Early in the process there might have been a shadow of doubt.
Ken Kareem wondered if, in a state with five Division I football programs, he was doing enough to get his son noticed when none of them had offered scholarships. Defensive ends are coveted commodities, especially those with readymade size and a strong academic profile to boot.
Eventually, Khalid Kareem pushed to almost 40 scholarship offers with options on both coasts and everywhere in between. Bowling Green came first. Alabama, Miami, Notre Dame, Ohio State, Oregon and Stanford all came calling. So did in-state powers Michigan and Michigan State, eventually.
During one stretch, Kareem landed nearly 11 offers in a week.
“The recruiting process was a roller coaster for us,” Ken Kareem said. “It went from almost being depressed a little bit like man, ‘Do we need to hire one of these services? What do we need to do? What are we doing wrong and what are we doing right?’ We just kept pushing, sending out film and talking to coaches, building relationships with different schools. Before you know it, the schools started offering.
“They started paying attention to him and started to get to know him. They realized he was a legit 6-4 and could play ball and he had the grades on top of it. Once they started offering, it kinda got crazy for us. It was exciting but it kinda got crazy.”
Khalid ultimately made three verbal commitments, with the final one going to Notre Dame. He plans to enroll in South Bend for the spring semester, barely two months away. He’s already started the formal application process and expects to have it done by next week.
First came a pledge to Michigan State, which lasted about as long as it took for Khalid and Ken to drive back to Farmington Hills from East Lansing after a basketball game.
During that trip father and son discussed exploring more options. Ken put in a call to recruiting coordinator Brad Salem when they got home. Khalid would continue to do research as an uncommitted prospect.
Michigan State understood, even if people on the outside didn’t.
“We didn't really care what people thought, first off,” Ken Kareem said. “We really didn’t. We know you guys have got a job to do. We’ve got a job to do too as parents. When he committed to Michigan State he was 16 years old. We had a relationship with those guys. We loved (Mark) Dantonio, loved the way they handled it. When we called those guys to tell them we wanted to hold off, they were totally understanding. In fact, invited us out to more games and kept the communication.
“Including when he committed to Notre Dame, it was congratulations from those guys. They genuinely love the kid and like him as a person. I don’t think it’s fake or some kind of facade.”
Things continued to evolve after the brief commitment to Michigan State.
Michigan hired Jim Harbaugh, who made a stop at Harrison High School to give Khalid a scholarship offer. There were several unofficial visits. Notre Dame hosted the Kareems for junior day. Alabama got them on campus as well.
By mid-June, Khalid had zeroed in on those three programs as finalists. He held a ceremony at school and pledged to Alabama, surprising some.
“Nick Saban is one of the best recruiters out there and probably one of the best coaches out there,” Ken Kareem said. “I’ve been on record, I’m gonna root for Alabama against anybody they play besides Notre Dame. Whoever they play, that’s my squad, period. I love Alabama, I love those coaches. I love what they represent. They represent winning in all phases of life. Those guys are helping guys on and off the field.
“Guys always say, ‘Alabama, that’s just football.’ No, they do a lot of stuff outside of football. The program, the campus, what they do for their players and their kids, it’s phenomenal. I fell in love with Alabama and so did my son.”
Come fall, however, another factor started to weigh on Khalid. His mother expressed reservations about him playing college ball so far from home with her work schedule often not flexible enough to attend games in person.
Khalid started to rethink his options.
“We talked to Saban about this,” Ken Kareem said. “He told my son, ‘If you’re gonna be down here and worried about your mom, I don’t want you to come and you’re not focused. I want you thinking about school, thinking about the football field, learning the plays, thinking about coming to school at Alabama. Not whether your mom is gonna be able to see you play or not.’ Those are the kind of conversations we had with him. We ended up de-committing from Alabama because of the distance.”
Michigan and Notre Dame were both close enough to satisfy the distance criteria. Both had longstanding relationships. Irish defensive line coach Keith Gilmore, in his first year, had always stayed in touch. Plus, he’d known the family for quite awhile before arriving in South Bend.
Gilmore has roots in and around Detroit. He played at Wayne State, started his coaching career in the state and has family in the area.
Ken coached Gilmore’s grandson, Keshawn, at the youth level. Gilmore had initially reached out to the Kareems while an assistant at North Carolina. That relationship carried over when Mike Elston shifted to linebackers coach, making way for Gilmore to start coaching defense and recruiting Michigan.
“It helped a little bit just knowing that he’s coming from this area,” Khalid Kareem said. “But our relationship really sold it.”
Gilmore helped get the Kareems back on campus days after their de-commitment from Alabama, although that was more foregone conclusion than actual question.
Khalid came back for an official visit during the USC weekend with his mother and father, mostly to remind himself what he liked about Notre Dame rather than to discover it anew. They toured campus but also checked out town, noting the places Khalid would be away from football.
Mom signed off on it. Father and son had already concluded it would be the best option. And so ended a recruiting process they weren’t even sure would get started.
“It was a blessing for us,” Ken Kareem said. “We don’t take any of that light. We look back and it was a fun ride for us … We went through it and the recruiting process was a blessing. In some cases, it can be stressful. But coming from where I came from, this football stuff for him and being able to watch my son become one of the top recruits in the country, it was a blessing for me. I remember when he didn’t know how to put his pads on.”