Why Desmond King chose the Iowa Hawkeyes over the NFL

IOWA CITY, Iowa -- Iowa cornerback Desmond King is so efficient at making history that next season he needs only to set foot on the field to separate himself from recent legends of the game at his position.

No winner of the Jim Thorpe Award, in its three decades of recognizing the nation's top defensive backs, has returned to play college football. Every recipient with remaining eligibility -- from Charles Woodson to Eric Berry to Patrick Peterson -- left early for the NFL.

King pondered his future for two days after the Hawkeyes' Rose Bowl loss to Stanford, announcing on Jan. 4 that he would come back as a senior.

If King had made the easy choice, these last days of April likely would have marked the beginning of a new chapter for him as a multimillionaire.

In lieu of celebrating Thursday night in Chicago at the NFL draft, King is preparing for final exams, which start a week from Monday at Iowa.

"He wasn't ready to leave what he had," said Iowa defensive coordinator Phil Parker, who saw in King as a high school senior in Detroit what no other Power 5 coach could project.

But why did Desmond King come back? As less-accomplished underclassmen rejoice in their new riches, why is King plotting to improve in 2016 on a junior season in which he tied Iowa's single-season record with eight interceptions and earned consensus first-team All-America honors?

The answer involves a promise that King made to his mother, Yvette Powell, and his burgeoning sense of maturity, thrust upon King by the slaying of a family member that led to his embracing of brotherhood -- both by blood and within the structure of Iowa football.

'At the end of every day, I always thought about what he would want me to do'

Armon Jordan Golson was shot to death on Sept. 18, 2012. The second-oldest of Powell's four sons, he got involved in a robbery gone wrong, his mother said. A.J., as they knew him, was 21. Desmond, the third-oldest, was 17 and had just started his senior season at East English Village Preparatory Academy when his brother died.

"At the end of every day," King said, "I always thought about what he would want me to do. It's simple. He would want me going to college."

The week of Armon's death, King set the Michigan high school record for career interceptions.

Parker re-entered King's life some three months later. The Iowa coordinator had noticed King years prior at a camp but lost track of the prospect until after he committed to Central Michigan and then switched to Ball State.

King flipped quickly to Iowa. His brother's impact never waned.

The death of his brother changed King. He could have grown bitter and turned inward, but people close to King say he embraced life.

"I know when I recruited him, he just seemed a little more aware of life's values," Parker said. "I'm sure that [death] had a big effect on him. It motivated him to keep going in life. He has a broader view of what's going on in the world."

Powell said she noticed immediately after Armon's death that King gravitated to his younger brother -- her fourth son, Devon King. Now a 17-year-old senior at Detroit's Cody High School, Devon is autistic and has a passion drawing.

Desmond wants him to attend an art school next year.

"He looks up to me," King said, "and I want to be there to show him the right way. When we lost our brother, I wanted to see him focused on the right things."

Desmond's strength buoyed Devon, who has grown into Powell's strongest son, she said.

"Devon held me up," she said. "But it was because of Desmond. He knew that he had to be that kind of man for his baby brother. They feed off each other."

Powell said she feels the presence of Armon in Desmond.

"[Armon] went after things in life," she said, "just like Desmond."

Her first grandchild was born to Powell's oldest son, Andre Golson, on Dec. 1, 2013. His name is Armon.

"I believe in angels," she said.

'Sometimes money can wait'

In the aftermath of his brother's death, King forged a strengthened brotherhood at home in Michigan. Soon, his feelings transferred to Iowa. In 2013, as King started 12 games -- the first true freshman at Iowa to start even once in the secondary since 2002 -- he developed a bond with a redshirt freshman quarterback.

C.J. Beathard, raised amid country-music royalty and the NFL culture thanks to his famous father and grandfather, appeared an unlikely fit to connect with King.

Not so, if you consider their leadership qualities and dedication to the team.

Jump to Jan. 4 of this year. King, after a 15-minute talk about the NFL decision with Powell upon his return from California and the Rose Bowl, suggested they make a phone call to Beathard, arguably the Big Ten's top returning quarterback.

"We're like brothers," King said.

Powell and King talked together to Beathard, who was supportive and told King to make sure the decision was right for him.

After that, Powell called Parker, nervously awaiting in Iowa City.

"I'd had a pretty good feeling he was coming back," Parker said, "but at that moment, I didn't know what he was going to do. What if something had changed?"

Powell spoke to the coach and handed the phone to her son. King made it quick, and Parker launched into his routine of dishing advice.

Get ready to work, the coach told King.

"Your picture's on the wall," Parker said. "Everyone knows your name. It's not going to be easy."

Mainly, though, Parker felt relief. He sat back in his chair at home and called coach Kirk Ferentz with the good news.

"I wouldn't have blamed him one bit if he left," Iowa linebacker Bo Bower said. "I knew he loved this team and how much he loved Iowa, but this shows how strongly he feels."

And what about those two days after the Rose Bowl? King spent them in Los Angeles with Tracy King, Desmond's mentor and former high school secondary coach. Tracy King, unrelated to Desmond, has served as his father figure for much of the past decade.

Desmond's biological father, also named Desmond King, split from Powell early in young Desmond's life. The Iowa star maintains a relationship with his father and they visit regularly, but Tracy King's influence looms large.

In high school, Desmond often stayed at the home of Tracy and his wife, Dara King, on the nights before football games. The couple relocated to Maryland when Desmond left for Iowa, but Tracy traveled to many of the Hawkeyes' games last season as Desmond's star rose.

They talked in California after New Year's Day, while driving the streets of L.A. en route to the Hollywood sign and other attractions -- an interesting backdrop, for sure, as Tracy advised Desmond "not to let the idea of money or fame" impact his decision about the NFL.

Do not act out of fear or worry about what might happen in your last season at Iowa, Tracy advised Desmond. Make the decision that you want, he said, not what others expect from you.

"He's always set the bar high," Tracy King said. "That's what allows him to continue to push. I was very moved to see him bet on himself."

But the idea to return sat in Desmond's mind before that conversation with his mentor. Desmond has long viewed Iowa as an extension of his family.

To illustrate the importance of family, Tracy tells a story about his kindergarten-aged son, Caleb. Caleb recently "wrote a book" in class about his brother who plays football at Iowa.

Tracy took a photo of the school project and sent it to Desmond.

"If you could just hear his voice," Tracy King said, "how he responded. He truly takes that role to heart. "

No matter the distance, the barriers or the age difference, brotherhood endures for Desmond King.

"Sometimes," Powell said, "money can wait. He's waited this long."

'I want my yellow rose'

All of this ignores the elephant in the room as it pertains to King's return. Nearing the end of his sixth semester at Iowa, King plans to graduate in December or next May.

"I would say on a scale of 1 to 10 on the importance of why I came back," King said, "that's probably a good 7-1/2 to 8.

"My mom would say it's a 10."

Powell laughs at the comment, but it's no joke. Desmond will be the first in his family to earn a college degree. It rates as her top priority for him.

Powell herself sits 12 credit hours short of completing her work at Davenport University in Detroit. After working at a cardiology clinic, she pursued the degree but stopped while stricken with grief after Armon's death.

More than two decades ago, she planned to attend Alabama State. The birth of her first son, Andre, interfered.

"That sparked in me a desire to see my sons graduate," said Powell, who, inspired by Desmond and Devon, plans to finish school now too.

Spoken or simply understood, Desmond promised to fulfill that wish for his mother.

She shared with him another wish. In 2013, his freshman season, Powell watched the senior day festivities at Kinnick Stadium. As the parents of departing Hawkeyes were presented yellow roses, Powell envisioned a November day in 2016.

"I want my yellow rose," she said. "He's a good kid. He loves me. I know he does. But I just want the best for him.

"If you get the degree, nothing can stop you. I'm just thankful I have a son who wants to finish."

In reality, for Desmond King, as that NFL future beckons this week around the noise of the draft, the easy choice was Iowa.