LOS ANGELES — Their first summer in a hotel, when the walls would close in and taste for Burger King and 7-Eleven pizza would stale, Kyon Barrs would assemble his siblings to go outside and chase the peacock.
They glimpsed it for the first time, outside the window of that Extended Stay America in Temecula, with a mixture of admiration and confusion. Why are you here? So they’d get dressed, lace up their shoes and go investigate this strange bird on their own, father Casey busy hunting a paycheck that wasn’t coming and mother Cherelle busy fighting a cancer that was slowly killing her.
When his younger brother Keelan was born, a 7-year-old Kyon — still the same goofball that asked if his traps looked good before talking to media in the fall — suggested he and his siblings needed a group name. Like the Jackson Five, except there were four of them. So Kyon settled on “KB4”: Kyon, sister Kayla, younger sister Karlye and Keelan.
And KB4, that first summer, would form a specific formation to try to catch this peacock. Kyon, then a lineman at nearby Murrieta Mesa High and a few years before becoming a 6-foot-2, 290-pound defensive lineman at USC, would organize them in a sort of zone defense: each to a quadrant, slowly advancing, trying to grab the bird.
There was never any thought, never any consideration, of what they’d do with it when they caught it. It was a challenge that simply bothered them, and Kyon especially. Eventually, it would flutter its plume and scare them, and the charade would come to an end.
Because the chase for the peacock always ended on Kyon’s terms.
“He was so close — he was so mad, too, and he didn’t get it. And then that’s when he was like, ‘We’re just gonna go inside,'” Kayla said of Kyon, twisting her voice in faux anger to mimic her brother. “We’re just gonna go inside.'”
They followed him. Without fail. When Kyon would trudge back after practice to their room at a Comfort Inn, siblings would volunteer to sleep on the floor so he could ease aching muscles. Cherelle, in the midst of chemotherapy, would stay up until the wee hours cold-emailing college coaches to take a chance on her son. His family, through homelessness and multiple hotel stays, always coalesced around Kyon’s journey through football — “this our life,” Casey says, matter-of-fact.
The journey appears close to over, now. After four years playing ball at Arizona, a transfer to USC didn’t work out; Kyon’s snaps and opportunity fell, with no years of eligibility left.
But at every turn, when parents have suggested stepping away from football, he’s relented. Angry. He’s going to do this. This road, still, will end on his terms.
“I don’t care what this journey looks like, and I’ma say it out loud because it needs to be said out loud,” Cherelle says, one tear-filled Sunday afternoon in October. “I don’t care how insane it sounds.”
“My son’s going to the league.”
In high school, after the final period of the day, Kyon would walk with friends down to a Carl’s Jr. in Murrieta, the local hangout spot. One by one, eventually, they’d all peel off and go home.
They always offered Kyon a ride to his house. He always politely declined.
He told none of them his home, at the time, was the Comfort Inn down the road.
“Realistically, just was waiting on everybody to leave so I could walk across the street,” Kyon said.
Life snowballed, a quick descent into madness, once Cherelle first felt a lump on her chest and the words malignant tumor knocked the Barrs into a Twilight Zone. Three weeks after she was diagnosed, husband Casey lost his job; money didn’t come, and so they moved into the Extended Stay and later the Comfort Inn, siblings bickering as each of them tried to finish homework and help their mother clean the drains hooked to her body as she went through chemo.
Cherelle’s body didn’t respond to treatment, though. Organs failed. She looked, as she said, like death.
And slowly, Kyon’s dad started to lose his mind.
“Now, when I do think back at it, like, my kids had the possibility of losing both parents,” Casey said, sitting on a couch next to Cherelle at the family’s home in October.
“It was scary … most of it was really just anger. I was angry at her — it wasn’t her fault, but I was just angry, because,” he continued, turning to Cherelle and gesturing at her, “‘why are you sick? Why does this happen?'”
He was Kyon’s hero. And to this day, Casey questions why. They moved constantly. They were homeless.
“That was on me,” he said, voice firm. “That’s not — a hero wouldn’t do that. A good father wouldn’t let that happen.”
Cherelle interrupted him.
“But what did Kyon say?” she asked Casey. “He said, you never stopped trying.”
And so Kyon never stopped trying, either.
OPPORTUNITY SLIPPING AWAY
A pallet, as defined by Cherelle, is a makeshift comfortable-as-possible sleeping space on the floor, perhaps furnished with pillows or blankets.
It’s an inside joke to the Barrs, if people know what a pallet is — “because that’ll tell us,” Cherelle said, “whether you were really in the struggle in life or not.”
During his last two years of high school, Barrs would sometimes wake up on the floor of a hotel room to go walk to Mesa and return with the nagging fear that his mother would be gone. He didn’t complain, because he was the eldest. He taught his siblings to swim on weekends at the hotel pool. He got them ready for school. He didn’t miss football practices, and he started racking up a few collegiate offers.
“That was just the main thing I was focused on, is just get a good offer … send money back home, and do what I needed to do,” Kyon remembered.
But slowly, a promising career began to slip away.
Kyon already had difficulty taking tests — racked with nerves, hands clammy. When the SATs rolled around, his parents were in no place to help him study, nor to pay for help. He struggled, too, to admit weakness, and after multiple attempts failing the math section, offers started dropping off the table.
By the spring of his senior year, he had one scholarship offer left: Portland State. Kyon went a different route, choosing to join the program at Riverside City College in hopes of building back his stock.
Driving home from one workout, though, he called his mom, breaking down in tears.
“‘I don’t know if I can do this,'” Cherelle remembered him saying. “‘Like, what happened?'”