Jacob Sykes had the body of a fully grown man and the face of a kindergartner, a physical juxtaposition that always caused confusion. In reality, he was in the sixth grade. Old enough to have quit football for the first time, not yet old enough to know he would someday use the sport and a wickedly sharp mind to attend Harvard.
On this day, all he knew is that he wanted an orange Fanta.
But so did his brother, who was then in college. Their mom had only $2, which would buy only one drink, so the Sykes boys agreed to compete. Jacob's brother suggested a pi competition. No, seriously. A pi competition.
Jacob's elementary school class had not yet covered pi, but the college courses he took — more on this in a minute, promise — had. And he is fundamentally incapable of saying no to competition, so it was a bet.
Digital Access For Only $0.99
For the most comprehensive local coverage, subscribe today.
3.14159, the sixth-grader wrote down, feeling confident.
3.1415926, the college student wrote down, winning the $2 and presumably taunting his little brother with every sip.
Jacob handles losing the way gasoline handles a lit match, so he spent the next week or so secretly studying. He then made up some completely trivial bet, proposed a pi rematch, and blew the doors off his older brother.
"I can go to the 56th digit now," Jacob says, retelling the story. "He won't ever bet me again on it."
One rule in life is to never let someone claim they know pi to the 56th digit without calling them on it, so Jacob closes his eyes, tilts his head down as if in prayer, and the numbers pour out in 12 seconds.
"You can look it up," he says. "One hundred percent right."
Danged if it's not (thanks Google!) and we promise we'll get to those college courses soon, but this is a good place to mention that Jacob Sykes is The Star's Boys Scholar-Athlete of the Year. He lettered in four sports at Rockhurst, including football, where he was the first freshman in school history to start, and as a senior was chosen all-state. That's just the sports.
Sykes placed in a state math contest and won a state history contest. He scored a 34 on the ACT as a freshman, graduated with a 4.23 GPA and signed to play defensive line at Harvard in the fall despite offers from Stanford, Notre Dame, Ohio State, Northwestern and others.
He is 6-foot-4, 275 pounds, with size 15 shoes and plans to play football until someone tells him he can't. When that happens, he'll put that Ivy League education to use. He plans on studying engineering.
"This kid does it all," Rockhurst coach Tony Severino said.
"Exactly the type of kid we've built this program on for the last 25 years," Harvard coach Tim Murphy said.
OK. About that college course Sykes took as a sixth-grader. The story is actually even better, because he helped teach a college course as a seventh-grader. Seriously. Even got paid, though sometimes it was "in kind" with a trip to McDonald's after class or something.
Picture this. That same giant kid with the same baby face, having just completed seventh grade, helping teach a pre-calculus class at Langston University, all the while conversing with the professor in French so that the college kids would hear the lesson straight from the kid. Sorry. We forgot to mention he speaks fluent French, too.
He dreams in French, actually.
"I will never forget Jacob," said Anthony Hill, the professor of that class. "I could not give this guy enough work to keep him busy."
In one particular perspective, Sykes' life so far fits a certain mold. His parents are high achievers, too, both engineers — mom chemical, dad electrical. His older brother recently earned a master's degree, and his older sister will soon graduate from college.
This is the sort of family where road trips mean counting trees by seven, to make sure the kids know their multiplication tables. Mom and son challenge each other with word problems. The children's grandparents were college professors.
This is a family obsessed with learning, embedding lessons into daily life so completely that it never felt like lessons. Jacob, always the youngest, strived to know as much as his siblings and parents. Raised by smart parents, academically focused, with a big body and bigger ambitions.
Results may vary, but this is something like a child prodigy starter kit.
"Look, you know most kids, it's 'I'm going to beat you in basketball!'" said his father, Dan. "This kid, he's like, 'I'm going to beat your SAT score!' You can't beat that."
"Jacob is our most conservative and disciplined child, by far," said his mother, Tamara. "Once he buys in, he buys into homework, appointments, anyway. He does not buy into cleaning his room. That's the only thing."
Other than a dirty room and fights with his siblings, Jacob has been in trouble once. Dan was called to the principal's office at Academy Lafayette. Jacob was in a fight, but when Dan pressed for details, he found out Jacob was sticking up for a smaller boy who was being bullied. Jacob bullied the bully, which is why the principal called. But when it was over, Jacob told the bully it was nothing personal and the two became friends.
The story of why Jacob plays football says a lot about him, too. It's not his favorite sport (soccer), wasn't always his best sport (lacrosse), and, actually, he used to hate it.
"Too aggressive," he said.
Practices were tough, man. He played for the Seminoles, a wildly successful city youth program. Jacob said the coaching he received in grade school was tougher than at Rockhurst. The chant as they broke the huddle: "Blood makes the grass grow, kill! Blood makes the grass grow, kill! Ready, ready, ready! Kill, kill, kill! Seminoles!"
"That's as a kindergartner," he said. "They told us, 'If you don't make the guy in front of you cry, I'm going to make you cry after the game.' That was the threat. And it was a legitimate threat."
The environment was harsh, enough that Tamara couldn't watch practices, but she and Jacob say it is productive. A lot of kids in the program need strong male role models, and even for some like Jacob, the experience of pushing limits is useful in other ways.
So, he appreciated his years with the Seminoles. But that's not why he plays football. He would've played soccer, but how many soccer players are built like defensive tackles? And he would've played lacrosse, but, well, let him tell it.
"There's no money in college lacrosse," he said. "It's traveling, it's a lot of money (to play), and there's no return for it."
This is Jacob Sykes, before he entered high school, making a business decision about his future. He even quit lacrosse completely after his freshman year, even though it broke his mother's heart, because track would benefit his football ability. Strange way for a Power Five football prospect to be created, no?
He says his future in engineering could be usurped by a new interest in coding (he recently created an app to track and predict stock price performance) but either way, his interest in engineering does not come from his engineering parents. It comes from something much more practical: He wants to make a lot of money, and he likes math.
This is the long game he's played since before he knew it was what he was doing. It's why he stuck with a sport he hated, why he took and then taught college courses before he was in high school, why he quit his favorite sport and why he wasn't going to Harvard unless he knew he could graduate without student debt.
"Loans are like the first trap you get into after college," he said. "If you can graduate without loans, you have a fresh start. You don't need an immediate cash flow. You can take a bigger risk.
"My perspective is, yeah, you can have fun now. I'm trying to have fun at 25, or when I'm retired."