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Late-bloomer Khalil Herbert blossoming with Bears

Bears running back Khalil Herbert
Bears running back Khalil Herbert

Khalil Herbert started playing tackle football at five years old down in Florida. But he didn't really play. He wore No. 95 and he was considered a running back. But he wasn't really a running back. He sat on the bench and maybe got one carry a game if his team was winning by a lot or losing by a lot. In reality, he didn't have a position.

That was Herbert's norm for several years.

He was the brother of KJ Herbert, a speedy kid who was naturally talented in every sport. KJ, who is three years older than his brother, played for the Coconut Creek football program, so Khalil joined as well.

Football in Florida means everything. There aren't participation trophies and only the best get a shot at the top positions.

Khalil was a late bloomer, describing his younger self as chubby and slow, lacking some athleticism. The level of competition meant Khalil wasn't given a chance to play a skill position. But the Herbert family was paying for him to be on the team, so the coaches had to find him a place.

While KJ excelled as a running back, Khalil had to learn to be the jack of all trades. He bounced around from defensive end to linebacker to guard to fullback to cornerback.

No matter where Khalil played or how hard we worked, he was always just "KJ's little brother." It wasn't even until Khalil's sophomore year of high school that he finally got a shot at running back. But it was still because of KJ. If his older brother was a great running back, maybe Khalil could be too. 

But no one understood Khalil's desire to be more than KJ's brother or saw the fire that festered inside him for a decade.

'He just never gave up'

Khalil was about six years old when he stepped onto a prominent football field for the first time. His father took him and KJ out to Boise, Idaho, to visit his other older brother, Treyvion Foster, who is the same age as KJ.

One of their days in Idaho was spent breaking onto Boise State football field, known for its bright blue turf. The brothers ran around the field, pretending to score touchdowns while snow fell around them. Treyvion remembers how excited Khalil and KJ were to see snow for the first time. The moment was surreal.

As the three played on the field, Treyvion and KJ gave Khalil a hard time, teasing him and showing off their greater athletic abilities. It was normal big brother behavior, and it was something Khalil was used to.

Most summers, Treyvion would go down to Florida to see his dad and brothers. While KJ was the fastest, Treyvion was always the strongest. They physically dominated Khalil in any game they played, but it only added to the fire.

"He just never gave up," Treyvion said. "Anytime we're playing in the yard, KJ was always super quick, or I'd catch the jump balls, but he never just sat there and said, 'I'm not gonna be able to catch KJ or catch this ball over Treyvion.' He was just always fighting to make plays really in anything we played in."

The brothers created competition everywhere. They were usually playing football in the backyard or basketball in the street. If they weren't outside, they were battling each other in Madden or NCAA Football. Like any siblings, they were always trying to best each other.

But no matter what the competition was, Khalil was always in the mix. Treyvion learned from a young age that there was no quit in his younger brother.

"He was always there in the scrum with his older brothers and his older cousins, just fighting for the ball," Treyvion said. "And he never wanted to break off with the younger cousins. He was always going to compete with the biggest, the fastest, or best, whether it was childhood, or as he got older. And you see that play out on the field. He's not going to shy away from taking anybody on whether that's trying to break their ankles or run through them. He's just always been like that, whether he was interested in football or not, he's not going to take [crap] from anyone."

When Treyvion reflects on the memories of him and KJ constantly teasing Khalil or beating him in games like 'kill the man with the ball,' he sees why his little brother grew into a successful, yet humble man.

While the sibling bickering or size disadvantages might've bothered Khalil for a short moment, he never let it deter his driven mindset. He always admired his brothers' athletic abilities, but he quickly learned he'd have to work a bit harder than most.

"Those are reasons that outside voices and what other people are doing doesn't really affect him," Treyvion said. "He's so focused on bettering himself and shutting out the outside noise and going to work and trying to be the best he can be rather than comparing himself to others."

'KJ's little brother'

KJ first noticed a difference between his and Khalil's determination when they were in little league football. There were different weight groups and sometimes Khalil would be overweight. Instead of quitting, he changed his diet, often eating Lean Cuisine meals, so he could make weight before gameday.

Khalil's work ethic was something KJ didn't really understand. KJ was always the standout athlete of the family, but he rarely put in extra work. Any sport he tried, he excelled at.

"I didn't even pay attention to myself. It was all just fun to me, and it just came naturally," KJ said. "I didn't put in any work. Khalil, he put in a lot of work to be where he is now. And it's a totally different mindset now that I'm older, I can see like damn, I wish I did put in work when I was younger."

When Treyvion wasn't in Florida for the summer, KJ and Khalil's mother would often book a vacation for her and her boys. But there were multiple times Khalil turned down the trip so he could stay home and participate in summer workouts.

Again, KJ was confused by this. He always went on the vacations because summer training didn't seem that important to him. But for Khalil it was just another chance to learn, grow and defy expectations.

Once Khalil got to high school at Stoneman Douglas, everything changed. KJ was focused on track and field, eventually earning a scholarship to run for St. Augustine. Treyvion went to play football at Stanford. Both older brothers graduated high school in 2013, so their first year of college was Khalil's sophomore year of high school.

The next time the brothers saw each other, Khalil was unrecognizable. He had sprouted up to 5-foot-10, leaned out, yet gained substantial muscle. Around sophomore year was when Khalil blossomed as a running back. When Treyvion and KJ first saw his early high school tapes, they couldn't believe it was their little brother.

"Our cousin's group chat, he's sending me clips or highlights of himself, and I saw that transition to where he was a lot more reflective on his performance and wanting to get better," Treyvion said. "Once KJ started in track it was this goal of getting to the D1 level and seeing a lot of peers he grew up with that were older, Khalil started to see them go into college and also the league. That starts to feel more realistic."

Khalil spent three years at Stoneman Douglas before transferring to American Heritage for his senior year of high school. He became one of the team's prominent leaders, recording 861 yards with nine touchdowns, but his college prospects were still few and far between. His first offer came from Appalachian State, then FIU, two FBS schools.

Then, in January of his senior year, Kansas offered him and he committed. Khalil knew he wasn't walking into a powerhouse. Kansas had gone winless in the 2015 season and won just six games combined in the previous two seasons.

Still, all Khalil needed was a chance. It's what he rarely had growing up, never being the first or even second option. But if Khalil could make a name for himself in high school, ridding himself of the "KJ's little brother" title, he could find a way to make it work at Kansas.

Chip on his shoulder

After a strong freshman year with the Jayhawks, featuring three starts and three touchdowns, Herbert exploded in his sophomore season.

He rushed for over 100 yards in two games and became third on Kansas' single-game rushing list with a 291-yard game. Herbert led the Jayhawks in carries and rushing yards and scored four touchdowns.

"It was like this remarkable shift he made," Treyvion said. "And I think what I saw so much, he was constantly reflecting on film and seeing what he could do better. In that offense, splitting with a couple other backs too, he had to capitalize on every opportunity he got. I think that really shifted his mindset, like every dollar counts, I can aim get myself in the endzone every down or what my team needs, because I might only get 10 downs in the game, who knows how much we're gonna throw. And he really took pride to get himself on the field more, he took so much more pride in the pass blocking aspect too which has increasingly become really important as he continues to improve there."

Kansas football is naturally a pass-first program, but it was hard to deny the success Herbert was creating with the run game. Yet, in that sophomore season, he saw just six starts.

"That was weird, because I would be ballin', and I still wouldn't get the recognition or be the starter per se," Herbert said. "So my mindset, I always had a chip on my shoulder just because I felt like I always had to do things a little bit, I had to work a little bit harder for things in order to get the same recognition as other people. So just my mindset, really, the whole time was trying to prove myself right, prove everybody wrong, that I'm just as good or if not better than who, they have started in front of me. And it's kind of the same thing I carry now."

Not much changed between Herbert and the Jayhawks throughout the next couple years, so he decided to use is final year of eligibility elsewhere. Herbert made one of the toughest yet smartest decisions of his career by transferring to Virginia Tech, an established program with a winning culture.

That final season of college was the defining moment of his career. Herbert rushed for 1,204 yards, becoming the first Hokie since 2015 to have a 1,000-yard season. Herbert posted multiple 100-yard rushing games and on Oct. 3, 2020, he set a Virgina Tech record with 357 all-purpose yards in a game.

Even with a late-season injury in 2020, Herbert NFL chances were solidified. Some scouts and analysts even said he could be as a high as a second-round pick in the NFL Draft.

Herbert's family hosted a draft party with his parents, brothers, cousins all in attendance. The first round completed without Herbert hearing his name, which was expected. But then the second day of the draft passed by and Khalil heard nothing. Doubts started to creep into his mind. KJ even had to leave that night for track and field training.

"The entire time we were on edge," Treyvion said. "I know from some of my teammates and other friends that there's times where you know, like 'I'm gonna get the call. It's gonna be on day three, or maybe I'll do an undrafted contract.' But it was each of the days, what's gonna happen today? Is he gonna get the call? He definitely composed himself well. I know inside it was just like a stressful experience and he had a supportive family around him, but he really just reflected the same mentality of when it came to getting that offer from Kansas and going there for school, like 'I just need a chance.'"

But Herbert's family sat back down the following day for rounds 4-7. As each player was pulled off the draft board, the stress and tension in the room became greater. Then, in the sixth round, Khalil received a phone call. He played it cool on the phone though; Treyvion remembers his family having no indication of whether he was getting drafted or not.

Then, they heard Khalil say, 'thank you, coach.' He hung up the phone and announced he had been drafted by the Bears. Tears instantly fell down Khalil's face as he felt that weight release from his shoulders.

"It was kind of relief," Khalil said. "It had been along three days and I had all my close family there. So there's just kind of relief, like you always dreamed of getting drafted and finally to get that call and see your name on the TV, no matter what round it is, it's like a blessing. It feels like everything you've worked for finally paid off and like you get an opportunity to play at the highest level."

He couldn't care less about the spotlight

Herbert's rookie season didn't go as planned; instead, it exceeded everyone's expectations. While he went into training camp and the regular season expecting to play, he didn't know when or how much.

In the first few games of the season, Herbert saw significant special teams reps, totaling 106 kickoff-return yards in Week 1 against the Rams. Throughout the month of September, Herbert totaled 201 kick-return yards.

Then in the fourth game of the season starting running back David Montgomery went down with an injury. In Week 5, Damien Williams and Herbert carried the load. But it was the rookie that led the Bears with 75 rushing yards against the Raiders, helping his team pull out the win.

Herbert got the starting nod the following week against the Packers and rushed for 97 yards while scoring his first career touchdown. He took it a step further against the Buccaneers in Week 7, reaching a season-high 100 yards.

"It was wild just like how ready you have to be and how fast things can change in an instant," Herbert said. "That really showed me kind of how you have to come each day and prepare like a pro, prepare like you're gonna start because you never know what's gonna happen, you might be thrown into that role instantly. So big shout out to the guys in the room last year, and my coach just always keeping me prepared and ready to go."

After the departure of Williams in the offseason, Herbert has slipped into the No. 2 spot behind Montgomery, routinely taking first team snaps in practices. This year, he's confident of his role as an offensive weapon, but there's no satisfaction yet, he's far from where he wants to be.

It's that mindset that allows Treyvion and KJ to radiate so much pride when talking about their little brother. Despite his status as a professional athlete, Herbert hasn't changed a bit as a person or a brother. He' still extremely humble yet constantly evolving into a better version of himself.

Khalil spent years as a child idolizing his brothers, wanting to be just like them. But now, it's Treyvion and KJ striving to be more like Khalil. It's his consistency as a person and a player that his brothers admire.

"I think it's that humility, with the level of success he's attained, that makes you so proud of him," Treyvion said. "Because especially in that underdog mentality growing up, he could really let all of this go to his head. And he couldn't care less about the spotlight. He just wants to win and obviously he wants to be the best. And that's what drives him. But he just stays within himself."

When Herbert talks about his childhood now, he can't help but laugh at a lot of the struggles. The idea of being put at the guard position when he was five years old doesn't even seem plausible now.

But even if Herbert didn't know what he was working towards when he was that young, he understood the importance of sticking with it, even in the toughest moments. If he could speak to his younger self now, Khalil would express his pride for all the times he stayed home to work or the moments he spent fighting to beat his older brothers.

"Keep doing all the things you are doing," Herbert said. "I was never the fastest, the biggest, strongest, I was chubby and slow, so I just kept working. I was never the best person on my team growing up. I wasn't the best in my family growing up. So, I just kept working and working and working and working and it paid off."

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