No Want to attack every day with the latest UGA football recruiting info? That’s what the Intel brings. This entry is a long-form story on 5-star Georgia target Malakai Starks of Jefferson High School in Northeast Georgia.
Go to Jefferson High in Northeast Georgia. Set up in the middle of the football field on a Friday night. Now throw a stick in any direction.
When it lands, that stick is bound to be near someone with a story to share about Malaki Starks.
It will go beyond his prospect ranking. Or the time he ran 30 times for 321 yards and four TDs on the road in Savannah in the semifinals of the state playoffs.
Starks threw a touchdown that night, too. Yet he will not be a quarterback or a running back in college. The 5-star ATH (247Sports Composite rankings) has been the top target on the weekly “Before the Hedges” Class of 2022 list since its debut two months ago.
There are many reasons why he’s held that top spot. This chronicle can only aim to cover a fraction of those.
He ran 11.02 in the 100 as a freshman and combined that with a triple jump of almost 44 feet. Starks holds a top three of Alabama, Clemson and Georgia and a decision likely coming up in the not-so-distant future.
Those stories now might not qualify for the bronze when it comes to the best of Starks.
They set the course for his life, but have not been his path. That path is why Starks is so beloved in his community.
He has been described as a literal “Lebron James” or a modern-day “Herschel Walker” inside the Jefferson city limits.
The last stick one could throw here doesn’t need to go far. It can land in the direction of his coach’s office.
We might likely never hear a coach-player bond described so candidly as that one.
There’s a stick that somehow points toward Rabun County of all places. There will be another story documented here that took place in the center of Gwinnett County.
Each piece frames up why Starks is an essential piece for Georgia in its 2022 recruiting cycle. Or Alabama. Or Clemson. Or anywhere.
When Jefferson played for the state championship, his gear reflected those schools. Starks wore a Clemson toboggan during his pregame routine and alternated between Alabama and Georgia gloves in the game.
There’s also the stick that found its way to a lady who taught Starks in middle school. She is now one of the “Team Moms” for the Dragons.
It is as good of a place to start as any.
Malaki Starks: What a team mom knows about a 5-star
While following the Dragons back in December, an observer came upon a lady who gave Starks the biggest hug imaginable. Think of how a Mom might greet the hero who saved their child and the family kitten from being stuck up in a tree.
If her child had also been holding a winning Powerball ticket, it would look like this hug.
“If you are throwing that stick around, you are also going to land near a child that looks up to him,” Joyce Dial said. “Or the fourth-string player that knows Malaki is his biggest cheerleader on the sidelines.”
Dial, who taught Starks in middle school, calls him a “one in a million” young person.
“Because he’s not just a kind person,” she starts off. “He’s not just a great athlete. He’s not a great student, but he makes himself and works to become that good student. I mean he’s not perfect. Nobody is perfect. But if you had to pick out qualities in what you like about a person, you could pretty much sum that up with him.”
She’s seen how hard he works.
“Yes, he’s a natural athlete, but I’ve never seen somebody train like he trains,” she said. “I’ve never seen another student care for other kids the way he does. He’s everybody’s biggest cheerleader. He doesn’t meet a stranger. He gives back to the little kids in our schools because he knows them all.”
Starks will show up at youth basketball tryouts. To support the young athletes in town. The kids only remember that.
“Not the tryouts,” Dial said. “They will come home and tell their parents they saw Malaki Starks. He gives back to the kids because he knows the community has given to him for so long and he gives back to them.”
Starks has a part-time job working at the local rec center. He’s there often. Even during a football season.
“He’s like our Herschel Walker in Jefferson,” Dial said. “He is. He motivates all the kids in town to want to be better. He is like a Lebron James walking around town and he doesn’t brag about it.”
Dial said she’s never seen him give an interview or a speech to kids in town without mentioning a teammate. Even when he gets recognized for another award.
“Growing up all the kids wanted to be on his team,” she said. “All the girls wanted to cheer for his team. The team he was on everyone knew was going to win our Super Bowl in our Little League football program. He’s always been that guy. He’s always been that infectious. You are just born with that type of effect on people.”
She taught him in the sixth and seventh grades. That’s how she first got to know him.
“That’s my Mom,” Starks said.
Starks will use the word “Mom” to describe many key women who have shaped his life. His actual mother, Tisha, got the coffeemaker she wanted from him for Christmas.
Dial just gets a big hug like that whenever he sees her.
“That woman will do anything for me,” Starks said. “I will do anything for her.”
She was there for him growing up. Especially when he needed it.
“When I was in the sixth grade, I was not really into school,” Starks said.
That changed after a vocabulary quiz in which he Starks had a 1-star grade. If that.
“She sat me down and had a talk,” Starks said. “It was her and my other teacher, Miss Pratt. They told me sports are just a product of what life is. They told me school is going to get me farther than football no matter how good I am at sports. I started to take school seriously. Once I kind of figured that was true, that talk we had really helped me out a lot.”
Starks shares that hug every single time.
“He’s like one of my own,” Dial said. “When you see him, he just makes you smile. Do you know what I mean? There’s like an aura about him. Like he walks into a room and the room lights up. You need to see him interact with kids. He’ll walk down the hallway and kids just have that star-stuck look on their face and he knows it, appreciates it and then gives it all back to them.”
The Rabun County connection with Malaki Starks
The second stick somehow lands three counties north of Jackson County. It points to Rabun County.
It might sound fortuitous for Georgia’s hopes, but there’s a relationship with 5-star QB commitment Gunner Stockton that dates back to 2005 or 2006. That’s when they were excelling in their respective communities.
They were whales in their respective ponds. They met up during All-Star or elite competitions. Stockton’s father, Rob, details the backstory.
He’s the defensive coordinator of the Rabun County team, too.
“We go back with Malaki since the two boys were both six years old,” Rob Stockton said. “We are very well-versed with Malaki. He is a wonderful wonderful young man. Since the age of six, I’ve never seen him misrepresent himself and not come across as a competitor with great kindness. Just a great teammate. Great attitude.”
Rabun County beat Prince Avenue Christian last fall in a meeting of 5-stars with Brock Vandagriff and Stockton on the field. It was a back-and-forth 38-31 win. Jefferson then rolled into Rabun the next week and handed the Wildcats a 28-14 loss.
“My least favorite Malaki story was watching him go about 65 yards untouched on us to start the game off against us this year,” Stockton said of that 2020 meeting.
Starks, who will likely be a free safety in college, was the quarterback on that team.
It was the first time his team had ever beaten a Stockton-led squad.
“You can’t say enough about him and then you combine it with just how smooth he is on the field and his athleticism just flows,” Rob Stockton said. “I mean from the tip of his toes to the top of his head, he’s such a smooth operator. He’s got great speed. Got great quickness, but there’s just some athleticism that is pure God-given talent that is born in him and a part of him.”
“It is just neat to see it all come together with somebody that represents himself and his community so well in the way he can both on and off the field.”
Is Starks a safety? A receiver? An athlete? Does he grow into the LB role in a 4-2-5 defense?
“I’m actually anxious to see what college coaches believe,” Stockton said. “I think they are seeing him as a safety but I think he’s talented enough he might be able to be the one who gets to decide that. I would say almost every college recruiting him would listen to him if he was to say ‘I wanna be a receiver’ or ‘I wanna be a safety’ and then they will say ‘Sounds great now come on and play there for us and we can’t wait to see how that works out.’”
His best story has nothing to do with a play.
“My favorite story about Malaki is to just watch him smile and shake your hand after a game,” Rob Stockton said.
When Stockton committed to UGA earlier this year, Starks knew what was coming.
“He and Gunner are very good friends and have spent some time together,” Rob Stockton said. “I can’t remember if it was before our game this year or after our game this year, that they spent a weekend together with one another. I think it was before. They have a good relationship.”
Devon Gales: A moment after losing the state championship
Georgia fans know the Devon Gales story well. The respect and appreciation DawgNation has had and will always have for Gales is impressive.
Gales is also an assistant coach on the Jefferson team.
When Starks was sidelined his freshman year with a broken tibia, he had to find other ways to help the team. He would work in the trainer’s room, but there was also a desire to stick close to Gales.
Fieldhouses and stadiums and locker rooms still aren’t the most wheelchair-friendly places. That’s despite significant OSHA gains. He made sure that Gales could also get around.
Those two have grown close.
“He’s a real good captain,” Gales said. “He picks up anybody that needs it. If they are not acting right, he will be the first one to get on your but. He’s the guy. He’s that role. He plays that role very well.”
It was said by many that Starks is like the “sun” for the Jefferson program.
His teammates look to him to shine when things get dark. Or in the locker room.
Starks went across the team and told everyone to “give us all that you have got this year” before the 2020 season.
His Dragons did. They fell short to an unbeaten Marist team in the state championship. When it was over, there was no time for tears on his part. Starks was working his sideline. Hugging every neck he could.
“The leadership thing to me is the most impressive thing he has,” Gales said. “But with that leadership then everything else plays off that. He’s a great player. He makes everybody better and takes it very seriously.”
The only time he broke down was when he came to Gales. It was a 90-second moment. No one who saw that will ever forget it.
“He told me he was proud of me and we have a chance to be back here next year,” Starks said. “This next summer we are going to work really hard. He said that about me and some of the other boys. Kadin Bailey. Jordan Perry. His brother. He said we are going to work hard and get right back here.”
Gales calls him “his little brother.”
“Look at him right now,” Gales said at a November practice while pointing to Starks cutting up with his teammates. “Typical pure joy. The same thing any day. I think any college would be lucky to have him.”
Malaki Starks: The biggest influencer in Jackson County
“It wasn’t just me,” Starks will say a lot after being asked to discuss the best plays of his career.
There are many. The plays against Rabun. His takeover of the Benedictine game and a one-handed catch against Gainesville.
Others note the “superhuman” catches he made against Crisp County in 2019.
It is a given he will be able to make those plays in front of 90,000-plus on Saturdays. That doesn’t feel like the noteworthy things here.
There’s the feeling in college football that there aren’t enough servant leaders. How does a program ask its best players to lead in college when they never did so in high school?
With Starks, it is natural.
How rare is it to go through the ranks of a varsity staff and learn when any one of them has a medical concern, the 5-star takes a real interest?
Or if their families are in need. Starks does that all the time. He’s not perfect. He will leave things behind and also ask the staff if he can borrow a bottle of water every day.
Those were the only things folks had to say about Starks asking for anything from the team. Or acting like a typical high school kid.
He gives instead. When a visitor is at practice on the day boosters had a meal for the team, he fetches a plate for the new face.
Starks suffered a broken leg in his career playing summer basketball. It wiped out his freshman football season. He would have started at maybe three positions.
He learned how to still help the team in other ways during that year on injured reserve.
He became an assistant trainer. Taping ankles. Starks still does that now. He’ll tape about four or five ankles a week for his guys during the season.
Even with a severe thumb injury, he was taping ankles and seeing to the needs of teammates during that state playoff run. He seems as cozy in a training room as he is running through an end zone.
“I’m a part-time trainer some of the time,” he said with a laugh.
An administrative source in the Jefferson system backed up Dial’s viewpoint of his notoriety. There might be 10 people in town who are as well-known as this young man. Might be.
There’s a point in all this reporting where the thought of a halo effect comes to mind. Do those who know him best go on about glorifying the great athlete?
It happens far too often. Everyone wants to say wonderful things about the great player. This happens with everyone who was quizzed for this piece about Starks.
The stories are never the same. It is a new good deed. Everybody has one.
In this case, it enhances the halo. Every story sounds like a $150 premium car wash for his image.
Chaz Ferdinand is on the staff of the Class 6A Central Gwinnett team. His Knights were roasted 61-7 last fall by the 4A Dragons. Here’s what he had to say about Starks:
“Speed for one,” Ferdinand began. “Kid can flat out roll. He turned the corner on the first snap we played them and [he] was gone and we don’t have a slow secondary. None of them could catch him. ”
That was an opposing coach from a team that lost by 54. To the much smaller school. Ferdinand feels he’s talented enough to be a weapon on offense, too.
He also couldn’t help but speak glowingly here.
“Great personality,” Ferdinand added. “[He] came and shook every coach’s hand after and talked to our sophomore QB who wants to be a Power 5 kid and told him his future is bright.”
That thought, combined with what Stockton said about him from Rabun, shows the quotes seem to be universal. They can come from a vanquished foe, a rival or even the Malaki Starks fan club.
Malaki Starks and his work in the Jefferson community
A lot of kids think about doing the right things. They just don’t follow through. Starks follows through.
When a coach mentioned he was moving, the 5-star heard that. He asked if he could help. Starks then showed up 15 minutes early to start loading and lifting boxes.
“We’ll say you need to go support the recreation kids and their teams,” Jefferson City Schools assistant superintendent Tom Parker said. “Then I will see him on Twitter with a community family and somebody saying ‘My four-year-old loved it when the high school star showed up” and he supported them when we asked all the kids to. That’s what it is all about.”
Parker is also the defensive coordinator on the football team. He had a teacher tell him about a discussion aimed at finding ways to get kids in the system to be more diligent wearing their face masks.
“He said if you can get Malaki to tell them to wear their face masks more often then they will wear them more often,” he said. “I was like that’s a good idea.”
Starks doesn’t walk around like he’s any different than anyone else.
“He just walks around like Malaki,” Parker said. “That’s enough.
The strength coach shared a comment that anyone who knows Starks can attest to.
“There’s nobody that doesn’t know or like Malaki because of the nice and friendly person that he is,” Jefferson strength coach Mike Morgan said. “He will say hi to everybody.”
The team invites a young recreational league player to join the team each week for the JHS gameday experience. That “Dragon of the Week” honor comes with some tight man coverage.
“Malaki is always with them the whole time,” Morgan said.
Jordan Perry is a fast-rising prospect in the 2022 class on the team. He knew Starks when he had that “ugly mohawk” when they first met.
“He’s a better person than he is a player,” Perry said of a nine-year friendship. “Most definitely.”
Parker believes that about Starks, too.
“He stands out more to me as a person now,” Parker said. “He seems to surprise me more times there. It is easy for great athletes to surprise you on the field. To me, it is hard for kids to surprise you with how their character is and the things they do off the field. He seems to always find a way to surprise you by doing just little things. Going to rec games and seeing kids. Nobody asks him to go. Calling coaches and checking on their families.”
“That’s what I think of with Malaki. It’s all the other stuff. When you do things that are not expected out of someone, to me that’s the difference between being good and great.”
Starks also leads his team.
“He’s very vocal among our locker room,” Perry said. “That gets our team right. I like the way he does it.”
The unforgettable Malaki Starks voice mail story
This all flows to our last stick. It lands near a picture hanging in the head coach’s office.
There are dozens of moments preserved in Gene Cathcart’s office. Helmets. Game balls. Front page glossies of the championship teams he’s been a part of.
There’s a nod to the well-loved movie “Tombstone” in here. There is also a keepsake of Starks. It is found near the entrance of a budding museum of a football coach’s life.
Jefferson had at least two games last fall where it played far below its best. Cathcart calls them “vomit fest” games. The young man in the number 24 still would simply not let them lose on those nights.
“He’s just a chronic winner,” Cathcart says.
Starks could power clean 300 pounds with ease prior to his thumb surgery. He can do a standing triple jump and easily cover half of a basketball court. It is a warmup.
“He’s never lost a game as a starting quarterback,” Cathcart said in late November before the Marist loss. “He was the state track athlete of the year in middle school. He was on a state track championship team. He played for the state basketball championship last year. He was the common denominator that is the face of all those programs.”
Cathcart is Dick Vermeil in a lot of ways. He’d stubbornly even agree with that. He bleeds with his players. Cries with and for them. Think of Ted Lasso. He’s that likable and spot-on with his instincts. Just not that funny.
The head coach at Jefferson does not believe in conditional love.
“I’m going to tell you the story of when Malaki became my guy,” he says.
As he starts, his eyes quickly go moist as he frames his fingers between his nose and his glasses.
He rubs them over that spot. The words that follow are hard to say.
“I don’t make a secret of being raised in a dysfunctional home,” Cathcart said. “Coaches have played an unbelievable role in my life.”
This moment brings him pain, but also a slight beam of something unexpected.
He speaks of a family member locked in a battle with addiction. The scoreboard has not been kind to his home team a lot of times here.
His players meet every Sunday during the season. Nothing substantial. Just a good primer on the week ahead. There was one specific weekend when that family member was really fighting those demons and needed his help.
It led Cathcart to feel he had to take some time. To check on his family. Even when it was very hard to do.
He was on the road and couldn’t help himself. He called to check on his team.
“I shouldn’t have done it,” Cathcart said. “Because I was driving. But then I notice I have a voice mail.”
Starks left that one for him.
“He said ‘Coach I hope you don’t mind but [assistant] coach [Ken] Ray told me where you were and I just wanted you to know that I love you.'”
Starks went on to say he said he didn’t know the family member that Cathcart had to drive to another state to check on.
Cathcart recalled the rest: “But he said ‘I know you and your family so [they] are family and I’ll be praying for [them] and I love you coach and drive safely’ and then he said to me ‘We’re going to be fine this week’ with our upcoming game.”
Starks was just a first-year sophomore bouncing back from a broken leg. But he was right about that.
“I don’t even remember who we played, to be honest with you,” Cathcart said. “So I pulled over and just kind of absorbed the moment and realize they don’t make many guys like that.”
“Most of the time if something like that were to ever happen in coaching it is somebody who needs an Eddie Haskell moment. Or somebody wanting to play or to kiss up to their coach. Here’s the best player that you may ever coach doing that. He doesn’t need anything. He just needs to make sure the bus gets there.”
“It is just genuine. It is not contrived. It is just real. It is just Malaki Starks.”
Starks will still ask about that family member. He wants to know if they are coming to a game.
That family member has been better. And worse.
“They now have a favorite player as well, too,” Cathcart said. “There are just so many examples of it. When I was that age I was wondering how much I would get to throw the ball. Then which girl would go to the Homecoming dance with me. And then whether my 1974 Ford Maverick was running. I don’t know what that is like to see the world the way Malaki does through those adult eyes at that age.”
Starks is just 17 years old.
It means more to hear about that voice mail and remember the stories he’s already told DawgNation: Starks lost a nine-year-old cousin to what he described as a drive-by shooting. Or a family life that had its hard times with some unexpected turns.
Starks writes “Fear God” and his beloved nephew Isaiah’s birthdate on the tape for his wrists before every game.
“Life hasn’t been a smooth sail for him but you will find a story like this about him from custodians here to teammates to assistant coaches to youth rec coaches to everyone you talk to,” his head coach said.
Cathcart has never hung a photo of a current player in his office before. He did with Starks.
“He is just the rarest combination,” he said.
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