Georgia's Nakobe Dean and the new life of a college football star

7:30 AM

Dean's eyes are fixated on the TV above him. The Georgia football player is in the middle of a loud restaurant in Athens after a long day of practice. The Monday night game in late November is on every screen, but Dean's the main event, the reason everyone is there, wearing Georgia red, dropping off canned goods at the front of the store before coming up to say hello and take a picture.

Dean can't turn off the part of his brain that makes him want to hit the ball. Dean watches intently as the TV crew breaks down Tom Brady highlights, and the New York Giants are playing the New York Jets. In the middle of a play, he catches himself telling the LB where to go.

I can't look at football and not think about what happened. Dean said later that night. I have that instinct now.

Those who have known Dean since he was a kid in Horn Lake, Mississippi, would argue that it has always been in him. Things are different now. Offenses are more complex. The classes are harder. Life is busy. The stakes are higher.

Along with the money is the potential. That is certainly new or at least different. The money has been moving since the NCAA approved name, image and likeness deals for college athletes. The world of NIL has become the Wild West without any oversight from the NCAA or any restrictions from state to state, according to a marketing agent.

The NIL has added another aspect to the college experience for players like Dean. It has been a challenge and an opportunity. From figuring out where the money is coming from, to where it's going and how it's taxed, to balancing it with all other requirements, players have realized they need a plan.

When the NIL deals began, my priorities were to have them still allow me to focus on football and whether there was a way to give through the deals," Dean says.

Dean is playing out an ideal year in Athens as he stands at the dawn of a new era for college athletes. He has been one of the best defenders in the country, winning the Butkus award, two games away from a national championship and a likely first-round selection in the upcoming NFL draft. The new NIL rules allowed him to live out the values his mother instilled in him.

That's not true." 17

A young boy is trying not to get caught when he says something quietly. Dean is going to tour the facility with his mother, his girlfriend, and 10 local kids. Dean, a mechanical engineering major, puts on a fluorescent green hard hat and tilts it forward so that it looks cooler on him than it does on anyone else in the room.

Dean is the kid in a candy shop and the purpose of the trip is for him to show the kids a little more about engineering in hopes of one day improving diversity in the field. As the hum of machines settles into the backdrop of pipes and giant vats set the scene, Dean studies samples of straws and asks one of the company's founders questions about the process. He pulled one of the kids aside and showed him how the machines work. You almost get the feeling that Dean would find the same fulfillment here as he does on the field.

"He's a genius in math," Neketta says. I didn't know that this kid won a math competition in sixth grade. I would get his exams back and it would be 27 out of 27 correct. He was 8 years old. He always had the right answer when it came to numbers.

In the past, No. 17 would have been able to visit the engineering facility, make informal connections and even get the ball rolling on the idea of an internship program once he made it to the NFL. Dean can now do all of those things and start and help fund internship for student-athletes immediately, as well as discuss the possibility of investing in the company in the near future.

Dean says it's hard to figure out an internship or co-ops for a football player. I wanted to make it easier for these kids to understand that if they don't make it on the field, there are other ways to be successful.

Dean made it there. To understand that he is operating on a different plane than his opponents and teammates is to watch him play football. Dean always seems to be at the right place at the right time. He has recorded 61 tackles, five sacks and two picks in 13 games this season. It's easy for Dean and those around him to draw a line from how his brain works in the classroom to how it does on the field, because this seeming omnipresence has been there from the beginning.

Dean says it has helped him understand scheme and strategy faster. I was always able to understand the little things the coaches wanted me to do quicker.

Brad Boyette, Dean's high school coach at Horn Lake High in Mississippi, remembers showing up to the annual practice the high school would hold with the eighth- graders from the local middle school and being immediately taken by Dean's ability to pick up not just drills, but coverages

Some kids are physically ready, but there's no way they can handle the calls and the plays. It happened to me one time, and it was with Nakobe.

Dean was the first Boyette to ever start on the high school team. He was able to hang with 18-year-olds physically and gain an edge with the way he viewed the game as a 15-year-old. Dean was reading plays to perfect when Horn Lake won the state title. He recognized the quarterback's motion and broke from his position to cover the wheel route pass perfectly. Boyette asked him what made him make the move.

Dean told Boyette that he didn't think the safety would remember. We only went over it once.

One of several potential first-round picks on the unit is Nakobe Dean, a dominant force for the Bulldogs' defense.

Neketa is in her element. There are a lot of canned goods on a table outside of the Boys & Girls Club in Athens from the watch party the night before. Along with turkeys donated by Trader Joe's and Athens Market through another NIL partnership and a $100 shopping gift card coming directly from Dean's NIL earnings, they'll make a package that will be donated to a dozen families in need.

Things need to get organized, and Neketta is almost doing a play-by-play of what's happening. If the cans have dents, throw them out. "We can't give that to people."

Dean smiled and said, "Coach them up, mama."

Neketta is organizing an assembly line to separate beans from soups and vegetables from mac and cheese as people begin to sift through cans. "We don't want people to bring home seven peanut butters," she says. I've done a lot of canned food drives. That's my thing.

What comes second nature to Dean is what Neketta has been doing her whole life. Her grandmother used to make her family donate their time even if they had less resources. When she had kids of her own and had to raise them as a single mom, Neketta worked long hours as the director of community affairs in Tunica County, Mississippi. Everyone knew that Neketta's kids would be at the community event. She says they were community service kids.

Dean was a part of the local high school football team that was a part of the 5K run organized by Neketta. She wanted to raise money for the football program and bring officers into a shared space with a football team that was mostly Black.

She says that police pulled over Black people for no reason. I wanted them to see each other in a different place.

The Dean kids would shadow their mom and get involved too. They would bring gifts and play games with the people in the nursing homes. Dean volunteered at the local youth football program when he was in high school and they would volunteer at the homeless shelters. Dean realized that they had been beneficiaries of other people's service when he was younger.

"You're not making a lot of money off community service," she says. "You have to be committed and you have to do it with humility."

When NIL became a reality, the Deans looked at it as a way to keep doing what they had been doing since Dean was a kid, not as a way to make money. After Georgia beat Clemson, there were more offers. They doubled once Georgia became the top ranked nation.

The Deans have been able to establish a synergy between the NIL deals and the things they want to do with the money thanks to the experience of Neketta. The watch parties have become a way to get game tickets for local kids as well as canned food for families in need. Dean was able to sponsor a bed for two months at the Athens homeless shelter because of the money he received from deals with Georgia Dairy, Eleveo, Athens Market, and others. Money from other smaller deals or matching by companies has allowed Neketta to do what she does best.

While Dean was busy with film and practice, Neketta was trying to figure out how they could squeeze every bit out of their resources. The original plan was to get 10 meals from the restaurant that was going to host the watch party and take them to the shelter. After a man walked up to her asking for money for blankets ahead of the cold front, she took the leftover money from NIL deals and made hygiene packages to give out at the shelter, with Dean's approval. She stood and talked to people about what was going on in their lives.

After practice, film sessions, training room work, and positional meetings, Dean is told how the impromptu giveaway went. He smiles. My mom said I would like it.

The Deans are back at the homeless shelter a few hours before the turkey giveaway. They are getting a tour of the facility and seeing the bed Dean is sponsoring. The bed, food and showers for one individual will be helped by his contribution. The staff members at the homeless shelter and the Boys & Girls Club are quick to point out that in the past athletes from the area have not been able to volunteer their time in this way.

"None of this would have been possible or as impactful without the five to 10 NIL deals he has," she says. "For us, [NIL] isn't about making money, it's about helping others."

Dean is not the only one in this endeavor. Many athletes around the country have taken their NIL opportunities and turned them into impact beyond their own. During the Thanksgiving holiday, the Michigan running back donated turkeys to families in need. The children's hospital was the beneficiary of $30,000 raised by Iowa's Tyler Linderbaum.

We were at the forefront. The former Oregon defensive lineman says he had great people around him and they were able to execute a plan. His own NFT and cryptocurrencies were included in his NIL deals. Athletes are going to be more confident taking opportunities now that we have set the bar.

"For 99% of these kids, it's not necessarily like life-changing money, so they have to understand they need to put half of it away for taxes," says Soskin, who founded a management company that facilitates NIL deals for college athletes. The educational aspect has been done on the fly because of the NCAA's sudden decision to allow NIL deals. Some programs have partnerships with companies. Dean and his mother needed to get in touch with an agency that understood their plan. "Nakobe is 20 years old and has no kids," she said. If he has to pay most of the NIL money back, why not use it for something else?

One of the benefits of NIL is that players are learning how to manage their money at a lower level than they will in the NFL. The jump from no compensation to millions was a culture shock. Boosters get more involved and players get more creative as bigger brands settle into the NIL game. For now, players can transition to the pros with some experience, knowledge, connections and money on their side.

"I think it's great what they're doing, but it's worth noting that we're now counting on these 21-year-olds who are making tens of thousands of dollars to be the ones that are giving back and doing good," Soskin says. It's always funny when we look for the best example for all of us, and that's why we look for young kids.

Dean signs his sponsored bed and a woman who is staying there asks him to sign two Georgia hats for two girls who were unable to be there. Neketta gives her a hug. She says this won't be the last time they are here.

Dean believes his service is a result of where he ended up. For a kid who used to walk around Horn Lake talking with his childhood friends about how they'd make it out, or one who saw his stipend money at Georgia as more money than he'd ever had, Dean is still wide-eyed about where he finds himself.

It's why he wants to use his engineering degree to help athletes who need them, and why he wants to start a scholarship at his high school. He was once a kid at the local Boys & Girls Club who would take everything in and wonder who he could be one day.

The woman from the shelter looks at another man who is standing by the door as the Deans walk outside. She told him that he was named Kobe Dean. The man is happy. "I know."