Jerry Jacobs had just gotten home from school one day in the spring of 2009 when his mother, Alice, sat him and two of his siblings down on the sectional couch of their Atlanta apartment.
Alice was 46 at the time, a single mother of five who would give her last dime to help anyone in need, and she was keeping a secret from most of her children.
She had confided in her oldest daughter, Tomeka, that she had been diagnosed with stomach cancer, and though Tomeka accompanied her mom to doctor’s appointments, even she didn’t know the extent of the illness. Now, Alice had contracted pneumonia, which complicated her fight.
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Her body was failing. She stood in the middle of her living room trying to explain to her three youngest children what was happening. And the only thing Jacobs heard was that doctors told her she had a month to live.
“That’s when I’m like, ‘I’m not (dumb). Like, (expletive), I know what ‘live’ means,’ ” Jacobs recalled. “That means he said you’re dying. So I’m like, we just started crying cause we just heard the part, ‘live.’ Like basically we just know our mom (is about) to die, so like we just started crying and she was just hugging us and just talking to us.”
Within weeks, on June 23, 2009, Alice Jacobs died, leaving Jerry and his family devastated — but bringing them closer than ever with a bond that remains unbreakable this Mother’s Day.
Jerry, his brother Kelvin and his sister Jasmine moved in with Tomeka, her three kids and now-husband, and another older sister, Kim, and together they formed a blended family.
They moved from one tiny living space to another. They fought and bickered, loved and nurtured and were there for each other in their biggest times of need.
And as Jacobs looks backs on his unique upbringing now, he can’t help but think he wouldn’t be here, in his third season as a Detroit Lions cornerback, without all he went through and the three women in his life.
“What I want to tell my mom is like — and I want to tell every mom out there — thank you,” Jacobs said. “Thank you so much for being your child’s backbone, being your child’s supporter, being your child’s everything, because that means a lot. And she just, when she was here on this earth, she took care of me like I was the best thing rocking with her, even though she had four of her own. But Jerry was, I felt like I was the man for her.
“I just want to just honor her, and not even honor her. I honor her every day, but I just want to tell her that I appreciate her for everything. I just want everyone to know, just keep your mom close to you, ’cause when she’s gone, it’s going to hurt worser than anything in the world.”
As broken as Jacobs was when his mom told him about her illness, he did not fully comprehend her goodbye and the rocky path it set him on until recently.
Tomeka, 15 years older than Jerry, said her youngest brother kept his emotions bottled up until the day of the funeral.
“That’s when he just lost it,” she said. “Jerry didn’t even cry. Jerry, yeah, he probably had his times to himself, but he really wasn’t showing it, and we thought that was as a kid. But they dedicated, at my mom’s funeral they dedicated this thing to her, it was like a dance. Jerry just, once he instantly walked in and seen her, it was just like, it was over. He hit the floor.”
In the months immediately following his mom’s funeral, Jacobs, then 11, and his two youngest siblings shuttled between Tomeka’s apartment and his sister Kim’s dorm at Georgia until Kim graduated that summer.
Kim, like her younger siblings, had no idea her mom was sick until the end. She returned from a study-abroad program in Australia a week before her mother’s death and was stunned when she got the phone call telling her her mom had passed.
Jerry and his siblings spent weekends sleeping on a couch in Kim’s dorm, and, when she wasn’t studying, Kim would take her brother bowling or grocery shopping, trying to bring a sense of normalcy back to his life.
After she graduated, she became her younger siblings’ temporary guardian, and everyone moved in with Tomeka, nine people sharing a small three-bedroom house.
“Tomeka may have a different story. From my side, I think that’s what we needed at the time,” Kim said. “We all needed each other, so it was crowded but I think it was important that we all were there for each other. And it was a unique dynamic. I can say, we all contributed differently to the family.”
Kim, 22 at the time, gave the family structure, making sure her younger siblings did their homework and got to bed at a reasonable hour, and handing out discipline when they got out of line. Tomeka was the nurturing one. She made plates of macaroni and cheese for Jerry and his friends while working at Kroger and mothering three kids of her own. And Tomeka’s now-husband, Freddie Elder, added a fatherly presence to the house, something Jerry badly needed with a biological father who was never in his life.
Together, Kim and Tomeka organized trips for the family. They rented a cabin in the Blue Ridge Mountains to commemorate their mom’s birthday and saved to take the kids to Disney World. Eventually, they moved into a bigger house in Austell, Georgia, where Jacobs became a football star who found his share of trouble at South Cobb High.
“We kind of just created our own family,” Kim said. “Everybody has that typical family, but we made our own family and we made like certain things we did every year.”
‘This game’s mine’
Jacobs started playing football when he was 6, in a police-sponsored athletic league in Atlanta. Kim signed him up to play at the behest of their mother, who wanted to keep Jerry off the streets.
One of the smallest kids on the team, Jacobs made a big impression at his first padded practice, when his coach sent him out for an Oklahoma tackling drill and he laid out a much larger teammate.
“I was short. I’m like, ‘Oh my God, he (is about) to murder me,’ ” Jacobs said. “Bro, I was the tackler, he was the runner. Oh my God, I got up and I just — BOOM! Like I swear to God, my coach was like, ‘Hold on, we got to do it again. We got to do it again.’ And he let me run it. He was like, ‘You run it this time.’ And I got up, and I remember this, I just — BOOM! — and just dropped it on him. I’m like, ‘I really just did that, bro.’ Like, I’m turned. My coach is like, ‘Oh yeah, we got us one.’ And it just went from there, and I remember telling my sisters, ‘Hey, this game’s mine now.’ And ever since then I been playing football.”
A running back throughout his youth football career, Jacobs moved to cornerback in high school. He played varsity as a freshman and starred as a sophomore, when he said he had eight interceptions.
But while his sisters balanced their careers with helping to raise him, Jacobs was acting out without his mom in his life.
He took part in a brawl at school one morning as a sophomore and was suspended for the first semester of his junior year. He spent the semester at an alternative school and had to sit out the football season, which scared away college recruiters.
Jacobs picked up lacrosse when he returned to school and spent the spring unleashing his pent-up aggression by trying to run over opponents on the lacrosse field. He was suspended from football again at the start of his senior season after he said he and a friend got pulled over by police while they were in possession of marijuana.
With no Division I scholarship offers, Jacobs signed with Hutchinson Community College, where he had four interceptions and earned all-conference honors in his only season on the field. The Blue Dragons retired his jersey this offseason.
“When I got up there, I graduated high school with a 1.9 (GPA), I said … (this is) your last chance,” Jacobs said. “You mess up, bro. it’s over. Like, Kimberly is definitely not going to let me live in her house, she don’t play that. So I’m like, bro, I got to get going, so I just put that lightbulb in, attacked all my classwork and everything we did on the field I just knew I could do, so I just went out there and balled.”
Jacobs played well enough to earn a scholarship at Arkansas State, where he spent two seasons. He tore the ACL in his right knee early in 2019, then transferred to Arkansas but opted out of his only season with the Razorbacks after four games in 2020 because of a dispute with coaches.
“I’m going to be honest, I couldn’t take coaching at the time,” he said. “I felt like I was the man at Arkansas, that’s why when I got up here I’m like, ‘Boy, humble yourself.’ So, yeah, there’s a lot of things I had to go through to be great.”
With his injury history and troubled past, Jacobs went undrafted in 2021 and signed with the Lions as a free agent. He started nine games as a rookie, but tore the ACL in his left knee that December. Jacobs missed the start of last season while rehabbing from his injury, but started the Lions’ final eight games and made his first career interception.
‘I love that lady’
Jacobs wrote his mother’s initials, “A.J.,” on his shoes as a rookie, and last year he scribbled her name on the tape on his wrists before every game. After pregame introductions, as players head to the sideline for the national anthem, Jacobs stops by the nearest goal post and says a quiet prayer to his mom.
“To this day, I’m still talking to her, talking to God,” he said. “I can feel it, bro. I can know like it’s probably some spiritual stuff, but I just know she’s still with me, I swear, cause there’s a lot of things that I did right now that I shouldn’t even say it on camera but I couldn’t even be here to this day for real, and she was right there, had that angel over me like you’re going to make it home. So I love that lady like she’s still here.”
Jacobs holds his sisters in equal esteem for the sacrifices they made to give him a chance.
Tomeka is a supervisor at a Walmart in Atlanta now, and Kim works in treasury for the Georgia-based retailer Floor & Décor.
Both put their careers on hold to take care of Jerry and his siblings.
“I knew that’s what my mom would have wanted, and like I said, we just kind of fell into the role,” Kim said. “I just felt like that was the right thing to do. In my mind, there were no other options. This is what I had to do. I had to understand that the picture was bigger than me and I needed to make sure I was there for my siblings. That’s how my mom raised us, to make sure we take care of each other.”
Jacobs, who will be eligible for a new contract after this season, said his next goal is to pay things forward and take care of his sisters. He hopes to retire Tomeka one day, and since Kim will never stop working, he said, he needs to figure out something else to do for her.
Jacobs should compete for a starting job in the Lions’ revamped secondary this fall opposite new cornerback addition Cam Sutton.
He said he was happy the Lions added Sutton and fellow free agent signings C.J. Gardner-Johnson and Emmanuel Moseley, who is recovering from a torn ACL, this offseason, and that their presence should bring out the best in his play.
He still misses his mom — “It hurts to even talk about it because I wish she could see this — and she can see it, but I wish she could feel me right now and feel how much (I’ve been through),” he said — but his sisters agree Alice is keeping a watchful eye from up above.
“I know she’s definitely proud of him. This was her dream for him, so I definitely think she’s proud of him and the man that he’s become,” Kim said. “He did have those issues where he was acting out, but to see who he is today, I wouldn’t change it for the world. He had to go through that to be who he is today.”
Contact Dave Birkett: firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @davebirkett.