When Ja’ree Tolbert arrived at Coastal Carolina University as a freshman in 2014, he was prepared for four or five years of the college life.
He was ready to experience Division I football, academics and the social life that revolves around a college campus.
Less than two weeks later, his priorities changed.
Tolbert had barely stepped foot on the campus when he learned his girlfriend in Miami was pregnant.
“I had [football] camp and everything on one plate but I also had a baby on the way,” Tolbert said.
So Tolbert has learned to balance the responsibilities of being a student-athlete with the responsibilities of being a father to his now 2 1/2 -year-old daughter, Jaelyn, and husband to his now wife, Marta.
And he’s done it while becoming a productive player who has earned a starting position on the defensive line as a fourth-year junior, and while remaining one of the more jovial players on the team.
“When it comes to it, he can be compared to a CEO of a company,” said senior defensive tackle Dwayne Price. “That’s basically what a family is, is him being the head of the family. Being the father he’s responsible for making sure his family eats, making sure his kid stays in line, making sure his wife stays happy, making sure he himself is on point. So he’s not only responsible for himself with football, school and his happiness, he’s also responsible for the well being and happiness of his family. He handles that fairly well.
“… I know people out here who wouldn’t have made it halfway through college with the same load that he has.”
That load is about to increase, as Marta is due with the couple’s second child, a boy, in January.
“My life motto is I’ll cross that bridge when I get to it,” Tolbert said. “I control the controllables and compartmentalize. Don’t bring family problems to the field and don’t bring football problems home. I’m pretty good at it.”
Tolbert has 10 tackles, including one for a loss of yards, through the season’s first five games after recording 22 tackles including 3.5 for loss last season in a reserve role.
The 6-foot, 295-pound tackle played in six games in 2015 before missing the final four games of the season with an injury, and was valuable to the team even as a redshirt freshman in 2014, as he was named the practice scout team defensive player of the year a few months after learning he was going to be a father.
Tolbert and his wife were high school sweethearts. They began dating during Tolbert’s sophomore year at North Miami Senior High and remained together despite Tolbert’s transfer to Miami Springs High for his final two years of high school. They also stayed together through Tolbert’s first two years at Coastal when Marta remained in Miami.
The couple married and she moved to the Grand Strand in the summer of 2016 when Jaelyn was a year old.
With Tolbert’s busy schedule, Marta is a stay-at-home mom. “It’s hard to juggle my schedule with football, work and school,” Tolbert said.
On a typical weekday that doesn’t include team travel, Tolbert wakes by 6:30 a.m. and has team meetings and practices from 7-11 a.m., classes until about 3 p.m., weight training, and his part-time job as a student assistant with the Coastal Carolina Department of Public Safety before returning home about 9:30 p.m.
“I try to get 20 hours [working] a week but I never make it, I never finish it with traveling and stuff like that,” Tolbert said. “It’s usually about 10 to 15 hours. It’s something extra to keep some [financial] breathing room in there. It’s not the easiest thing to do but we make it work.”
He’ll see his wife and daughter occasionally throughout the day when he returns home to shower, eat or take a break, but he and Jaelyn have their time at night.
“Me and her play all night until we both fall asleep. She usually has some late nights. She waits up for me,” Tolbert said. “After a long day, you don’t think you can go anymore, you just want to go home and go to bed, and you get home and she screams ‘Daddy!’ and you know you’ve got a few more hours. It’s a stress relief.”
Out of respect for Tolbert’s family responsibilities, many of Tolbert’s friends on the team will forego bars, clubs and parties to either host his family or go to his house to have dinner, play cards, watch TV or just chill.
“It takes a village to raise a child, but it also takes a village to help a man raise his family because the pressure becomes immense,” Price said. “We can bring the party to him. We’ve met up at my house, his house, other teammates’ houses. We understand the responsibility he has, but at the same time he’s still a college student, still our age and still wants to have fun, so we’ll try to accommodate him with that.”
It’s also not unusual for Jaelyn to accompany Tolbert to teammate gatherings for football preparation.
Tolbert has a family support group on the team that includes Price, defensive end Marcus Williamson and linebackers Shane Johnson and Jarius McMillan, who are all seniors or grad students.
“My house is real homey so they like to hang out at my house and sit around on my couches a lot,” Tolbert said. “Those are my brothers. They love me to death, they love my wife and my daughter. They’ll do anything for us. I love those guys. They take good care of me.”
Tolbert is on pace to graduate in December with a degree in interdisciplinary studies with a focus on social justice.
He’ll have a fifth year of football eligibility remaining and will have a difficult decision: play a final season in 2018 or embark on a career that will support the family, which will soon include two children.
“I want to see how my body feels after this season to make a decision as to what I’m going to do after,” Tolbert said. “It’s A or B right now, kind of 50-50.”
He’s planning a career in law enforcement that includes becoming a detective. But his love for football will be difficult to overlook.
“Football is super important,” Tolbert said. “Football has taken me places I never dreamed of. Before I came to college, besides my home town of Kansas City, Mo., I had never been outside of Florida to any other states. Just being a part of football I’ve seen New Jersey, I’ve seen Texas, I’ve seen Louisiana, I’ve been all over the United States. Football has taken me places, it has given me a college degree. I’m the first one in my family to graduate from a university. I respect the game. I’ll give it its due. When my body tells me it’s time, it will be time.”