More than 100 students line the hallways of Balmoral Elementary School waving white “LT” signs and shrieking as Laquon Treadwell, the 6-foot-2, 20-year-old alumnus, walks through with a smile and his hands out. Everyone howls together:
“TREAD-WELL! TREAD-WELL! TREAD-WELL!”
The shouts echo as the procession rounds each corner, leading toward a gymnasium packed with rows of students sitting cross-legged on the ground. Teachers and administrators cheer, too, as “We Will Rock You” pours from the gym speakers. An NFL Films crew works through the crowds with boom mics and a rolling camera. Publicists hand out signed photos, Treadwell’s family members give away rubber footballs and the rally grows louder.
“TREAD-WELL! TREAD-WELL! TREAD-WELL!”
This is Laquon Treadwell’s parade to the NFL Draft—a four-day celebration tour of interviews, photo ops and speeches, culminating in his selection by a yet-undetermined NFL team, likely to come in the first round—where he’ll ink a four-year deal worth upwards of $10 million, if past precedence is any indication. The glamor of the moment is a far cry from his years growing up in south suburban University Park, where he was raised by a single mom who sometimes had trouble paying for utilities but “always made it work” for her son, as Treadwell puts it.
Now, he’s spending the opening morning of that parade doing what he calls more anxiety-inducing than the draft itself: He’s visiting three of his hometown schools.
“I couldn’t sleep last night,” Treadwell says about the visits, which are half-celebratory, half-motivational speaking.
Certain elements of his superstar future have already set in. Every scene is a whirlwind of photographers, fans, and publicists, and between every speech is a scrum of reporters on deadline. At the epicenter is Treadwell, calm and experienced in the bustle by now, thanks to his time playing football in the SEC for University of Mississippi. Treadwell is simply happy that this particular whirlwind happens to involve his mother, Tami.
“Everything’s always been on the move,” Treadwell says. “Who knows when I’ll be back home. That’s been my life—going away from family to train, then coming back.”
Hours before his appearance at Balmoral, Treadwell, his mom, and the rest of the family start the day at 8 a.m. at the edge of the Cottage Grove Upper Grade Center administrative parking lot, enjoying the last few calm moments before their full schedule kicks in. Treadwell didn’t even attend Cottage Grove, a middle school in nearby Chicago Heights—he had instructors at another local school who now work there—but that doesn’t seem to concern the school, as the pixelated video board behind them in the parking lot displays, “Job Well Done Laquon Treadwell.”
As all three school visits will open, Cottage Grove greets its guest of honor with an introductory speech. “You were destined for success,” the principal says before a video reel of highlights from Treadwell’s high school and college career plays: a spin move, a one-handed catch, touchdown after touchdown. The young crowd hollers with admiration as the humble and soft-spoken hometown hero stands on the stage, alone, amidst loud applause.
Later on, he hosts a Q&A session with the middle schoolers.
“Did you have any role models growing up?” one student asks.
“Well, my mom.”
He relaxes as he chats with the group of people he seems most comfortable around—the kids. They fist bump and chat between pictures. He puts his arm around one sixth-grade boy and snaps a selfie with another sixth-grade girl, as hands from all the students reach towards him. He reaches out to each one.
But it’s not long before someone leans in and says, “Laquon, we have to go…”
He’s rushed back to the black SUV, then off to Crete-Monee High School, where Treadwell won a state championship in 2012 and rose to the top of the national wide receiver recruiting rankings. From there he made it to University of Mississippi, and immediately made an impact at the college level, only to have his breakout season derailed by a broken fibula and dislocated ankle in 2014. Following a successful rehabilitation, he excelled his junior season for 1,153 yards, 11 touchdowns, and a Biletnikoff Award nomination, given to the nation’s top receiver, before forgoing his senior year to enter the NFL Draft.
Now, facing a gymnasium full of people, Laquon talks about the people he’s met, the places he’s gone, and his 3-year-old daughter Madison—before he stops to put his head in his hands, unable to finish. Under a balloon display reading “Megaquon,” Treadwell chokes up. He looks to his family in the front row before starting up again and finishing to another round of raucous applause.
Madison walks over the stage to her father, and they stand alongside a framed No. 6 Crete-Monee jersey. The school is retiring his number.
“Okay, now come this way,” and Laquon is led away again, this time through the locker room. “Let’s walk by your state championship banner.”
Former coaches tell him how great he is. Teachers remember how nice he is. Highlight packages show how talented he is. Add in the asides with students and encouragement from publicists, and the stream of praise is ceaseless. But only when prompted will Treadwell chime in, because the person least inclined to talk about Laquon Treadwell is himself.
“I don’t talk much,” he says. “That’s me.”
He focuses on his daughter, who he keeps at his side during most of the morning, and he redirects admiration to his mother.
“Going through so much growing up, moving from house to house, water being off, heat being off—we went through so much, but she always made it work,” Treadwell says. “It was nothing we had to worry about. We always had a good Christmas.”
That lack of worry pervades Treadwell’s character. He’s not anxious how the NFL Draft will shake out (“I’m going to appreciate the moment”), he’s not concerned with recent criticisms regarding his speed (“Everybody’s got to have a job; everybody’s got to put their input on it”), and he’s relaxed about his soon-to-be wealthy economic status (“I’ll get a car and somewhere to live, but I haven’t really thought about it”).
He reveals his only concern of the day while walking towards the Balmoral gym under the thunderous noise of cheers and music. Stealing a few moments away from the procession, he steps to the side, leans towards his family and whispers: “How are you doing, Mom? You hungry?”