From the tough Brooklyn streets to the northern Canadian border to the fast paced Arena League, Chiefs defensive end R-Kal Truluck has made the successful transition from the Marcy Projects in the Bronx to certain NFL stardom in Kansas City.
It's one thing to make an NFL roster as a high draft pick but it's another thing making it as an undrafted free agent. With those odds on your shoulders then try doing it facing a turbulent childhood that removed him from his mother Johnnita at the age of thirteen and placed him in an environment where tragedy was on every street corner.
It's easy to assume most individuals would have turned to the dark side where drugs and gunfire were the norm. Very few of these individuals would not have taken it as a challenge nor had the maturity to absorb and understand that the hardest lessons learned are the ones that are closest to your heart.
For Kansas City Chiefs defensive end R-Kal Truluck, he chose a road less traveled and embraced these obstacles well beyond his years. At the age of thirteen, he was forcibly removed from an alcoholic parent in the Marcy Projects in Brooklyn, moved to a group home and found guidance from a counselor at Lakeside Mission in New York. Football was still a distant dream as he was forced to play the game of real life on the harsh Brooklyn streets. He was determined not to fall into the same pitfalls of his alcoholic mother and despite it all; he never gave up his dream of one day playing in the NFL.
When talking with R-Kal about his life growing up in the Brooklyn streets, he kept mentioning the phrase Dodge City. I knew he wasn't talking about the 125-year old Kansas town made legendary for its gunfights.
Instead R-Kal's Dodge City had no modern day Wyatt Earp or Bat Masterson patrolling the streets or keeping the peace. But R-Kal's Dodge City had one thing in common with the infamous Kansas town; both places were littered with gun fire.
It was an unfortunate norm for R-Kal and the 32 members of his immediate family. When many of us were going to sleep under more secure and stable environments, R-Kal was a prisoner to the sounds of the streets.
To make things even more difficult, R-Kal had to deal with drugs and alcoholism in his own home. His mother, Johnnita was addicted to both and though she tried to conceal it at times; R-Kal knew his mother had a problem. It was a trying time but he did have people around him that helped when they knew his mother could not take care of her children.
"In Brooklyn everyone treated each other like family. The problem was outside of the Marcy Projects", said Truluck.
The Marcy Projects in Brooklyn was home for R-Kal. It would prove to be a challenging existence considering the temptations that he had to endure in his own house and on the mean streets. But the hardest part was learning how to deal with it all without his best friend, his mother. She did her best to battle her addictions and raise five young children but R-Kal knew he was not getting the best of his mother.
Still Johnnita was a strong disciplinarian and she tried to instill a moral foundation in her children. She accomplished this despite her own fragilities. She wanted a different path for her three sons R-Kal, Douglas, Tyrone and her two daughters Lakisha and Marshana. But her addictions ultimately forced the removal of her children from her home. Still through it all, "she preached tough love," said Truluck.
"Tough love meant that she wanted more for her children and she knew that the alcoholism that had consumed her soul would not get the best of her children. So she gave up her kids to focus on conquering here demons."
The hard part for R-Kal was despite her efforts to discipline her children she was abusing them.
"But when my mother realized that it was too late, she tried to hide it but we were taken away from her. Despite my mothers addictions she disciplined us. The Tough love was going to last for more than five minutes. We did wrong and she disciplined us. But I saw first hand what drugs could do to a person.
Eventually Brooklyn Children and Welfare stepped in and removed the five children when R-Kal was 13 years old. They placed him, his brother Douglas and his sister Lakisha in a group home run by Lakeside Family Services.
R-Kal's sister Marshana went to live with her grandmother. His other brother Tyrone, who is mentally challenged, was sent to a home where he could get the attention that he needed on a daily basis.
"Being taken away at age thirteen as a free spirited kid; you're wild in some of your ways. But now everything was structured moving to the projects. You have breakfast, lunch and dinner at a set time. The problem at home was the fact my mother was on drugs. I got to see first hand what the effect of drugs can have on someone. But when she went into rehab, she knew that her kids could not see her this way."
It was not easy for Truluck but going to a group home was like a breath of ‘fresh air' for R-Kal. It was hard leaving his mother despite the abuse and the addictions but he knew this was the best thing for him and his two brothers and sisters. It also forced his mother to get some help in a rehabilitation program so they could one day be a family again.
However he learned a valuable lesson. R-Kal refrained from the drugs and alcohol in his youth all because he saw first hand the destruction it caused.
"That's what she did and I don't want to do it."
Now firmly planted in his new surroundings in a group home it didn't take long for R-Kal to find a new mentor and confidant. Social worker Gary Richards, who worked at Lakeside, took a shine to R-Kal and he quickly became a father figure.
"Gary had a way of persuasion and having you understand certain things that were the best way for you. Even if you didn't want to do it, he had a way of talking to you. I worked with him so much at Lakeside. The whole staff helped me go into the directions that I needed to go but Gary stands out. He made it very clear to me that I could have a future and he wanted more for me than I understood at the time."
When he started feeling comfortable at Lakeside, R-Kal caught the bug and wanted to play high school football. At 14 he started to have aspirations of playing football and he started to dream about the NFL. He also started identifying with some NFL legends at a very early age.
"Derrick Thomas and Deacon Jones were two people who I admired. I wanted to be a one hell of a pass rusher growing up. Derrick Thomas was amazing because he could grab grass. He'd get so low to the ground. He had the quickness and Deacon Jones had hands. Back in those days they didn't have the speed."
With those idols firmly embedded he started playing football while attending Spring Valley High School just outside of New York City. He soon learned about competition.
"There were some powerful teams back then and the fans were intense. The fans took the game seriously."
So did the coaching staff.
"We had seven coaches on our staff and it was a hard transition. It was intimidating at first and I didn't know if I was ready."
Even though R-Kal was a stellar performer at Spring Valley High School and improved his play each year, he did not get many Division I football scholarship offers. It wasn't for lack of talent.
"I needed a 700 Sat score and only got a 690 and that hurt me from going to bigger schools."
So he decided to follow his Lakisha's footsteps and attend Division III, Courtland State in New York.
"Playing at Cortland State going from High School was tough because of my SAT scores. But my sister went to Cortland State and they treated me so well, that I fell in love with it. Still you don't want to play in a Division III school. That was tough because it made my dream harder to achieve; because people thought if you went to that type of school that you were not that good."
But it was good lesson for R-Kal.
"You have to be able to learn to adjust to the pro game and it was much different at a small school. But I was groomed to learn the game by many people who had helped me along the way. I knew I could do this."
After a stellar four year career that included ECAC Upstate New York All-Star in 1996, R-Kal was hopeful of being drafted by an NFL team in April of 1997. That didn't happen but Washington signed him to a free agent contract. R-Kal was excited and fully expected to make the Redskins final 53 man roster.
"I thought I'd make that team but I got an injury and that's a no-no when you're an undrafted free agent. It wasn't like I was a top draft pick and it was a different ball of wax for me."
His dream was shattered as the Redskins cut him and then placed him on the practice squad a few weeks later. Eventually the Redskins cut him again. Though he had the athleticism to play in the NFL, R-Kal didn't understand the techniques needed to rush the passer.
But he was far from discouraged. He quickly found himself on the roster of the Saskatchewan Rough Riders in the CFL. In his first CFL game for the Rough Riders, he recorded three sacks, nine tackles and that earned him CFL defensive player of the week honors. He would play three seasons in the CFL and enjoyed some success but he did not have stellar seasons.
However, he still dreamed of playing in the NFL and one team took notice of R-Kal's performances in the CFL, the St. Louis Rams. They signed him to a free agent contract in 2001. After a month of working out with the team in their off-season workouts, they released him.
"They made it clear they didn't want me around," said Truluck.
Still he never gave up the NFL dream. After realizing that he'd done everything he could in the CFL and after the Rams cut him, he received a call from the Detroit Fury of the Arena League just hours after his release.
It turned out to be just the lift R-Kal needed. The two-way linemen earned Arena League Rookie of the Year honors in 2001 and Lineman of the Year in 2002.
As his intensity and passion grew, he was appreciative of the chance the Fury gave him. But it also was a turning point for R-Kal, as he was introduced to defensive line coach, Richard Stubbler; who quickly became his mentor and teacher in Detroit.
He knew of Coach Stubbler because, like Truluck, he also came from the CFL as the defensive line coach with the BC Lions. Coach Stubbler had to help R-Kal define what he did best. He had to learn how to explode off the edge to become a great pass rusher.
"When I first saw R-Kal play he was with the Saskatchewan Roughriders. He possessed a great first step and tremendous speed. He was a player who attacked the offense with his high energy. R-Kal made another attempt to move to the NFL and when he was released (by St. Louis) Head Coach Mouse Davis and I were in Detroit with the AFL team the Fury; we contacted R-Kal to come and play for us. My knowledge of his abilities helped me to help him."
R-Kal became a sponge and absorbed everything that Coach Stubbler told him about learning how to rush the passer.
"I needed this. I needed to pull myself away and when I got down their. He said you had all this speed and quickness and you don't use your hands. He told me about; Set and Rim. You hit the corner and you just have to know how to set up the guy just enough to let that speed takeover. That's setting up with your hands. Working with Coach Stubbler he helped me become the Arena League MVP. He was a true teacher. And when you have a teacher like Coach Stubbler, that's when you'll have that kind of success."
Coach Stubbler, now the Toronto Argonauts defensive coordinator, was impressed with how well R-Kal took to his teachings.
"My job was to convince him that he needed to refine the things he did well. Add to his knowledge of football, both offensively and defensively and help him to grow as a player and a person."
Still despite R-Kal's adaptation to his coaches teachings, Coach Stubbler had to convey more wisdom on his pupil so he never every quit chasing his dream.
"The main thing lacking in the great athletes today, who are pumping gas for a living in the 'what if' world and those who are playing (in the NFL) on Sunday afternoons; simply is the ability to focus. But that term involves all of the things we do in life. It is the ability to shut out distraction to understand what is asked; and to then maximize talent and knowledge at the same time."
It was apparent that Coach Stubbler was very proud of his young protégé and that he clearly understood the lessons being taught to him.
"R-Kal is one of a very few players I have coached in 35 years of coaching who understood what to look at to make the offensive lineman do what he wanted him to do - then utilize his strengths as a pass rusher to win the individual battle and contribute to the team effort."
In 2002, R-Kal led the Fury with 9.5 sacks, 51 tackles (42 solo) and three forced fumbles that gave him Arena League Defensive MVP. But that was not the highlight of his Arena League career or season. He was also a touchdown scoring machine. Well not quite but he did manage to catch two touchdown passes in his career. He also played offensive line and tight end.
But when talking about the touchdowns, R-Kal's eyes lit up like a kid in a Candy store.
"It was one of the greatest feelings to score a touchdown. I lined up only a couple of times in the (tight end) formation but people started to figure out when I came in that they were going to throw me the ball. But I did score a touchdown in our playoff game."
Still he yearned for another shot at his NFL dream and he felt he was ready this time. Coach Stubbler thought the same thing. He was confident that R-Kal had learned things in the Arena League that would make him a better NFL player.
"Having to play offense also gave him an understanding of what the offensive lineman had to do in order to protect the QB. Arena football offers a unique opportunity to learn both sides of the ball and to perform on both sides of the ball. If a player possesses the talent of an R-Kal and takes the time and effort; Arena football is a great training opportunity."
R-Kal and Coach Stubbler both believed it was only a matter of time before teams started calling. They did and one of them was the Kansas City Chiefs who offered him yet another free agent contract. This time R-Kal was sure he was ready for the speed of the NFL game. He had honed his skills and was ready to make a name for himself.
But his dreams were shattered. The Chiefs cut Truluck before the start of the 2002 season and to say the least he was disappointed but not discouraged.
"When the Chiefs first signed me I only had ten days to prove myself. I just felt like that the odds were stacked against me and it hit me that I was going to be playing in Derrick Thomas's house. That felt good to me. But now it was time to show people what I could do. I knew this was my opportunity. I felt I had done what the Chiefs wanted me to do but still they released me. "
However the Chiefs liked what they say in R-Kal and signed him to their practice squad before the 2002 regular season.
"I had other calls from other teams but I wanted to prove something here in Kansas City. I knew the opportunity was here and that I could make an impact."
He bore down and knew he had to work even harder. As a practice squad player, he was equipped to handle the demands from his days of playing both offense and defense from his time in the Arena League. The ten weeks he was on the practice squad with the Chiefs, he took snaps on both offense and defense just like he did with the Detroit Fury.
While playing on the offensive side of the ball in practice he was tossed around by the likes of Eric Hicks and John Browning. That experience helped him learn techniques that offensive lineman might use on him in the NFL. But when he returned to his natural position at defensive end, R-Kal practiced against pro-bowler Willie Roaf.
As he started to have more success he hoped he would gain the confidence of his head coach, Dick Vermeil. Players have often spoken of wanting to win and play hard for Coach Vermeil. R-Kal was no different.
"He makes you feel like a family. It wasn't business to him. You want to play and work together and help your family member. I've never really had that kind of relationship with a head coach, so to say "I'd walk through fire with him. He told me that if you can make this team and gain my trust I'm there with you."
That gave R-Kal confidence but he knew that it would take more than just understanding what to do on the field. He knew he had to get significant playing time.
"Now I'm not sure I fully have that trust yet but I'm not going to stop proving myself to him. I know if it's in the fourth quarter and we only have .30 seconds left and he'll give you a look that will give you the type of strength that you can accomplish anything on the field."
But R-Kal has more to do than just impress and gain the trust of Vermeil he has a new defensive coordinator in Gunther Cunningham. He knows that he'll be counted on to perform at a high level this year and he likes Cunningham's attacking style.
"We sat down and talked and he knows that I have to prove to him that I can be a dominant pass rusher and player. I like him and I want to play for him. I know how tough he is and I have to prepare myself for it. He's different than Greg Robinson. Coach Robinson has a quite different personality from Coach Gunther's; based only on the talks that i have had with Robinson and Gunther."
But one thing that the Chiefs have made clear this off-season is that they are going to work with the players who have fought through disappointments the past two years. Lionel Daulton has been added to the roster to help the interior of the defensive line. In the draft last month, Kansas City drafted defensive tackle Junior Siavii from Oregon and defensive end Jared Allen from Idaho State.
Still R-Kal is ready for all challengers. He knows that he'll get an opportunity to use his speed this year. He's not worried about the competition. He also understands with the departure of Robinson that Vermeil has put the onus on the defensive players who remained in Kansas City this off-season. R-Kal is ready for the challenge.
"Man, I'll tell you this, it's the game of football and it breeds competition. I have been there and done that, every year you bring in players to make your team better. That's how I got here, if they would have never signed me to come and compete than 'we would have never done this story!'"
In the Kansas City Chiefs player bio they labeled R-Kal; the sack specialist. He recorded a half sack in the final six games of the 2002 season. But he was far more of a factor in 2003 as he recorded five sacks which were second on the team. Plus who can forget the playoff sack of NFL Co-MVP Peyton Manning in the playoffs. He was one of the few who got his hands around Manning. The Chiefs are hopeful that he could become the player; under Cunningham's new defense, that can get double digit sacks.
Chiefs fans like the underdog and no one has preserved more than Truluck. He's ready to step up and shine and be that guy. He wants to bring the house down like Derrick Thomas did in his prime and he knows that he can be that type of player in Cunningham's new defense.
"Let's go in 2004 if you ask it, I'll bring it," said Truluck.
That's the kind of fire that has been missing from the Chiefs defense the last two years. But R-Kal has so much passion and it's easy to understand where that passion was born.
He learned some hard lessons early in life and he once again spoke about the importance of a place like Lakeside Family Children Services. It's a charity that he continues to work with and hopes to continue help them any way he can.
"This was a place that works with mentally disabled children, abused and neglected troubled kids. Lakeside has put me in a position to be able to give back for all they did for me growing up."
But those early days turned R-Kal into the man he is today.
"When I was younger it was scary in my neighborhood. It was tough for a nine and ten year old to deal with. We had robberies, gun fire, fighting, stabbings and people were being robbed on the train. Growing up like that I knew that's not how I wanted to live. It might have been a blessing in disguise that I went to a group home. It was a breath of fresh air. But now I wonder what I would have become if I had not been exposed to that as a kid. Would I be sitting here now? I might not have made it through Spring Valley High School or even played football."
R-Kal learned the hard way at an early age that life can beat you down. But the hardships he endured at a young age and his mothers successful recovery from her addictions and her new life in the Marcy Projects today, R-Kal turned everything negative into a positive. He overcame daunting odds and he's ready to show his coaches and the fans that he's going to be a playmaker for this team. The Ruler (R-Kal's name in Swahili) is ready.
"Let's go," Truluck told me as we wrapped up our interview. He's eager for the season to get started. He's confident and he's not alone. Coach Stubbler believes that R-Kal could be on the verge of doing some extraordinary things in Kansas City.
"I think R-Kal has the tools to be a very good player. One who is consistent and who makes plays. This is also dependant upon his want to learn and grow each day; his ability to study his opponent and his ability to fit into a structure. In my opinion, if R-Kal continues to understand the system of the Chiefs, the opponents he will face, and his desire to learn and excel; he can continue to grow into a dominant pass rusher."
Editor's Note: This article appeared in our Summer issue of Warpaint Illustrated. For more information about the magazine click on our latest cover to order your annual subscription to Warpaint Illustrated.