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USF’s KJ Sails embracing life as defensive stalwart, and dad

Life, and death, compelled the East Bay High alumnus to transfer from North Carolina
USF defensive back KJ Sails (9) breaks up a pass intended for South Carolina State wide receiver Will Vereen during a Sept. 14 game at Raymond James Stadium. [CHRIS O'MEARA | Associated Press]
Published Oct. 18

TAMPA ― This story starts with a smile. A perpetual, luminous one.

It has infiltrated every nook of USF’s football program. Every game, regardless of how inspiring or insufferable, it has shown up without fail. It arrives at every practice, meeting and plane flight. Put a helmet over it, and it beams right through.

There’s just no suppressing cornerback KJ Sails’ vigor or visage these days. “You know he’s in the room,” defensive backs coach Steve Ellis said, “because he’s got a laugh, he’s got a smile.”

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Naturally, such radiance can’t perpetuate without a power source; a surefire, steady connection. Sails’ charger can be found in the Bulls’ locker room after each game, win or loss. Sometimes, it even charges up coaches and teammates, dancing with uninhibited zeal when the stereo starts pumping.

King Jeremiah Sails, who turned 2 in August, keeps his dad glowing. “Oh he’s very happy,” said Oscar Angulo, the closest thing to a father the older KJ has ever had. “What makes him happy is being close to his son.”

A 22-year-old East Bay High alumnus, Sails transferred this past summer after three seasons at North Carolina, and has delivered an instant impact. Six games in, he leads the Bulls with five pass breakups and an 11.6-yard punt return average, and has recovered two fumbles.

“He’s a very cerebral kid,” Ellis said. “He’s instinctive, he’s quick. He’s got phenomenal technique, understands the stuff schematically.”

Truth be told, he probably could be posting similar numbers for the Tar Heels this season, but the distance between him and little KJ simply became to great to bear. Even if the Heels hadn’t bottomed out in 2018 (2-9) and changed coaches, Sails still would have returned to Florida.

“I didn’t want to,” he said. “It was kind of hard for me because of all the relationships I built.”

But he was bent on being the kind of father he never had growing up. Then, tragedy perpetuated his decision. Quite literally, Kevin Johnson Sails’ choice to return home was a matter of both life and death.

A King is born

USF football player KJ Sails and 2-year-old son King Jeremiah Sails. [KJ SAILS | Special to the Times]

Sails broke away from the Heels’ preseason camp in time to see longtime girlfriend Kiana Campbell give birth to little KJ on Aug. 13, 2017.

Sails says he met Kiana, currently pursuing a career as a stenographer, about a half-decade earlier at East Bay High, after her family moved to Tampa Bay from Texas.

“It was funny how we just kicked it off,” he said. “She didn’t like me at first. I kept being persistent.”

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In the initial months of little KJ’s life, Sails rarely had the chance to see his son in person, but the couple would connect almost daily via FaceTime so Sails could see little KJ. “I thank God they came out with that, ’cause it would’ve probably been rough,” Sails said.

Meantime, Sails evolved into a starter at UNC, finishing ninth in the ACC with 13 pass breakups in ’17. Yet even as he locked down one receiver after another, he struggled to cope with the separation being created between he and his paternal obligations. He knew such separation firsthand.

Sails was raised without a father. For the first 14 or so years of his life, women ― mainly his mother, Shawntay Woodbury, and grandmothers ― served as his primary authority figures. But he says when his living arrangement at home became difficult, he asked Angulo ― father of Sails’ best friend, Christian Angulo ― if he could move in with his family.

Angulo and his wife, Osiris Prieto, already were raising five kids of their own in their five-bedroom house in Riverview. After consulting Sails’ mother, the couple consented.

“I brought him in; I didn’t even think about it twice,” said Angulo, a former executive sports producer for WFTS-TV in Tampa. “I just talked to my wife about it, and the next day I told him, ‘Bring your stuff.’ He came and became a part of our family, living with us. Everything that we did, he was there with us. And whatever my other children got, he got, too — good and bad.”

Though Sails remained close to his mom, who accompanied him onto the field on East Bay’s senior night, Angulo became his paternal rudder of sorts. When college coaches visited Sails, they came to the Angulo home. Sails called Angulo “Pops.” Angulo referred to him as “son.”

“He taught me what it was like to have a father,” Sails said.

Sails desperately wanted to apply that teaching to little KJ, but the distance between them made it difficult. He longed to return home.

Then, he had to.

Deaths in the family

Sails worshiped his great-grandmother, Loretta Hardy, the spiritual cornerstone of her brood. It was Hardy who had encouraged Sails to start singing and playing the drums in church, and her Sunday dinners ― chicken, rice, collard greens, neck bone ― were the stuff of legend.

“We know God because of her,” Sails said.

On Feb. 6, a week before little KJ turned 18 months old, Hardy passed away at age 82. Sails played the drums at her funeral at New Greater Friendship Missionary Baptist Church.

“I know he’s told me that ever since he was younger, before we met, that when things got difficult, she would be the one that would comfort him and bring him under her wing and try to guide him and tell him things,” Angulo said. “It really hit him, it really affected him.”

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The day after the funeral, in the wee hours of Feb. 17, Sails was floored again. Takiya Fullwood, a longtime friend, was fatally shot at a party in east Tampa. She was 18.

Sails had grown up with Takiya and her siblings, including former USF defensive back Tajee Fullwood. Another Fullwood kid, Trey, is little KJ’s godfather.

“She just had ‘it,’” Sails said. “When people say the ‘it’ factor, either you’ve got it or you don’t. She just had it. Whatever ‘it’ was, she had it. She was just so loving and caring. She just wanted to see everyone do good.”

Now, two irresistible forces ― birth and bereavement ― were pulling Sails back home. Still, he had invested three years of his life at UNC, forming brotherly bonds with several teammates.

Yet his decision had become clear. He went to new Heels coach Mack Brown’s office and said he had to transfer closer to home.

“Coach Mack understood,” Sails said. “He actually said, ‘I’m gonna help you any way possible. If you need to go back home, I completely understand. I’ll help you.’ … He wrote a letter to the NCAA to help me play this year.”

Defensive back KJ Sails celebrates a play against South Carolina State earlier this season. [SCOTT PURKS | Special to the Times]

Sails formally joined USF in May, but spent nearly four months in limbo waiting to hear whether the NCAA would grant him a hardship waiver allowing him to play for the Bulls right away. Roughly 48 hours before USF’s season opener against Wisconsin, Sails learned the waiver had been granted.

The smile hasn’t subsided since.

“Just being able to pick his son up, being able to hug and kiss him…that’s what really drives him,” Angulo said. “That’s what really makes him happy these days.”

During the season, Sails is able to see little KJ in person three to four times a week. They hang out at the park, the basketball courts, the pool. After every Bulls home game, win or loss, little KJ is in the locker room with his dad.

“Every time he sees a ball, he’s like, ‘Ball, ball, ball,’” Sails said. “If he sees a Bull, he’ll think it’s me. He’ll go, “Da-Da, Da-Da.’ He’s so loving and caring, a high-energy guy.”

Enough energy, it seems, to keep a 22-year-old athlete constantly charged.

“What he’s done since he’s been here, just his whole attitude and the way he comes in and the passion that he has, guys see that,” Bulls coach Charlie Strong said. “And they can feel it.”

Contact Joey Knight at jknight@tampabay.com. Follow @TBTimes_Bulls.

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