Kam Curl is living a dream without ever straying far from his roots

Commanders safety Kam Curl held a football camp this summer for kids in his hometown of Muskogee, Okla. (John McDonnell/The Washington Post)

MUSKOGEE, Okla. — Two hours east of Oklahoma City, down a green strip of I-40, past hay bales and fields of cattle, oil-rig outlets and Braum’s ice cream parlors, past billboard after billboard after billboard evangelizing God or a casino or the dangers of fentanyl, just north on U.S. Highway 69, sits a small, blue-collar city.

Before the locomotive, before the black gold, Muskogee was exile. Muscogee (Creek) Nation came here on the Trail of Tears. Nearly two centuries later, the city is dotted with some local institutions, many national chains and a hollowed-out mall. The lightbox out front of a mom-and-pop restaurant reads: “Stimulate our economy. Eat here.”

But what’s distinct about this place is the enduring brand of conservative Oklahoma pride that decades ago inspired a song by Merle Haggard. A sign in a local barbecue joint says, “Gun Safety Rule #1: Carry One.” The Friday night rodeo crowd erupts for the military and Old Glory, which the emcee calls “the most beautiful piece of fabric ever sewn together.” A few years ago, taxpayers approved a historic, $110 million bond to renovate the school system, and nearly 30 percent of those funds went toward the high school’s field house and football stadium.

One evening this summer, at the local community center named for Martin Luther King Jr., Muskogee Mayor Marlon J. Coleman (R) stood in front of about 100 citizens in a T-shirt, shorts and flip-flops. He nodded to the front row, to one of the city’s favored sons, and summoned Pastor Marlon, as he’s known on Sundays: “I want you to see that it’s okay to be proud and be from Muskogee, USA.”

“It’s important that we have those who come back,” Coleman said. “Month after month, it seems as though Washington courts are ruling and saying to smaller communities across our globe that you’re going to be on your own. But I’m grateful today that we have a young man here who graduated from Muskogee High School, went on to college, plays NFL football, who said, ‘It does not matter if nobody else gives back. I will give back to my community.’ And that’s the kind of person we have today in Mr. Kamren Curl!”

The banquet hall thundered for Curl, a safety for the Washington Commanders, whose trip home for this ceremony and to host a youth football camp was a brief breather in a summer spent training for the most important season of his young career. Next spring, the former seventh-round pick out of Arkansas is scheduled to become a free agent, and he could cash in. Top safeties earn between $13 and $19 million per year.

Coleman handed Curl a glass key to the city and officially christened June 30 in Muskogee as “Kamren Curl Day.” Curl’s family — including his mother, Adrienne Curl, his sisters, Nya and Iyanna Curl, and his pregnant girlfriend, Kyra Henderson — clapped and hollered. Bill Huddleston, the high school football play-by-play announcer and emcee, joked to the crowd that, though Curl has never talked much, he had to make an exception today. Curl ambled up front.

“Uh, first off, I just want to appreciate everybody coming out,” he said, and about a minute later, he was in the hallway, handing out backpacks to kids, relaxed again.

Earlier that morning, a red Jeep Grand Cherokee Trailhawk whipped into the parking lot of a worn-down aluminum building behind a church. Curl slid out and dapped up local trainer Ron Venters. In high school, Curl finished his junior year with no college offers, but then he started working with Venters and crushing the camp circuit. Offers soon poured in.

For most of the offseason, Curl had been in Dallas, working out at a state-of-the-art facility with skills coach Christian White, better known on Instagram as “Flight.” But in this gym, which Venters called “the Lion’s Den,” there are only a couple pieces of equipment, the paint everywhere is faded or chipped, and the seat coverings on the stationary bikes is fraying, exposing yellow foam. It was 91 degrees outside, and cooling fans sat idle — though that was on purpose.

“This one of them grind gyms,” Rawleigh Williams III, Curl’s agent and former teammate at Arkansas, said.

Instinctively, Curl and Venters started a fast-paced circuit. Curl squatted and hopped and did vertical crunches. Venters yelled at Curl to get a medicine ball and sprint up and down the hall. Curl rode a stationary bike, and Venters screamed: “Dig! Dig! Dog coming! Get away from that dog!” Then he strapped Curl’s ankles to weighted cables. The entire time, Curl said almost nothing.

Just when Curl appeared exhausted, as if he might be done, Venters hustled outside. He handed Curl a pair of beat-up work gloves. The sun was merciless; the asphalt made it feel north of 100 degrees.

“How far we going with it?” Curl said.

Venters grinned. “I didn’t know if you got cream puff in your old age.”

And then, just as he had so many times before, Curl got behind Venters’s Chevy Tahoe and began to push.

An hour after the workout, a few miles down the road, Curl stared up at the massive, pristine glass facade of the Muskogee High School athletics complex, which includes the 7,000-seat football stadium and 80,000-square-foot field house. The facilities opened last fall to replace the Indian Bowl, the concrete, New Deal-era stadium in which Curl had played.

“They spoiled now,” Curl said.

“This would fit in Texas,” said Williams, the agent, who is from Dallas.

As they walked toward the stadium, they could see a sign listing Muskogee’s football state titles. The most recent was 1986. Curl shook his head. The pain from 2016, when he dreamed of a storybook senior year, when the Roughers blew a commanding lead in the state semifinals, still felt fresh.

Out on the field, Derrick Maxwell, a receiver on that 2016 team, rifled passes to his old friend. Curl practiced mostly in the deep middle of the field — “the post,” in football jargon. After one athletic catch, he yelled that offenses don’t throw enough passes his way: “They don’t be trying me!”

One knock against Curl is that, though he’s brilliant and communicative and technically sound, though he can single-handedly raise the floor of an entire defense, he rarely makes splash plays. As an NFL rookie in 2020, Curl had three interceptions, returning one for a touchdown, but he hasn’t had any since. In 2021, he dropped a pick, and last year, a penalty negated his only INT. He has never forced a fumble.

Kam Curl, cerebral and steady, has become an integral part of Washington’s defense

This year, Curl expects to play more in the post, which would put him in position to ballhawk. In his first three seasons, he played mostly in the box or the slot, and the constant rotation between spots was, in part, he said, because the team had too many players whose natural positions were box safeties, including Landon Collins, Deshazor Everett and Bobby McCain.

Washington’s staff has extreme trust in Curl — “If Kam flew the plane to the away game, I’d feel good about it,” defensive backs coach Brent Vieselmeyer said — but that has sometimes been a double-edged sword. Coaches have used him to plug holes all over, occasionally even as a 6-foot-2, 198-pound middle linebacker.

But now, Curl said, players in Washington’s defensive backfield have clear roles and complementary skill sets.

“We got guys who we got confidence in, and we know who can play is going to play,” he said, and that has led to a broader optimism. Most of the defense has been together for three or four years, and Curl said the offensive scheme is “a lot better this year … a lot more explosive.” He added: “We got the best team since I’ve been here for sure — on both sides of the ball.”

Curl’s goals: 100 tackles, five interceptions, “some” forced fumbles and 10 wins. If he achieves them, he knows his next contract will be fat. But he insists his desires are rooted more in self-improvement than financial gain — and he does not like talking about his contract. During offseason workouts, he sat out team drills, and when reporters asked him if it was related to his contract, he was evasive.

“[My contract’s] somewhat personal,” Curl explained later in an interview. “That’s my money, so I’ll keep that to myself.”

“I’m just focused on elevating my game,” he added. “I don’t want to just sit and think about it, and then, like, I’m missing out on getting better. … I play good, I’m going to get paid, you know what I’m saying?”

As a rookie, Kam Curl became one of Washington’s best defenders

Maybe the most fundamental truth about Curl is this: He loves football. Growing up, he spent Saturday after Saturday with his father watching college games. Curl started playing when he was 6, and he became obsessed with tactics, using Madden to test different schemes against one another. For reasons he still can’t explain, football just made sense, sparking a flame inside him that has never gone out.

Curl is grateful he found something at a young age that will allow him to care for his family. He said he would play football even if it wasn’t on television, even if it didn’t balloon his bank account, because the game is an anchor to a good life.

“I’m simple, honestly,” he said, shrugging. “[There] ain’t that much to me.”

The kid who really made it

The next morning, the heavens opened in Muskogee. Curl’s friends and family, who had been setting up for his second annual youth football camp, ran inside the field house. They marveled at the palatial basketball field house. One remarked it was nicer than some college arenas.

Then De’Jon “Scoota” Harris, a close friend and a reserve linebacker for the Commanders, came out of nowhere with a basketball.

Suddenly, a dozen men in their 20s were on the court, jacking up jumpers. They clowned each other for misses, looking briefly like the boys they had been not that long ago.

For a day, Curl got to go back in time. He reunited with friends who, in Muskogee or at Arkansas, shared his love for the game and a drive to chase it as far as they could. But nearly all of Curl’s former teammates have different lives now.

Some let the game go, like former Muskogee receiver Derrick Maxwell, who recently interviewed for a job at a local electric company. Others haven’t. This year, Tyson Morris and Britto Tutt, who played at Arkansas, signed with teams in the Indoor Football League. Former Arkansas defensive lineman Damani Carter became a coach at Northeastern State. Williams, a former Arkansas running back who retired after breaking his neck twice, made it to the NFL as an agent and now represents Curl.

They all dreamed of becoming what Curl became. But during the camp, they were all on the same field again. They were all coaches, running drills, trying to teach the next generation what they had learned.

Soon, Curl’s life will change too. His girlfriend is due to give birth to their baby girl the day before the Commanders’ season kicks off. Curl has spent the past seven months going to doctor’s visits, looking at ultrasounds and seeking advice from his father and a few coaches.

“They saying, like, ‘When she’s born, she going to change your life,’ ” Curl said. “They basically saying I’m going to be soft.”

Does Curl think he’ll become soft?

“I don’t think so,” he said. “I might spoil her; I ain’t going to be soft. I ain’t going to say I’m soft.”

During drives between Dallas and Oklahoma, Curl has grown to like the stretches of vast, rural land. He has started dreaming of returning to the country, buying a house, getting two Cane Corso dogs and learning how to grow his own fruits and vegetables.

In one light, his next contract means everything. It will measure whether he accomplished his goals, whether all the time he poured into football led to self-actualization. It could change the Curl family for generations, assure his daughter of resources he never had. But in another light, it means nothing. Because in the eyes of his family and his friends and so many others in Muskogee, it will just one more way to show what they already know: Kam Curl really made it.

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