A little competition never hurt anyone. For some, it might even be the start of a lifelong friendship.
Almost 15 years ago at North Gwinnett High School in Suwanee, Georgia, faculty members Tamika Barnes and Konata Perkins each brought their young sons to school. Meeting on the school’s track, Perkins posed a simple challenge for the two 6-year-olds.
“Nahil’s dad thought he was faster than me, so we raced and I won,” Tamika Barnes’ now 20-year-old son Taj recalled. “Ever since then, we have been really close.”
“That day was hilarious because I thought I was the almighty fast guy,” Konata Perkins’ now 20-year-old son Nahil added. “Then, I met Taj, and found someone that was actually faster than me.”
That same year, Konata Perkins, also known locally as “Coach P,” helped recruit a third member to the first grade squad. While putting together a youth track team that would debut the following year, he found another 6-year-old with speed, Cole Thornton.
At the time, Taj was already building a friendship with Cole, whose older sister cheered for his brother’s team. The two younger brothers found fun in every game day, often rushing the field during halftime to play tag football.
After a few months, it was finally their turn to hit the field. In the youngest age group, the trio entered the local youth program, Gwinnett Football League. Even though they each played on separate teams, their families became acquainted within the organization.
Years later, the trio again united as part of a successful football program at Lanier High School under coach Korey Mobbs. The team finished the season with a 10-2 record, and each of the athletes were All-County selections.
According to Coach P, his inaugural track team helped cement the friendships between the boys and their parents.
“I saw the speed that Taj possessed and the speed that Cole possessed, so I invited them out to run track with us,” Coach P said. “The track program is what brought the families closer together.”
The next 12 years consisted mainly of sports and sleepovers, computer games and carpools. Friends quickly became family.
“We didn’t just work together to win games, but our whole families really did anything they could to help each other out,” Cole said. “If I needed a ride to practice or to a game they would help, and vice versa.”
“My parents separated in middle school — Cole’s mother let me stay over there all the time if I needed to, and Cole’s father was like a second father to me,” Nahil added. “Both of his parents are basically parents to me. I have a very deep connection with all of them.”
After an academic and athletic journey spanning elementary to high school, the trio was not ready to part ways just yet.
“Here’s what is funny,” Taj’s father Glennis said. “As close as they are, they didn’t really communicate about where they were going to go.”
The answer was 1,000 miles from home. Since 2012, Lanier High School had sent no recruits to Fordham University in the Bronx, New York. By some stroke of luck, each athlete’s offer list included the Division 1 program. Taj and Cole decided to commit, and once they posted the news on Twitter, the pair hoped Nahil would follow suit.
“First of all, Fordham did a great job recruiting them,” Mobbs said. “Those three being so tight, growing up together, playing youth ball together, they had been in the community for some time. So when they all had the opportunity to go to the same place, it just made sense.”
But the decision to choose Fordham wasn’t a given.
“I don’t know what it was,” Nahil said. “All of us had bigger offers at bigger schools, but there was just something about Fordham.”
The Bronx sounded even better with friends along for the ride.
“My initial reaction was pure excitement when I found out that Nahil and Cole committed to Fordham as well,” Taj said. “Having both of them with me in college facilitated the transition from Atlanta to New York tremendously.”
The Big Apple can be a shocking change for a few kids from the south. While being together made the move easier, it was perhaps even more reassuring for the parents.
“Knowing he’s got his friends up there just helps us feel more comfortable,” Tamika Barnes said. “They have each other in the event they ever need anything. It gives us peace of mind.”
Graduating high school during the pandemic, the class of 2020 was unable to close its high school chapter in person, and the typical college experience was delayed.
Instead of enjoying Fordham’s campus, the student athletes had to spend their first two weeks of college quarantining in the same hotel room.
“We got two beds for three dudes — this just ain’t it,” Nahil recalled. “Every day, we would rotate who would sleep in whose bed. Then I had the big idea to just smash the two beds together.”
Having each other there made a difficult situation far more bearable. They were able to make their own fun during a tough time.
“We left the room sometimes to ride bikes around the city,” Nahil said. “We went to Soho, Times Square and watched the sun set on the water. That was a very, very potent part of our college career.”
Through a strange first year, they were always there for one another emotionally.
“They both are my brothers away from home, and I can always talk to them about anything,” Taj said. “We all support and encourage each other because we know what we are capable of.”
“Me and Taj, we would switch on the roles of little bro and big bro,” Nahil added. “Sometimes, I’ll talk Taj’s ear off about my feelings, and he’ll just sit there and listen. We really helped each other through that time span.”
Once Fordham’s campus opened again, they decided to remain roommates. Barnes describes their living situation as a “movie.” Despite being like brothers, the friends still learned new things about one another.
“Taj is on his books,” Nahil said. “I swear he’s studying from after practice at 6 p.m. all the way until midnight when he goes to sleep. He’s a very good student, I can tell you that. As a roommate, I hate him because he snores. I have to figure out how to start getting some sleep again. He doesn’t realize it, but he’s a big snorer.”
As COVID-19 restrictions eased, a regular football season was on the horizon. The group finally was back on the field. Although they play far from home, their parents take any opportunity they can to travel and see them play. When only one family can make it to the Bronx, they do their best to make those back home feel close to the game.
“All of our families are close and want what is best for each other,” Taj said. “All the parents are glad their son has another kid they know going to school with them, given the fact that we are far from home.”