Tucson and Ka’Deem Carey’s very own family held their collective breath over his decision more than nine years ago.
On Feb. 2, 2011, Carey stood in front of a large gathering at the Canyon del Oro High School gymnasium to announce his college choice on National Signing Day.
A box, situated in front of his mother Tisha, was wrapped in white.
Arizona and Arizona State stickers were on the box, facing the crowd, which included his teammates who were part of teams that went 27-1 the previous two seasons, including a 14-0 state championship season in 2009.
Bows of red and blue and maroon and gold — colors of Arizona and ASU — were on top.
CDO coach Dustin Peace introduced Carey, although that was not necessary. He is one of the most visible football players in Tucson history. Carey sat between his mom and sister Nadi, who was in the gym where she led the Dorados to a 26-1 record and state title as a senior in the 2008-09 season.
When Nadi, now a college basketball referee, made headlines recently for making the cut to compete in the Titan Games on NBC, she was asked who is the better athlete between the two siblings.
“I will say that I am the better athlete,” Nadi said with a laugh. “I’m just going to say this — I feel like it’s 51 percent to 49 percent, and I’m on top with 51 percent by a slim margin. You ask him if he’s ever beaten me in basketball with his big self.”
Ka’Deem, still of rock-solid build at 5-foot-10 and 215 pounds, has no argument for Nadi’s claim.
“Hey, we have to keep that on the down low; we can’t let that get out,” he said, laughing.
Their younger brother Elijah, another former star running back at CDO, might want to be part of that competition.
When Ka’Deem stood in front of the crowd at CDO’s gym that day in 2011, he thanked his family and friends for being in the position to make such as a significant decision.
Only 18 at the time, he told the crowd of his mom, “None of this would be possible without her. She stuck with me through thick and thin.”
He said of Peace, who replaced Pat Nugent as CDO’s coach before Carey’s junior season, “He took me under his wing when I was in trouble. When I needed someone to talk to, he was there. I didn’t know where to go with this choice.”
Peace’s last name is appropriate to describe his approach with the Dorados’ program.
Peace speaks with sincerity about current players, former players such as Ka’Deem and his coaches carrying on the family values he has tried to bestow on them.
He lived in poverty at the outset of his high school career at Flowing Wells.
Peace’s family was homeless for a stretch. He and his older brother Dylan joined the Youth On Their Own program, which is a non-profit support system that helps homeless youths graduate from high school by providing financial assistance, basic human needs and guidance. He went on to play at NAU for two years before having to medically retire because of a neck injury. He finished his undergraduate studies at Arizona in 2005 with a degree in education. He earned a master’s degree in Educational Leadership at Grand Canyon University in 2017.
“Our program is only as good as all the guys around us,” said Peace, who was 20 years old when he joined Nugent’s staff at CDO in 2002. “Ka’Deem made us all better being around him. He was well liked by his teammates, and he represented everything we want from our athletes.”
Ka’Deem took a seat observing the crowd at CDO’s gym. He looked over at the wrapped box, which had either an Arizona or ASU baseball cap inside that would declare his choice.
None of his family, including his mom, knew of his decision.
Distinguished Arizona alumni such as Ricky Hunley, Lamonte Hunley, Julius Holt and Randy Robbins would show up to CDO games in 2010 wearing Wildcat garb in clear view behind the goal post. Mike Stoops, Arizona’s coach at the time, could not have delivered a recruiting pitch more effective than that image.
Former ASU coach Dennis Erickson was the first to offer Ka’Deem a scholarship in 2009.
Ka’Deem committed to Arizona during his senior season but still showed interest in the Sun Devils. He took an unofficial visit of ASU’s campus close to the end of his career with the Dorados.
When his mom unwrapped the box and pulled out the cap, she screamed, jumped up and down and hugged Ka’Deem. The reaction was so sudden that people in the crowd did not immediately see the cap she pulled. It was covered by tissue paper. The cap actually fell behind them in out of view when she embraced Ka’Deem.
“We don’t see it!” someone in the crowd yelled.
A family member picked up the cap, and waved it in front of the crowd.
“U of A, baby!” somebody exclaimed.
He stayed home.
“This city is nothing but love, I’m not going to lie,” Ka’Deem said the other day. “When you get the city behind you, it motivates you.”
Ka’Deem was interviewed on Arizona’s campus, on the grassy area just south of the Wildcats’ tennis courts, Sunday morning after training Salpointe freshmen Jax Banhie and Julian Ibarra.
“You live in this beautiful playground; you see this beautiful grass here?” Ka’Deem continued after he was asked if growing up in Tucson impacted his development. “And then you’ve got the mountains I used to run. You just got to put your mind to it. Go run Tumamoc (Hill). Go get in a sandpit and just have some fun. Tucson definitely helped me out.”
All that training in Tucson and playing for Nugent and Peace at CDO, prepared Ka’Deem for Stoops’ program and the challenge of running against teams in the Pac-12.
Labeling himself an “angry runner,” he established himself as the best running back in Arizona history.
His 4,239 yards on 743 rushing attempts between 2011-13 topped Trung Candidate’s record of 3,824 yards on 604 carries.
His 48 career rushing touchdowns broke the record of 44 held by Art Luppino — “The Cactus Comet” — for 57 years. Luppino, who earned NCAA rushing titles in 1954 and 1955, also held Arizona’s record with 21 rushing touchdowns in 1954 before Ka’Deem produced 23 in 2012.
Also in 2012, Ka’Deem rushed 303 times for 1,929 yards, breaking Arizona single-season record.
Banhie and Ibarra, top contributors to Tucson Youth Football’s Sahuarita 49ers 14U team last year that advanced to the city title game, were about 8 years old when Carey left Arizona after his junior season and was selected in the fourth round of the 2014 NFL draft by the Chicago Bears. The youngsters are now feeding off the knowledge Ka’Deem gained from his conditioning while attending CDO and Arizona, playing for the Bears and now being part of the Calgary Stampeders of the CFL.
“It was really cool meeting him because I have not met somebody like Ka’Deem, who has been in the NFL,” said Ibarra, who will likely play defensive back for the Lancers’ freshman team. “We do a lot of conditioning, so when we’re at Salpointe’s practices, we don’t get as tired. We’re prepared.”
Banhie, who can play quarterback, running back and safety, has heard from those associated with TYF that he can become the next Ka’Deem or Bijan Robinson to come out of Tucson if he trains hard enough and puts his mind to it. He has trained with Ka’Deem two days a week since February.
“His football knowledge has increased being with Ka’Deem,” said Didier Banhie, Jax’s father. “His motivation has increased, and not that he was not dedicated before, but his dedication has gone above and beyond, too.”
Jax’s endurance is not the same since starting all the sessions of running up hills and maneuvering through the drills, which include trying to pull Ka’Deem, who weighs about 40 pounds more than him, with a tether rope while running.
“I could barely finish the first practice; I didn’t even finish,” Jax said. “And then now, I’m starting to get back into conditioning 100 percent. I’ll be fine at the end of (Ka’Deem’s) workouts now instead being on the floor wheezing and gassed.”
Ka’Deem trains 12 youths locally — “I love being a mentor for these kids,” he said — and the delay of players reporting to CFL training camps because of COVID-19 has allowed him more time to train the youngsters.
“I should find out Friday when we will return to training camp,” said Ka’Deem, who has worked his way back from a wrist injury that prematurely ended his time with the Bears in 2017. “The CFL has kind of actually left us in the dust without us knowing what will happen. They can easily say, ‘No, we’re not going to have a season.’
“I just pray that I can go out there and showcase my talent. That’s what I’m really hoping for.”
Ka’Deem played in eight games last season, compiling 422 rushing yards and two touchdowns on 75 carries before suffering a broken left forearm in October that ended his season.
Despite the injury, Calgary showed enough confidence in Ka’Deem’s ability to offer him a two-year contract extension in January. He is signed through the 2021 season.
Chicago released him before the 2017 season although he was on injured reserve. He never had more than 43 rushes in a season in the three years he was on the field for the Bears.
In addition to working out during his many training sessions with local youths, he trains on his own. His weight trainer is Tucsonan Tim Adams, who has a background of working with the Atlanta Falcons’ training staff.
“My main thing right now is staying healthy, just putting all the blocks together in the offseason so I can have a great season with Calgary,” he said. “I feel good about where I’m at right now. I put (the Bears experience) in my rear view mirror. You learn from mistakes, the politics from there, and you just learn it and you just try to move forward and be a better man.
“Next time that thing comes in front of you, you know how to control it a little bit better.”
Ka’Deem’s name came up again with Arizona football recruiting when CDO’s Class of 2021 running back Stevie Rocker Jr. committed to the Wildcats last week. Not afforded the opportunity to have an announcement in CDO’s gym like Ka’Deem because of COVID-19, Rocker gave his pledge to Kevin Sumlin’s program on Twitter.
Rocker is the first Tucson-area running back to commit to the Wildcats since Ka’Deem, who played for Arizona three years after former Sunnyside running back Xavier Smith was with the Wildcats through 2008. Before them, the timeline goes all the way back to 1997, when Kevin Schmidtke of Mountain View completed his career at Arizona.
Salpointe’s Bijan Robinson, who broke many of Ka’Deem’s high school records locally, left Tucson to play at traditionally strong Texas starting this season.
“Bijan and I trained together, and he used to always say, ‘I’m not going to Arizona,'” Ka’Deem said. “I was like, ‘Hey, I don’t care where you go, I’m happy for you.’ He ended up going to Texas and I’m proud of him.
“How many players is Arizona sending to the NFL right now? I can understand where Bijan and other players are coming from who leave. They want to get their name out there. They want to get on a higher level. I knew there was a chance I would not make it to the pros because (Arizona) was not on a higher level. I trusted my talent that I would shine any place that I would go.”
Knowing what Rocker is experiencing, choosing Arizona as a local product, Ka’Deem plans to reach out to Rocker to offer his encouragement and excitement of another Dorado in the Wildcats’ backfield.
“I hope he breaks my records,” Ka’Deem said. “There was a lot of advantages staying at home. My family could watch me play, my friends were close. I didn’t have to be homesick or worry about anything.
“I would say to any local person, ‘It’s okay to go to the UA. Trust in your thing. Put them on the map. It’s your city.’ I took pride in that. My man Stevie is gonna go over there and take pride in what he is doing. I can see it.”
OUR PREVIOUS 520H SO GOOD SERIES FEATURES (Click on photo to access story):
FOLLOW @JAVIERJMORALES ON TWITTER!
ALLSPORTSTUCSON.com publisher, writer and editor Javier Morales is a former Arizona Press Club award winner. He is a former Arizona Daily Star beat reporter for the Arizona basketball team, including when the Wildcats won the 1996-97 NCAA title. He has also written articles for CollegeAD.com, Bleacher Report, Lindy’s Sports, TucsonCitizen.com, The Arizona Republic, Sporting News and Baseball America, among many other publications. He has also authored the book “The Highest Form of Living”, which is available at Amazon.