Kareem Growing Into Captain's PersonaBy Denise Skwarcan
It’s not hard to wonder sometimes what famous athletes, among others, are like behind closed doors. After all, the rest of the world usually sees someone who acts and looks perfectly put together – hair in place, nails manicured, clothes trendy and matching. But…
Has Tom Brady ever gotten toilet paper stuck to the bottom of his shoe? Does LeBron James eat cold spaghetti while standing next to the sink in the kitchen? Has Tiger Woods ever left the house with his shirt on backwards?
Notre Dame defensive end Khalid Kareem is not at that level of famous – yet – but it’s clear that another persona has developed during his time in South Bend. Not a fake one, mind you, but one that he knows how and when to use. It’s sort like knowing when to use your inside voice and the outside one.
“I’m still the same person, to be honest … still the same goofy kid,” Kareem laughed. “I just know when to turn it on and off.”
Which has come in handy during his Irish football career, especially now that he is one of seven captains for this season’s team.
“I’m very personable with the players,” Kareem explained. “Everyone is an individual and everyone is unique and you can’t just yell at everyone (for example). One person might shut down even though it might help someone else. So having the relationship with the players, whether they’re a starter, a role player, a walk-on … it doesn’t matter. I know when to talk and how. If I’m talking all the time there’s really no point. But if I’m talking during those important moments the message will probably hit a little bit harder.
“So it’s a huge honor just to know that my team holds me in such a high regard to lead this team and set an example.”
What Kareem has never been able to turn off is his affinity for the game. Growing up in Detroit, the senior had a football in his hands by the time he was three and started playing organized football a few years later.
“I was raised around football,” Kareem noted. “My cousins played it. My dad was coaching it. My sisters were cheerleaders for it. So I just kind of naturally fell in love with the game.”
Starting at that early age, Kareem’s dad, Ken Kip, was at least part of the coaching staff of every team for which Kareem played through his sophomore year in high school. It formed a unique bond between father and son which remains to this day.
“He was my position coach, defensive coordinator, and sometimes he wasn’t my exact coach but he was still on the coaching staff of the team I played on,” Kareem explained. “The only time he was my head coach was freshman year in high school when I was on JV with him. That was pretty cool.
“We found a healthy balance. He knows when to be coach and when to be dad. So it’s all good. It’s all love at the end of the day.”
The elder Kareem’s involvement stems in part from his passion for the game, but also due in part to the fact that his own father died the year after he was born. He was determined to be as present as possible in his kids’ lives, and the player-coach relationship that emerged between Ken Kip and Khalid further cemented their bond. It’s one that exists to this day.
“He still coaches me up from the stands,” Kareem said. “It doesn’t really matter what level I’m on. He’s still going to be that coach figure.”
Kareem’s passion for football was just for football in general, and growing up he had no particular team for which he rooted. He might have been a little partial toward the University of Michigan because he liked the color blue, and the Irish weren’t even in his realm yet.
“I'm not even going to lie … I couldn't even really tell you where Notre Dame was (back then),” Kareem chuckled. “But I understood the tradition and the history behind it. I had watched ‘Rudy’ a few times and that was probably the most I knew about Notre Dame.”
But then Kareem learned more about the northern Indiana school and that it was the perfect combination of athletics and academics and proximity.
“I didn’t want to stay in-state” Kareem stated. “I wanted to spread my wings a little bit and experience something other than the state of Michigan. I’ll always have a home to come back to in Michigan but this was my opportunity to get out on my own and be my own person. This was the perfect place because it’s only three hours away from home and my family can come see me or I can drive home if I need to.
“So once I started getting recruited by them I really fell in love with the school and the coaching staff and the people around. It felt like home.”
Kareem’s dad was just as pleased with his son’s choice.
“He’s always been a smart responsible kid, always one of those guys that took his academics and his growth seriously,” Ken Kip said. “So when he ended up choosing Notre Dame I thought it was a great fit for him.”
As a freshman in 2016, he found a rhythm with school and life and leaned on friends like teammate and fellow Michigander Daelin Hayes. Kareem saw the field in four games as he battled to find playing time behind guys like Isaac Rochell, Jarron Jones and Jerry Tillery, but the limited minutes proved to be a tough pill to swallow. It was, however, a stepping stone to a much-improved sophomore campaign in which he played in all 13 games.
“(Football) was probably the most challenging time I guess,” Kareem noted. “I had to learn that I wasn’t one of the top guys anymore. I had to work my way up, and that the skills that I had in high school weren’t going to cut it. The biggest thing for me was that I had to work harder.
“It helped me to get my feet wet (as a freshman), to feel what college football was like. My first game was against Texas at Texas. That was a really hostile environment and really cool to see what that college football experience is about. But really my sophomore year was when I first felt like a true college athlete. … I’m out there playing and people know who I am.”
During the time since those early days on campus, Kareem’s dad/coach still sees the goofy kid. But now he also sees a mature young man who has grown on and off the field.
“He’s gotten bigger, stronger and faster but he’s also grown mentally as a young man,” Ken Kip related. “When he got to Notre Dame he had a lot of confidence going in and then in the beginning, just like any other kid, it didn’t go the way he wanted it to go as a freshman. But I’ve seen that confidence come back. I’ve seen him go from a high school football player to a responsible college student-athlete.
“And now he’s taken on that captain’s role, which I knew he could. I could just go on and on. But I’m proud of him. I’m proud of the young man he’s become.”
Deciding to return for his senior season this year involved a lot of long discussions with his family, but ultimately was an easy one — one about which he has no qualms whatsoever.
“I feel like this is the only time that you’re in close proximity to all your closest friends” Kareem explained. “So that’s probably the best part about being here, just being around people who really care about you and love you. Obviously you have your family but right now we’re creating great memories and after we’re gone (from Notre Dame) we’ll probably be spread across the whole globe. So it’s nice to have that now.
“Plus I felt like I still had a lot of business to take care of at school. I want to graduate, and I definitely want to win a national championship with my guys.”