WASHINGTON — For the longest time, when he didn't know where he would be living from day to day, Jamal Speaks had faith that he would find normalcy and structure.
Being homeless cost Speaks two years of his high school football career. But a timely trip to Temple's summer camp this year helped the 18-year-old secure a football scholarship offer from the Owls, which he accepted.
"Temple made me feel like I was home," Speaks said.
Speaks' father is deceased, and Jamal has had a limited relationship with his mother. So for years, he has stayed at various friends' houses, not having the comforts of a steady home.
"It is going to be hard sometimes. Life isn't easy," Speaks said after he helped Ballou High School in Washington to a victory over Eastern in a game played minutes away from RFK Stadium, former home of the Redskins. "I just take it on the chin, and I am living my best life now."
Since he was in eighth grade, he has been searching for a stable home. His best friend, Lavonte Gater, and Gater's family have been a big help in that way.
A dynamic receiver and safety, Gater has earned a scholarship to Maryland. Gater's mother, Mia Young, has played a major role in Speaks' life. Speaks calls her his godmother. Since Speaks and Gater became friends in the eighth grade, Speaks has often stayed at the Gaters' house.
Young said Speaks stayed at her home for much of his eighth-grade year and for long stretches since.
This school year, he has been staying at the home of Tanasha Gater, the 21-year-old sister of Lavonte. He sleeps on a couch there.
"He feels better because he knows he has somewhere to go," Tanasha said.
Also at her home are her two infant children.
"I have kids and he is great, playing so well with them," she said.
"It's good," Speaks said. "They are like my family."
As for the eligibility issue, it began two games into Speaks' sophomore year. He was a varsity player for Ballou as a freshman. After the second game of his sophomore year, Speaks was ruled ineligible because his mother was living in Maryland and that was his official residence.
"Basically, they told Jamal he had to go by where his mother lived," Young said. "Even though he and his mother didn't see eye to eye, he had to live with his mother [to be eligible], just because she was his guardian."
He then attended school in Maryland, but it didn't work out.
"He was out of school more than he was in because he didn't have the transportation to get there," Young said.
‘The sky is the limit for him’
Speaks, who turned 18 on Dec. 1, returned to Ballou this past March and thought he would have his entire senior year to play.
He was deemed eligible by the D.C. State Athletic Association, which oversees high school sporting events in the district. However, the District of Columbia Interscholastic Athletic Association, the city's high school athletic league, ruled him ineligible in August.
"All the odds were against him," Lavonte Gater said. "Sometimes he wanted to quit, and we had to pick him up and help bring him back."
Finally, after missing three games, he was cleared to play.
In his first game, on Sept. 28, he rushed for 143 yards and a touchdown on 14 carries in a 29-26 win over Roosevelt.
"It meant a lot to me to be back playing," Speaks said. "Not only that, but we got the victory and it felt so good."
The 6-foot-1, 190-pound Speaks plays running back and linebacker. Temple has recruited him as a running back. Besides having the requisite speed, he also has the power to run over people.
In his first five games, Speaks rushed for 552 yards (7.9 avg.) and four touchdowns.
"I think the sky is the limit for him, but he still has to get his legs back under him," Ballou coach Minoso Rodgers said. "He hadn't played since his sophomore year, but every game, I see him getting stronger, picking up things, and I think he will be really good once he is in a system and a nice consistent situation."
Academically, Rodgers said, Speaks is doing well and is in the credit recovery program, taking extra classes to make up for missed time when he didn't attend Ballou.
NCAA rules prohibit Temple coaches from commenting on any recruit who hasn't signed a letter of intent. High school seniors may sign football letters of intent in the early signing period, Dec. 19-21.
Temple knew about Speaks even though he had limited playing time. Speaks was invited to attend Temple's summer camp, where many top high school prospects display their skills.
Speaks obviously impressed the coaches at the camp, and Temple offered him a scholarship. He committed on July 4.
"When I went down there for camp, I fell in love with the coaches, Coach Knight, Coach Lucas, and I just loved the atmosphere — it made me feel like home," Speaks said, referring to outside-linebackers coach Larry Knight and running backs coach Tony Lucas.
Most of all, Speaks is happy to be back on the football field. For somebody who has lived without a true home for so long, the playing field has become a sanctuary.
"It has been hard, but I just thank God because He gave me the opportunity to be here," Speaks said. "I am glad to be here on the field, doing what I do best."