Walk into Denzel Goolsby’s room at his small duplex in Manhattan, and you’ll find a special trophy.
The award isn’t from his days of stardom at Wichita’s Bishop Carroll, where he helped win a pair of Class 5A state high school football championships. It isn’t from a standout freshman season on the offensive side of the ball at Kansas State, either.
The trophy is for his performance as a defensive back in the 2017 Cactus Bowl. Goolsby was named Defensive MVP after the Wildcats’ 35-17 victory over Josh Rosen-less UCLA.
The Bruins’ Top 10 quarterback didn’t play that day, but the trophy means a lot to Goolsby because of the uncommon path he was asked to take in his first two years at K-State and the family tradition he is trying to uphold.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to The Kansas City Star
“You always try to prove yourself to your teammates; I think that was one way to do that,” Goolsby said at K-State Media Day on Monday. “But you can also do that all summer. ... Just being a positive guy when no one wants to be out there on a hot summer day doing agility drills with the weight vests on.”
Goolsby said his housemates — defensive back Johnathan Durham and quarterback Skylar Thompson — haven’t touched the trophy, and odds are, they probably won’t. Thompson said he knows how much it means to Goolsby.
Now Goolsby is becoming a household name to passionate Wildcat fans. His name sounded familiar, now it’s becoming synonymous with leadership.
“He feels better about himself because of the experience he has had,” coach Bill Snyder said. “Things come to him quicker. He’s able to process information quicker and consequently react quicker. That makes him a better player.
“As far as setting the example part of leadership, he’s super. He always seems to be doing the right thing.”
An unorthodox path
As a senior at Bishop Carroll, Goolsby ran for 1,508 yards and scored 39 times.
After he helped the Golden Eagles to a flawless 13-0 state-championship season, Goolsby earned all-league, class, state and metro honors. He was as good a high school football player as Carroll had seen.
But to some, there was always a wall to break through with him.
In 2014, before that magical senior season, the Eagle wrote about Goolsby’s complexities. Aubrey Logsdon, one of his teachers at the time, explained it like this: “It was always, ‘I’m gonna do my own thing and I’m not going to let anybody in,’ “ she said in 2014.
Logsdon said she sensed anger in him and had to find out why. What she learned wasn’t as glamorous as the 112 yards Goolsby ran for against Northwest in the season opener, or the 181 he had a week later vs. East.
Goolsby’s parents were divorced on his 15th birthday. That anger she sensed was real, but it was also motivation to not let it affect his path.
“If I seem numb to everything, it’s only because people who feel sorry for themselves and get emotional usually accomplish nothing,” he told her.
Goolsby rushed for more than 100 yards in nine of Carroll’s 13 games, and the games in which he didn’t, he was off the field by halftime ... or sooner.
Against Heights in Week 4, he ran for 10.9 yards per carry. Carroll scored 70. In Week 7, he scored six rushing touchdowns. Carroll beat Maize by 62. In the 5A regional, he had 213 yards on 14 carries. Carroll beat Goddard 67-0.
What Carroll did in 2014 was nothing short of remarkable, and what Goolsby did was nothing short of reckless. But when he reported to Kansas State, that changed.
Goolsby was up for one last award before he hung up his “high school” title. He was a nominee for the Greater Wichita Area Sports Commission’s Barry Sanders Male High School Athlete of the Year.
He said he planned to have his childhood coach accept the award in case he won, but the morning before the awards banquet, Goolsby woke up to dozens of missed calls and text messages.
“I called my sister back, and she said my dad back in Wichita had had a brain aneurysm in the middle of the night and that he was on life support and that I was supposed to come home to say my last words to him,” Goolsby said at the 2015 banquet.
“That’s a lot to handle: drive back from K-State at 18 years old, thinking of what to say to your dad for the last time.”
Les Goolsby died that night. He was 58.
“At times when you think that the world is upside-down ... you just have to understand that God’s not throwing you off the side of the mountain for nothing,” Goolsby said to close his speech at the banquet. “He’s just redesigning you so that you can go farther in life.”
The position change
Goolsby was dealt another blow when he got back to Manhattan.
Recruited as a receiver, a position he didn’t play in high school, Goolsby learned the coaches were going to move him to defense. He was going to play safety, a position he had never played in his life.
Few players change positions during their college careers, and the ones who do typically do so to provide depth to their team. It’s not usually a move that potential starters make. Goolsby said it hurt to have creeping doubts about what the K-State coaches thought of him.
“Out of high school, you go from being the guy and then you get to a place where everyone is that guy,” he said. “It was frustrating for me because I’m not too patient of a player. So when I want to be great, I want to be great right now.
“Part of me was just like, ‘This is ridiculous. What is going on here?’ I think it’s realistic to think that. I was just trying to stay positive and realize it was a process and that there would be a lot of good days and a lot of bad days.”
Thompson, his roommate and best friend, was there for some of the bad days. But Goolsby’s “gratitude toward life” got him through. Thompson said Goolsby is one of the most uplifting people he has ever met.
“I knew that when he mentioned a position change to me that he was going to be great,” Thompson said. “He was asking me a whole lot of things, and I told him, ‘Do whatever your heart tells you. I know whatever you do, you’re going to excel and do great at it.’ “
When Goolsby got the news of his position change, he called his position coach at Carroll, now-head coach Dusty Trail. Trail said his former star didn’t seem angry — more like confused but motivated.
“I’m sure those thoughts ran through his mind,” Trail said. “I’m sure he had second guesses, but by the same token, his attitude is to take this perceived negative and turn it into a positive.”
Goolsby’s name carries weight at K-State, in college football and now in the NFL. He has two cousins who lettered with the Wildcats and another, DeAndre Goolsby, who became a starting linebacker at Florida before he signed as an undrafted free agent with the Detroit Lions. DeAndre, a former Derby star, is now with the Jacksonville Jaguars.
Goolsby said going to K-State was always his dream. So transferring was never a realistic option, Trail said. Goolsby wanted to play in Manhattan. It didn’t matter where he was on the field.
“It’s always awesome to hear K-State fans talk about the Goolsby name,” he said. “It’s definitely special to play at a school where people already recognize the name, but I don’t want to leave it at that.
“I want to make a new name for myself and give them new memories, so my kids can hopefully come here some day and they’ll be saying things about their father.”
As a redshirt freshman, Goolsby played in all 13 games almost exclusively on special teams. Snyder has made a living off special teams commitment. Goolsby was no different. He finished second on the team with 10 special teams tackles.
Still, it wasn’t what Goolsby wanted, and it definitely wasn’t what he was used to.
But in the Eagle’s 2014 article, former Carroll coach Alan Schuckman called Goolsby the most loyal kid he had ever been around. Schuckman coached at Carroll for more than 20 years.
Goolsby was rewarded to start the 2017 season. He was named the Wildcats’ starting strong safety. Former defensive back D.J. Reed said Goolsby earned it.
“If everything was easy, then there wouldn’t be motivation to do something special,” Goolsby said after the announcement.
Goolsby started every game in that spot. He finished third on the team with 78 tackles, culminating with his outstanding Cactus Bowl performance, which included a timely forced fumble and recovery that helped K-State put UCLA away.
The MVP trophy was Goolsby’s first on-field award since the day after his father died in 2015.
Goolsby said he still follows Bishop Carroll football closely. The Golden Eagles enjoyed a 12-1 state-championship season in 2017, and Goolsby joked his 2014 group would have beaten them.
He came back to Wichita run a youth camp this summer and said he plans to continue doing that for the community.
Goolsby has taken a lot of punches in his life and is only recently starting to reap the rewards of enduring them. He said his path has been difficult, but he wouldn’t have it any other way.
“I’m thankful for all the things I learned,” he said. “It made me grow in a lot of different areas in my life. For me now, it’s about having so much more confidence than I ever did compared to last year at this time. So I’m just trying to build off that.”