that he wasn't there. When the police came back, they arrested Lawrence for harboring a fugitive.
Lawrence didn't have much time left on that sentence, but his health was deteriorating because he wasn't taking care of himself. On Feb. 22, 2014, they got news that he died of a stroke while in prison. Lawrence was just 33 years old. J.K. was 15.
"It's like a nightmare. You don't believe it at first," J.K. said.
"When you go home and cry yourself to sleep every night as a 15-year-old, you can do one of two things. You can make excuses and go start smoking dope and getting in trouble, or you can give it to God. I knew what would make my dad proud, so I went and did that. It flipped a switch."
J.K. Dobbins Isn't a Quitter
Grounds knew her son loved football from a very early age, when he demanded football outfits they didn't even make in such a small size. He got and wore them for years anyway.
It really hit home for Grounds one day when J.K. was in trouble and she threatened not to drive him to football practice. J.K. told her he would run away, and he wasn't just kidding.
"I wasn't going to test it," she said with a laugh.
In Pee Wee football, J.K. knew where all his teammates were supposed to be and what they were supposed to do. If they did it wrong, he would yell at them. She had to apologize to the other parents.
"J.K. and Lawrence were kind of the opposite," Grounds said. "Lawrence was a playful, nothing-was-ever-serious kind of a guy. J.K.'s mindset is very serious. He's always trying to set a goal for himself or trying to beat a goal."
In La Grange, the middle school is on the same campus as the high school and the elementary school is a half-mile away, so everybody knows everybody from about the time they're born. By the time J.K. was a sixth grader, with the last name Dobbins, people were paying attention. The first two carries of his seventh-grade year, he took them for 160 yards and two touchdowns.
"From that moment on, you knew he was something different," said Matt Kates, J.K.'s high school football coach.
"Obviously there's the God-given talent. But he made As and Bs his entire career. His favorite subject was math. Seeing his intrinsic motivation to do well, seeing how teachers loved him and the community loved him, even as a seventh grader, you knew he was going to be special.
"He always had to live up to that Lawrence Dobbins mystique. Lawrence set a pretty high bar, but J.K. blew right past it pretty quick."
J.K. piled up 5,149 yards in his first three high school seasons. As a junior, he posted 2,740 rushing yards and scored 35 touchdowns, which led to a scholarship and commitment to Ohio State. As J.K. approached his senior year at La Grange, the hype was huge - even for Texas football standards.
J.K. was the 4A preseason player of the year and part of the "Super Team" in Dave Campbell's Texas Football magazine - commonly referred to as the "Texas Bible." State records were within reach.
La Grange's first game of the season was at Liberty Hill, which was on the other side of Austin and about an hour-and-a-half drive away. The Leopards took two yellow buses and Kates kept getting texts from his younger brother, the team's offensive coordinator, who was riding with his unit.
"He's texting me, 'J.K. can't even sit still. He is so ready to get going,'" Kates said. "He was always ready to go, but he was chomping at the bit to get his senior year going."
La Grange received the opening kickoff and on the first play from scrimmage, Kates called a power read. The defensive end closed like he's supposed to, so the quarterback gave it to Dobbins on an outside sweep.
He went about 12 yards and could have gone out of bounds, but Dobbins saw a single-high safety in the middle of the field, so he stuck his foot in the ground to work back. He'd done it hundreds of times, and Kates thought he might take it to the house. "He did it quite a bit."
A Liberty Hill linebacker was chasing the play and tackled Dobbins from behind - not too unlike the sandwich tackle that Dobbins got hit with against Washington Saturday night. Dobbins' right ankle was "grotesquely twisted" underneath him.
On the very first carry of his senior year, Dobbins suffered a broken ankle and multiple ligament tears.
"He's so fast and powerful that I think his own sheer force made it worse," Kates said.
An ominous storm cell rolled in and settled down over the stadium, refusing to budge. The game was stopped by lightning in the first quarter and after a 90-minute delay, officials from both teams decided to throw in the towel. The injury came in what ended up being a meaningless game - kind of like the Ravens' preseason finale.
"We go over there, get him hurt, play six minutes, and it ends up being a no contest," Kates said. "Then we traveled an hour and a half back to La Grange and we got the news the next morning that he was out the whole season. It was a nightmarish 12 hours for sure.
"His senior year, there's no telling what he would have done. All the personal accolades were coming, but he wanted to win a state championship. After one carry, not even getting a chance to do it, I think that's what haunts him - and haunts me. When we see each other, it comes up every single time."
J.K. had surgery the next week. He still didn't miss a practice except when it conflicted with his physical therapy and was still voted a team captain in the middle of the season. The Leopards finished 4-6, losing in the first round of the playoffs.
"Some of these kids are forgoing their senior year, then I think about what he went through," Kates said. "He would have done anything - I'm talking about anything - to get one more carry as a La Grange Leopard."
J.K. was angry and anxious. His father had died, now this. He was worried that Ohio State would yank his scholarship. Grounds said she saw a little bit of Lawrence in her son, who was struggling with the thought that he could lose football.
"Football is his life. He loves the game of football," Grounds said. "Because that injury was the first time he's been injured like that, it's like, 'Are you going to come back stronger or weaker?' It was the what-ifs that were kind of scary. He wasn't sure he was going to be able to come back like he was and it turned out he was stronger and better once he came back."
Every time his cast would get wet, J.K. would get even more angry because he thought it would slow his recovery. Dobbins wanted to return for his senior high school season so bad that he and Kates had multiple doctors try to talk his mother into allowing a late-season return for the playoffs.
Grounds hurt her ankle in high school and still felt the pain from it decades later, so she put her foot down. He would have to wait until college, but that didn't stop J.K. from working. He wasn't going out like his dad did.
"When you get injured like that, it makes you realize who you are," Dobbins said. "You never quit. You always finish it. I don't like to lose. If you quit, you lose."Jay LaPreteJ.K. Dobbins Bounces Back
Ohio State Running Backs Coach Tony Alford was sent to Dallas to recruit somebody else when an intern told him he should check out Dobbins while he was in the area.
"First of all, I was like, 'Where the hell is La Grange, Texas?'" Alford said. "Then as you watched him, you just start to see all kinds of dynamic stuff. But then when you really started to dive into who he was as a young man and having intimate conversations with him, that's when it clicked for me. This kid is different."
A couple years earlier, Alford's younger brother had died at 39 years old from a blood clot. His son, Alford's nephew, was 15 years old at the time, the same age J.K. was when his father passed. They started having deep hour-long conversations. Then they started talking three of four times a day.
Alford remembered J.K. telling him, as a 17-year-old, that he had cut some of his longtime friends out of his life. They had started doing drugs and J.K. was moving on. He'd seen this play out before with his father.
"Everything is black and white for him," Alford said. "For him, this is how you go to work and handle your business as a man. Here's how you attack the day. Here's the type of work ethic needed. If somebody is not doing that, he struggles with that.
"He's trying to be successful and he wants the people surrounding him to help him do that. If you're not doing that, then quite frankly, you're in the way. That's just how he's wired. A lot of that stems from his dad. He wants his name to be synonymous with something big."
Before he arrived on campus, Dobbins told Alford that they were going to win the Heisman Trophy ceremony together one day. Alford was blown away.
"He has an amazing confidence about himself," Alford said. "His thing was like, 'Somebody's got to do it, why not me?' And he is a competitive cat. When I say hate, that's a strong word. He hates to lose. He will cut your throat to win."
Alford was impressed with the way Dobbins was always looking for more knowledge, always "on a quest" to improve. He marveled at the way he practiced like it was a game. Dobbins became a true freshman starter at Ohio State - a rare feat, particularly at running back.
His first game was on national television, at Indiana. J.K. galloped for 181 yards, breaking a 15-year-old school record held by Maurice Clarett for most rushing yards in a debut. Dobbins became a star overnight, and he was off and running once again.
Back home in La Grange, the entire Leopards football team had gotten together to watch Dobbins' college debut. "Everybody was excited, but nobody was shocked, I promise you," Kates said.
His mother was in the stands that night, crying. "Lawrence didn't get to see his son live out the dream he wanted. It was emotional to me because I couldn't give that to J.K. His dad will never know how great he is."
"I do wish he was here to see it, after all the hard work we put in," J.K. said. "But that's life. You've got to keep it rolling. I know he's up there watching. He's got a better view than everybody else."
J.K. went on to rush for more than 1,400 yards as a freshman. His stats dropped in his second year, which only stoked his inner fire. He was driven to show the doubters that he wasn't a one-year wonder. As Alford said, "he opened the floodgates."
J.K. topped 2,000 yards his junior season and scored 23 touchdowns. He ran for 211 yards and four touchdowns against Michigan, then ripped off 172 yards and another score in the Big 10 championship a week later. He finished sixth in the Heisman voting.
Alford would often catch J.K. staring at a wall in his meeting room, which featured the photos of Ohio State All-American running backs such as Archie Griffin, Eddie George and Ezekiel Elliott. When J.K.'s days at Ohio State were coming to a close, Alford asked him why he always did that.
"I was trying to figure out where my picture was going to go," J.K. said.
Todd Rosenberg/Todd Rosenberg 2020J.K. Dobbins Is a Worker
J.K. left all of his accolades in Texas when he left to go train in Florida for his first NFL season.
"Set that aside. Keep going," he thought. "I want to be the best. There aren't shortcuts to that."
J.K. was not at all happy when he slipped out of the first round of the NFL draft. Four other running backs were selected before the Ravens picked him at No. 55 overall in the second round.
J.K. came to Baltimore with a chip on his shoulder but found himself behind veteran Mark ingram II and Gus Edwards. Even in Baltimore's run-heavy scheme, with quarterback Lamar Jackson as one of the top rushers, there wasn't much for J.K. at first.
He scored two touchdowns in his first NFL game but didn't get double-digit carries until Week 8 against Pittsburgh, after the Ravens' bye-week self-evaluation. In that game, he toted the rock 15 times for 113 yards.
J.K. said those first six weeks when he wasn't getting the ball much were one of the most difficult things he's ever had to deal with, which is saying something.
"I'd always been able to work myself somewhere. At Ohio State, you weren't stopping me from starting as a freshman. In high school, I was a starter as a freshman," he said.
"It was just different for me. I was working hard and every time I got the ball it would be like 20 yards a carry. But there was nothing I could do. That was so hard. It was tough, mentally. I'm such a competitor and I want to be the best. If I am not the best, it kills me. It literally kills me inside."
J.K. said he started getting in his own head, wondering if he wasn't doing enough to prove to coaches that he deserved more of a shot. He got it over the second half of the season, taking the lion's share of the carries in a duo with Edwards. In the regular-season closer in Cincinnati, J.K. ripped off 160 yards on 13 rushes, including a 72-yard touchdown.
Dobbins finished his rookie season leading all NFL running backs with 6.0 yards per carry. He posted a Ravens rookie franchise record with nine touchdowns, including one over his final six regular-season games.
After the season, J.K. rented an AirBnB in South Florida to train with his new best buddy, Minnesota Vikings running back Dalvin Cook. Cook had just come off a spectacular season with more than 1,500 rushing yards and 16 touchdowns.
The two had trained together the year prior too, after their mutual agent connected them with Nick Hicks, the co-founder of PER4ORM in Miami-Ft. Lauderdale. For four months, they work out five days a week for two to three hours.
"J.K. is the hardest worker on the field all the time," Hicks said. "It's all gas, no brakes."
After their day of speed work, J.K. would do 10 or 12 100-yard full sprints.
"I'm training with Dalvin and I'm like, 'Damn, he's right here next to me. Why not me?'" J.K. said. "He's my best friend. So why not me? That's what I'm working towards."
Cook calls J.K. his "little brother," saying he brings the Year 1 out of him as Cook enters his fifth NFL season, now in the elite class of running backs.
"He keeps me on my A-game," Cook said. "Sometimes when you're an older player in the league, you don't want to get those extra reps at the end or do an extra jog. J.K. is one of the biggest workaholics I've ever been around. We could have gone through a whole hour-long session and he'll want to get some cardio in after. It's crazy."
Dobbins' beach workouts posted on social media drew plenty of likes this summer, but one went viral. Last summer, he made Hicks' mouth bleed when he ran him over during a drill. This year, J.K. made sure a camera was rolling during a stiff-arm drill.
"He smoked me," Hicks said. "I'm not going to lie, I was pretty pissed off at first because he had planned the whole thing. He felt bad after it, but it went viral, so I guess you have to roll with the punches."
Dobbins apologized every day for two weeks. It was pretty funny though. While J.K. is insanely driven, he often works with a smile. There's a playfulness about him. On gamedays last season, J.K. was often one of the first players on the field to warm up, headphones on, dancing around with a grin like he's about to play strictly for fun.
"He's like a kid. You expect that from him," Cook said. "He's going to laugh, always smile. It transfers over to the field. When he puts his pads on, he's going to bring it to you and smile while he does it."
So how good does Cook think J.K. can be?
"There ain't no ceiling on him," Cook said. "I think his talent hasn't been unlocked yet. Working out with him this offseason, he took his game to another level, knowing the level of responsibility he has in front of him. He can catch the football, he can block, he can run, he's elusive. There's nothing he can't do.
"I feel like he could have that breakout year for the Ravens. He could take that team to another level. I just hope he doesn't do it against us."
After J.K.'s injury Saturday night, Cook re-tweeted their mutual agent's message.
Shawn Hubbard @shawn_hubbard/© Baltimore Ravens 2021J.K. Dobbins Has Big Goals
J.K. made waves this offseason when he said he wanted to be considered in the same class as Christian McCaffrey and Alvin Kamara, two of the best tailbacks in the league, particularly as pass-catchers.
After a couple costly drops in the playoffs, pundits questioned how much of a receiving threat J.K. could be. So Dobbins spent all offseason catching a countless number of passes.
The Ravens had big plans for Dobbins to become more of an all-around threat and centerpiece of their offense.
"I tell the coaches every day. I want to be that guy," J.K. said. "Y'all want to call on somebody, call on me. If Lamar can't do it, put it on me. That's why I work so hard, so I can be ready in that situation - always."
Becoming a better receiver was just the tip of J.K.'s goals for this season and beyond.
"Last year wasn't good enough for me. People are like, 'Oh, you had a great rookie year!' No it wasn't!" he said. "I didn't have 1,000 yards rushing. I didn't play the first half of the year; what was the reason for that? I must not have been good enough.
"I always told myself I want to be the best. Right now, I'm not the best. So I have to be the best. I think God gave me the talents to do that."
So how high is J.K. shooting for? He wants a gold jacket from the Pro Football Hall of Fame and he's not afraid to say it.
"That's the goal," he said. "Why come here and be mediocre? That's something I learned from my dad. Why do something and be average? What's the point of it then? You want to be like everybody else? Well fall in line. But I don't want to be that. I can't be that way. It eats me inside when I'm not the best."
When Dobbins met with Running Backs Coach Craig Ver Steeg this offseason to talk about his goals for this season, Dobbins expressed his lofty aspirations, specifically as a pass catcher. Ver Steeg was impressed with the offseason program he signed himself up for.
"The most impressive thing about him is his ability to back up his goals with work," Ver Steeg said. "You want to go somewhere? You create steps to get there. He's one that really does that. Some guys do that in varying levels, but he really does it. He takes coaching points to heart."
Some might think Dobbins is cocky, or a maybe a little too confident. Those who watch him work know better.
"I don't think he's cocky at all," tight end Mark Andrews said. "I think he's extremely confident in his abilities on the field - which he should be."
"He thinks he's the best," Hicks said. "I never met anybody who was the best that didn't think they were the best."
Phil Hoffmann/Baltimore Ravens PhotosJ.K. Dobbins Is a Believer
J.K. suffered his injury when Washington cornerback Jimmy Moreland hit him in the left knee with his shoulder as he was sandwiched from behind by linebacker Jordan Kunaszyk. It came on a screen pass, the kind of play J.K. was eager to get more of this season.
As J.K. was carted off the field, there were no tears, no towel over his head. Just a blank look of disappointment.
It's the most painful preseason injury that has happened to the Ravens since Jamal Lewis, fresh off leading Baltimore's offense to a Super Bowl in 2001, went down with an ACL tear in training camp the following season.
When J.K. went down, Kates was at home and saw it come across the screen on ESPN. He let out an "Oh my God" and text messages from others in and around La Grange soon started pinging his phone.
"Just sickening, sickening, sickening," Kates said. "He was prime to bust out and put the whole league on notice. It'll still happen, just not till 2022. If anybody knows how to handle it, it's him. I think he proved that at Ohio State with his career there. He'll be a rehab hero. Whatever they ask him to do, he'll do it tenfold."
Kates pointed out that one big difference between J.K's ankle injury and his knee injury is the finality of it. The ankle meant his high school career was over, but J.K.'s NFL career is still just getting started.
Alford was driving home from the office at Ohio State when his phone started blowing up. He got to a place where he could stop and immediately texted J.K.: "I don't know what's going on. Are you OK?"
J.K. responded immediately with one word only: "No."
"I'm sick for my guy," Alford said. "Here's the deal with J.K. I know how he is when he gets angry and upset; you've just got to let him be. He'll be fine, but right now he's emotional and upset. When I talk to him, I'm going to make sure that there's no doubt in anyone's mind that those things are still on the horizon for him. He's still going to reach all those milestones and goals he's wished for. That's who he's destined to be."
J.K. called his mother from the FedExField locker room. Still living in La Grange, she was trying to get the game on TV when her phone rang.
"I was like, 'Why is he calling me? It's game time,'" she thought before Dobbins told her the news. "My heart dropped. I felt very hot, like I was about to have a panic attack."
Then J.K. went into comforting mode. He knows his mother is a worrier (and a crier). Grounds recently got her first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine, as she was planning to fly to Las Vegas for the Ravens' regular-season opener. But she's not fully vaccinated yet, so J.K. told her to stay home instead of flying to Baltimore for his upcoming knee surgery.
"He's in good spirits - better than I," she said. "He's the one that keeps me sane. He's telling me, 'Don't worry about it, it's God's plan. It's just like my high school year. I'm just going to come back stronger and better.'"
J.K. made his first public statement Tuesday afternoon, about three days after the injury, saying "I'll be back and I'll be back better than ever." He closed by citing the Bible verse from James 1:12.
Blessed is the one who perseveres under trial because, having stood the test, that person will receive the crown of life that the Lord has promised to those who love him.
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