“I told him, ‘I don’t want you wearing the same number as me; I don’t want you copying me,’” Starks said Monday, grinning at the memory. “But when he passed away, I switched back to 24. That’s why I wear 24. Some people just look at it as a number, but to me it’s much more.”
And there is much more to that story.
The only follow-up question time would allow at the end of the 10-minute interview session with Starks was, “what was your cousin’s name and how did he die?”
“His name was Keion, and he got shot when he was 9,” Starks said.
Thankfully, Malaki’s mother would fill in some of the blanks later. In a telephone conversation Tuesday, Tisha Starks was not surprised to hear that her son shared that story, nor that he was somewhat cryptic about his cousin’s death.
“That’s really a touchy subject for him,” she said. “It’s still hard for him to talk about, hard to understand.”
The incident occurred 13 years ago. According to Tisha, Keion Gresham actually was 7 at the time, Malaki just 6. Keion’s brother Keionte, aka “Tay Tay,” also died May 3, 2010. He was 4.
They both died at the hand of their father, Keith Gresham. Gresham took his own life on a dirt road that day in Commerce in what police determined was a murder-suicide.
Keith Gresham was Tisha Starks’ cousin. Malaki always called him Uncle Keith, or just “Unc.”
“He was confused,” Tisha Starks said of her son. “It was hard for him to understand. He always liked his Uncle Keith.”
Nobody really understands what happened. What’s known is that Keith Gresham and the boys’ mother, Catrina Doster, had separated from a relationship that was marred by domestic violence, according to Starks. Only recently estranged and going through a custody battle, Doster let Gresham have the boys for the weekend. She never suspected she would not get them back.
“There’s really no way to explain it,” Tisha sighed.
Tisha Starks and Tina Doster remain the closest of friends. They have always lived near each other in the same Jefferson neighborhood where Tisha and Larry Starks raised Malaki and his older sister, Mariah. They look out for each other.
Not surprisingly, there is no bigger fan of Malaki Starks than Keion’s mother.
“Her work schedule doesn’t allow her to come to games much, but she calls me every game day, and she’s always wearing Malaki’s No. 24 jersey,” Tisha said.
Nobody could have dreamed all those years ago that Malaki would grow up to be kind of player that he is with the Georgia Bulldogs. Just a sophomore, he has started every game of his career at safety, except his very first one. In that one, his leaping interception against Oregon made the top 10 plays of the day on ESPN’s “SportsCenter.”
Starks is a consensus preseason All-American this year and was a consensus freshman All-American last season. He is among Georgia’s team leaders in name, image and likeness opportunities, which now earn him a six-figure income, according to published reports.
The football part comes as no surprise to Kirby Smart. He and the Bulldogs have been aware of Starks since he was only 13 and would come to their camps. At Jefferson High School, he would develop into a 5-star prospect who was recruited by every major program in the country.
“He came on campus as a ninth-grader,” Smart said after the Bulldogs’ broke practice Tuesday. “I remember. Our DBs coach came over and said he and his dad were here, that he was coming off a broken leg from basketball and that he ran really fast for us and had a really big frame. And I saw him and just thought to myself, ‘man, this kid is going to be a really good player.’”
Starks was playing quarterback at the time, but Smart and the Bulldogs identified him immediately as a big playmaking free safety.
Stark has lived up to those visions. He finished with 68 tackles, two interceptions and seven pass break-ups as 14-game starter as a freshman last season. Starks is second on the team with 11 tackles this season, already has one highlight-reel interception and a team-best four pass breakups.
Only a sophomore, expectations for Starks couldn’t be higher now. None of them, though, exceed what he has for himself.
“I’ve always had confidence in myself that I could go out there and play with the best of the best,” Starks said at that press conference Monday. “If I couldn’t, I wouldn’t be here. So, I’ve always been confident. But that also plays into why I’m always trying to learn more about the defense and build a connection with the guys.”
Amid his newfound stardom, Starks has tried to remain mindful of where he comes from and what’s he’s about. He’s from a little neighborhood in Jefferson where he used to play ball with his cousin and argue over who should be the real No. 24. Starks is reminded of Keion every time he pulls that Georgia jersey over his shoulder pads. He also has writes “RIP Keion” and other such messages in marker on his cleats before every game.
At this point, Keion is as much a part of Malaki Starks as any piece of Georgia football equipment he might strap on.
“I think it made him grow up a little bit,” Tisha Starks said of her son dealing with Keion’s death 13 years ago. “And I think it made him more cautious. It made him look at people a little differently.”
As it would anybody.