After transfer and tragedy, D’Eriq King finds his way back onto the field

  • Covers Texas A&M and the SEC.
  • Joined ESPN in 2012.
  • Graduate of the University of Houston.

For much of the past year, D’Eriq King has constantly been tested.

There were the on-field struggles and an off-field quagmire that led to his unexpected exit at Houston.

There was his mother’s cancer diagnosis.

There was the loss of his father, less than a month after he left the only city he’d ever known.

During the turbulence of his past 11 months, King was given a crash course on how fragile life is — and the role football plays in it.

Now as he begins his final season in a new city with a new team Thursday when Miami hosts UAB (7 p.m. ET, ACC Network), the graduate transfer quarterback wants to rewrite the ending to his college career.

“I just wanna win,” King told ESPN. “I think if you win, everything else will take care of itself.

“I’m at a point now in my life where football is a big part of my life — don’t get me wrong, but I’ve been through so much real s— that football [isn’t everything]. Now I’m going back to having fun.”

That fun will begin, but not without the immense amount of gumption, patience and strength it took to get here.

D’Eriq’s dilemma: A big decision to make

This wasn’t how D’Eriq King’s college career was originally intended to finish. Had it gone as planned, he would’ve exhausted his eligibility as a Cougar, capped by a bowl game last winter. But it took just two plays over 18 seconds on a Thursday night in New Orleans to change everything.

After a perfectly executed Tulane fake kneel and a 53-yard did-that-just-happen touchdown pass from Justin McMillan to Jalen McCleskey, the Green Wave sent Houston to a disappointing 1-3 start. That set in motion an unprecedented sequence of events.

When King, now 23, flew home with the team the night of Sept. 19, 2019, the thought of redshirting hadn’t even crossed his mind, he said. The following morning, Houston coach Dana Holgorsen broached the subject with him in his office.

Not even 12 hours after the stunning loss to Tulane, King — a senior starting quarterback who was responsible for 50 touchdowns the year before — found himself in a peculiar situation, contemplating taking a redshirt season at the behest of the coach.

“He brought it up to me,” King said. “I don’t think a lot of people know that.”

Holgorsen, then in his first year at Houston after eight at West Virginia, made it clear last preseason that the roster makeup wasn’t to his liking.

With Holgorsen planning to be at Houston long term, it was a prudent way to build, in his mind. King — who hoped to finish out his senior season with a bang and look toward the NFL — met Holgorsen’s suggestion with skepticism. The thought of how it would look to pro scouts and the idea of bailing on his team after a poor start made it hard to stomach.

His dad, Eric King, felt similarly.

“How’s that going to look on you?” D’Eriq recalls his dad telling him at the time. “The first thing people are going to say is you’re selfish. You weren’t brought up the right way. You quit on your team.”

Over the weekend, D’Eriq King’s unease didn’t change much, but his uncertainty with the state of the program — which looked drastically different from the one he signed with in 2016, from the on-field product all the way down to the culture — left him at least considering the redshirt. By Monday morning, Eric King had a lengthy in-person meeting with Holgorsen. That afternoon, with D’Eriq still contemplating, news leaked via the Houston Chronicle that he was going to redshirt, although D’Eriq maintains to this day that when the story broke, he still hadn’t decided what to do.

Later Monday afternoon, KRIV-TV in Houston quoted Eric King as saying D’Eriq was not only redshirting, but planning to transfer. Eric told ESPN later that day that D’Eriq “isn’t real comfortable” with the decision to redshirt. It sowed extreme confusion, but by the day’s end, D’Eriq King and Keith Corbin released statements saying they were redshirting and planning to return to Houston in 2020, making it the most atypical use of the NCAA’s four-game redshirt rule since its institution in 2018.

The following day, Holgorsen, King and Corbin held a news conference discussing the decision, and King asserted his future status plainly, saying, “I’m staying here.” When those words escaped his lips, King says now, he believed them.

“The thing was, I was staying, 150%,” King said. “There was no way that I’m going to say, ‘I’m gonna stay,’ and not going to stay.”

Nationally, it stunned college football observers. Critics of the strategy likened it to tanking, a long-held practice of NBA teams losing in hopes of securing the No. 1 overall draft pick. Holgorsen objected to that characterization, and King does too, even now. “I don’t think that he was tanking,” King said of Holgorsen. “They tried to win every single game.”

Afterward, King practiced with the scout team and even traveled to several road games. He tried to help out his replacement, quarterback Clayton Tune. But as the season wore on, King’s frustration mounted.

“For the first time in my life, I wasn’t happy playing football,” he said.

That sentiment dated all the way back to the preceding spring. The team didn’t much resemble what he was used to and he had plenty on his plate outside of football. King’s mother, Cassandra — a former high school and college athlete herself who was the picture of health — was diagnosed with breast cancer last November.

“It affected him a lot,” Cassandra said.

On Dec. 1, a day after the Cougars’ last game of the season — a loss to Navy, which dropped Houston to 4-8, its worst record in 15 years — King and his father met with Holgorsen and director of football operations Ryan Dorchester. It was an emotional meeting for D’Eriq, who revealed his unhappiness to Holgorsen and told the coach that while he was still planning on staying, he was considering entering the transfer portal.

Grass is greener in Miami

As bowl season kicked off, King watched players he knew and respected — and felt they were at the same level as him — shine under the bright lights. His old high school teammate Kyle Trask led Florida to a victory in the Orange Bowl. Graduate transfer quarterback Joe Burrow was busy leading LSU to a national championship. King started thinking of himself on that stage, at a Power 5 program, leading a squad to a signature win. He knew plenty of schools would be interested.

At Houston, a program to which he felt he had given everything, there was no solid footing. He had four different offensive coordinators in four years, and he was about to have his fifth offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach after some postseason staff changes. Holgorsen was the third head coach King had played for.

With Holgorsen building toward a future that would not include him and seemingly enamored with his replacement, Tune, who had started seven of the past eight games, the grass to King seemed much greener elsewhere.

“I’m here and I could go to a school that would appreciate me, that would want me to be there,” King said.

Even as his mind wandered, he continued to take steps forward with the Cougars. He signed scholarship paperwork for his 2020 spring-semester classes. He met with offensive coaches in early January. He even showed up and sat in the front row of Holgorsen’s first team meeting of the 2020 season on Jan. 12. Holgorsen, Dorchester and even athletic director Chris Pezman were under the impression that King was all-in on staying. Meanwhile, King agonized over the thought of going back on his word.

He spoke with close teammates who knew how unhappy and uncertain he was. They respected his decision to leave, King said.

At 10:02 p.m. Central time on Jan. 13, while LSU was in the process of beating Clemson to win the national championship, King made the news public with a 13-word tweet.

“I’ve entered the portal I think it’s best for me and my family!”

During the swift search process, he strongly considered two SEC programs — LSU and Arkansas — before announcing a week later that he chose Miami.

Holgorsen hasn’t said much publicly about the situation since King’s departure, but told ESPN in February that, “I’ve got no ill will toward him whatsoever. He can come up here [anytime]. If he walked in the door right now, I’d give him a big hug and sit down and talk to him.”

King said the two are “still cool” and still communicate.

But ponder this: If King and Corbin connected on the third-and-5 pass in the end zone that fell incomplete with 25 seconds left at Yulman Stadium last September, perhaps the Cougars would beat Tulane and everything changes.

“I probably don’t redshirt,” King said.

Unexpected tragedy

None of that adversity compared to what happened in February, when less than a month after D’Eriq King transferred to Miami, Eric died of a heart attack at 48 years old.

“You instilled confidence in me,” D’Eriq wrote in a Twitter post the day after Eric’s death. “You taught me everything I know about the game you brought the dog out of me when I was 4 years old! You always had my back through anything.”

D’Eriq’s note ended with, “I promise to make you proud for the rest of my life! I GOT US.”

Eric was a quarterback and sprinter at Waltrip High in Houston in the late 1980s and early ’90s. He once ran the 100 meters in 10.15 seconds, and eventually signed with Texas A&I (now Texas A&M-Kingsville) before knee injuries cut his athletic career short. So he channeled his love for the sport into coaching.

He coached a wide range of kids, from elementary-school-aged youth teams all the way up to the high school ranks, where he had stints as an assistant coach for well-known Houston private schools St. Pius X and Westbury Christian.

He even started his own 7-on-7 program, King Football Academy.

“He was our first coach,” said Keshon King, D’Eriq’s older brother.

Cassandra King remembers Eric instructing his sons to set an example for others with their practice habits. If players had to run gassers, “you better be first or one of the first three to finish,” he would tell D’Eriq.

Even when D’Eriq got to college, he still relied upon his dad for insight after practices and games.

“D’Eriq used to call him after every practice, every scrimmage, every game,” Keshon said. “Even though we were always at the games, he’d still call him when he got home and talk about the game and things like that.”

After Eric’s death, well wishes poured out on social media from those who played for or knew Eric. “RIP Coach King,” wrote former Oklahoma defensive tackle Du’Vonta Lampkin, who hails from Houston. “Thank you for showing me how the game of football was supposed to be played. You changed my life at the age of 7. Forever grateful to you.”

For D’Eriq, it was the toughest challenge of his 22 years. Cassandra worried for her youngest child, who returned to Miami two days after the funeral for the start of Hurricanes spring practice, which the team delayed to accommodate D’Eriq.

The team practiced four times before pausing for spring break in mid-March, during which D’Eriq returned home. The pause became much longer when college sports, like most everything else in the country, came to a halt because of the coronavirus pandemic. Having to stay home became a blessing in disguise for D’Eriq.

Instead of being in Miami detached from his family in a time of mourning, he was surrounded by his mother, his three older siblings and many other family members and friends.

“Being around them, it helped me a lot,” D’Eriq said.

Said Cassandra: “I was glad that he was able to come home and be with us as a family at a time that we really needed to be together. It really helped us get through some things, and we’re still going through it, but it helped us to bond more.”

Determined to stay football sharp as he grieved, D’Eriq found an outlet in training. Sometimes it was as simple as asking Keshon to catch passes for him at a local park. Eventually, he called on a friend, former SMU and Lamar quarterback Darrell Colbert Jr., who had recently launched his own training business, Select QB Athletics.

King began working with Colbert three to four times per week. He even recruited his good friend Trask, also a Houston-area native, to join him.

Whenever he was out on the field, King appeared to find some peace.

“You could tell how bad he wanted this season to happen,” Colbert said of King. “We knew what he was going through, but you couldn’t tell when he was there [at the training facility]. He always had a smile on his face, never came in with an attitude. He’s a great guy to be around.”

Trask said King’s focus throughout this difficult time was evident.

“When you work out with him, you can tell he’s got something to prove that’s bigger than football,” Trask said.

Before his first scrimmage with the Canes in August, D’Eriq got emotional. It was the first game situation since his dad’s death. The thought of not being able to call his father afterward hit him.

“It’s been challenging for him,” Keshon said. “But he’s handled it very well, especially with it being his first time away from home.”

Cassandra said D’Eriq “has his days like we all do,” but when he calls home he tries to stay strong, “especially for me.” All told, they see a resilient young man who has matured a lot in the past year.

“I still think about my dad every day,” D’Eriq said. “But as far as the game, I’m more ready to play than ever.”

Changing perceptions

King is listed on Miami’s roster at 5-foot-11. In reality he’s a sliver below 5-10. But because of plays like this and the fact that he’s Black, King has often been painted into the corner of “athlete” first, quarterback second.

At Miami, King will have a chance to prove perceptions aren’t reality.

It dates back to recruiting. Though his high school credentials were impeccable (he threw for more than 10,000 yards as a prep player and had more career touchdown passes at the Texas Class 6A level than Kyler Murray) he was recruited as a player who likely needed to switch positions.

This is something Eric King made his son keenly aware of early. D’Eriq pays close attention to how Black quarterbacks are debated and dissected, such as how questions about Lamar Jackson’s pro future were prevalent in the draft process despite his Heisman Trophy and collegiate accomplishments.

“You gotta do stuff 10 times better to get the same thing that other quarterbacks get,” D’Eriq said. “You gotta do interviews different, you gotta talk different, act different, you gotta just be different for guys to think of you as a quarterback.”

When Kyle Trask, who backed up King at Manvel High, was offered by SEC power Florida, King was thrilled for him. The two were great friends and remain so to this day. But he also wondered why no blueblood program would take a similar chance on him as a QB.

“I was totally happy for him, and I knew he would be good there,” King said. “But deep down inside, [I’m thinking], ‘What’s the point of me going out here and doing everything I can do and I’m not getting the same opportunity as him because I’m not 6-5 and white?’ I’m just being honest.

“Kyle is good. But I’m breaking [high school] records, six touchdowns, five touchdowns a game, but he plays a quarter or two and gets offered by one of the best schools in the country. It’s been like that my whole life, though.”

Not all coaches feel this way. Kliff Kingsbury was the first to offer King as a quarterback when the coach was at Texas Tech. Texas coach Tom Herman, who signed King at Houston, said the first time he saw King throw live he thought, “Whoa, we’ve got something here, boys.” After facing King last year, Oklahoma coach Lincoln Riley said, “There ain’t five quarterbacks in the country better than that cat, and that may be too many.”

King wound up playing other positions at Houston before eventually getting his shot as QB1. He filled in at slot receiver as a freshman when Houston suffered multiple injuries, and he also returned kicks and punts. When the conversation turns toward his NFL future, he knows what labels are coming.

“People have in their mind what they think a quarterback is supposed to look like,” King said.

He chose Houston in part because a quarterback who looked like him — Greg Ward Jr. — succeeded there. But it’s not lost on King that after Ward graduated, he had to wait his turn behind two taller, white quarterbacks (Texas A&M transfer Kyle Allen and his then-backup, Kyle Postma). The quarterback supplanting King at Houston, Clayton Tune, also fits that description.

Murray was drafted No. 1 in part because he won a Heisman at Oklahoma.

“I’m at home watching all these big-time bowl games, watching guys that I competed with since I was little playing at big-time programs,” King said. “So I kinda wanted to experience that, because everybody says, ‘Well, he did it at Houston.’ It’s always a knock.”

New team, new outlook

Finally, there’s no more waiting for D’Eriq King.

No more changing positions, no more sitting behind another player or redshirting. As the team’s official Twitter account put it when he was officially named the starter in July: The King is ready for the throne.

“I’m ready to get back on the field and do something that I’m used to doing,” he said. “I’m in the right headspace. I’m ready to go.”

Everything he has endured over the past 11 months has been equally eye-opening and challenging, but there have been some bright spots. He found a team that felt it sorely needed him and welcomed him with open arms. He’s having fun playing football again.

And most importantly, his mother was declared cancer-free. Cassandra King rang the bell in July, marking the end of her chemotherapy treatments. She’ll complete her remaining treatments in November.

“That was a good day,” Cassandra said, her voice tinged with emotion.

“It was the happiest I’ve been all year,” D’Eriq said.

When D’Eriq King jogs onto the turf at Hard Rock Stadium on Thursday night to take his first snap as a Cane, Cassandra, Keshon and both of his grandmothers will be in attendance, watching. He’ll miss his dad, certainly, but he’s hoping to make him proud. Keshon is expecting some fireworks from his younger brother this year.

“He’s gonna be in the end zone a lot,” Keshon said. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen him more focused than I see him right now.”

As much as King has anticipated his return to the field, it’s no longer the be-all, end-all for him. The lessons life has taught him of late allow him to keep football in proper perspective.

“The way I was looking at it in 2019, it’s totally different now,” King said. “Football, I used to look at it as my life. It’s not my life. My family, my relationship with people, that’s my life.

“I’m trying to see football for what it is. It’s a game. It’s a game that I love, but it’s not everything to me anymore.”

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