It will be a combination homecoming game and Mother’s Day celebration for defensive back Desmond King when the Chargers visit the Detroit Lions on Sunday.
More than 100 family members and friends — including King’s mother, Yvette Powell; his grandparents; several high school coaches and former teammates — will be on hand to watch the kid who grew up in the working-class neighborhood of Warrendale and starred at Detroit’s East English Village Prep Academy take on his hometown team.
“I’m very excited — you should hear all the people here talking about it,” Powell said by phone. “The city of Detroit loves my baby.”
And the baby loves his mama. Most of the King contingent will have to purchase tickets for the game and sit in the stands, but some will root for the All-Pro slot cornerback from the lap of luxury.
King, who played in four youth league championship games and two prep city title games on Ford Field’s artificial surface, purchased a suite for the game — at a cost of about $10,000 — for his mother, older brother Andre Golson, and several other family members and close friends.
“It brought me to tears,” Powell, 49, said of King’s gesture. “I told him I’m the happiest mom in the world, and as long as I’m at the game, I’m fine. He told me, ‘Mama, you’ve been in the stands, you’ve been on the field with me, but you haven’t been in a suite,’ and he wanted me to sit up there this time.
“I didn’t expect that. I guess it’s his way of saying ‘Thank you, Mama, for supporting me all those years.’”
It was Powell, a single mother, who shielded Desmond from the dangers of Detroit’s streets, who shuttled him from football to wrestling to track practices as a kid, who found time to volunteer for King’s youth league and high school teams despite working two jobs, and who drove him to and from high school every day, a 35-minute commute from the west side of town to the east side and back.
And it was Powell who guided the family through tragedy, when another of King’s older brothers, Armon Golson, was shot and killed during a robbery when King was a 17-year-old high school senior in September 2012.
“Man, she means everything to him,” Rod Oden, King’s high school football coach, said of Powell. “She is his inspiration behind everything that he does. She did a phenomenal job with him. He definitely wants to show his mom his appreciation.”
A college star at Iowa, King is in his third year in California after the Chargers selected him in the fifth round of the 2017 NFL draft. But he remains firmly rooted in Detroit. He returns every summer to run a youth football camp and often works out with Oden’s high school players.
“It’s good to know I have that support system back home, even when I’m out here,” said King, who was a huge Lions fan as a kid. “As a guy from the inner city of Detroit, to come back for a homecoming game … it’s nice to know a lot of people will be there rooting me on.”
King will carve out some time to see his mother and some relatives at the team hotel Saturday, but he won’t be able to catch up with all of his friends. These are business trips, as veteran defensive lineman Damion Square learned when the Chargers played in his hometown of Houston in 2016.
“I had 23 people at the game,” Square said. “It was nuts, but it was good to play at home.”
What kind of homecoming advice would Square give King?
“One, don’t get too outrageous with the tickets,” Square said. “Two, approach it like you approach any other game. Don’t get too high, don’t get too low. Just believe in your capabilities and your preparation.”
Confidence has never been an issue for the 5-foot-10, 200-pound King. He was undersized in high school, where he established a Michigan prep record with 29 interceptions and rushed for 3,970 yards and 45 touchdowns in three varsity seasons, and in college, where he won the Jim Thorpe Award, given to the nation’s best defensive back, in 2015.
King seized a key role in the Chargers’ nickel package as a rookie in 2017, emerged as one of the NFL’s best slot cornerbacks in 2018 and, thanks in part to his fearlessness, developed into a second-team All-Pro punt returner last season.
King had 62 total tackles and 10 pass breakups in 2018, his best game coming in a 33-30 win at Pittsburgh on Dec. 2, when he had 10 tackles, two pass breakups and returned a punt 73 yards for a touchdown.
He had three tackles — one for a loss — and returned the opening kickoff 43 yards in Sunday’s season-opening 30-24 overtime win over Indianapolis, but he did fumble away the only punt he handled, in the third quarter.
“Dez is just a stellar athlete,” Square said. “He doesn’t seem to be crazy fast, but when he catches punts he creates separation. And you have to be another level of athlete to play defensive back — and to do it on a consistent basis — in this pass-happy league.”
Oden, now the coach at Harper Woods High in the Detroit area, said many of his current players are planning to go to the game Sunday. Seeing King play in an NFL game against the Lions at Ford Field could have an enormous impact on those kids, many of whom are facing the same challenges King did.
“It helps them understand that anything is possible, that this thing is tangible, that you can reach out and touch it,” Oden said. “Dez is a kid who not only went to school here but who has been the constant underdog — he was always undersized, too short, too slow, all these things.
“And to go play in the Big Ten and win the Thorpe Award, to get an opportunity to play for the Chargers and to make the best of that opportunity? He’s an inspiration to us all, for sure.”