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Monday, May 10, 2021

Why so serious?: How Kadarius Toney and Yung Joka coexist

Rap helps the former Gators wide receiver focus on football

<p>Kadarius Toney holds his Joker-themed mouth guard in his right hand as he waves at the camera during Florida&#x27;s game against Vanderbilt on Nov. 9, 2019.</p>

Kadarius Toney holds his Joker-themed mouth guard in his right hand as he waves at the camera during Florida's game against Vanderbilt on Nov. 9, 2019.

Kadarius Toney once played a Pop Warner football game wearing three socks on a single foot.

Angela Williams, 51, said her son sliced his foot open while playing with his dad when he was 7 or 8 years old. After doctors stitched him up, she prepared him for the possibility of not playing that weekend.

“I was like, ‘Kadarius, let your coach know that you won’t be in Saturday,’” Williams said. “No, he put on three pairs of socks. He still went to the game.”

Toney sheathed his wound under those socks. The quarterback refused to abandon his teammates.

He found love on the gridiron with his tiny 6-year-old fingers cushioned between the football’s white laces. His father, Dana Toney, said his son was born to play the game. 

Toney, now a 22-year-old wide receiver, finished his career as a Florida Gator in December when his team lost the SEC Championship game against Alabama despite his best efforts. He now looks toward the NFL and is projected to be a late first-round pick in the 2021 draft.

Off the field, though, Toney is a poet and a musician. As “Yung Joka,” his rap alias, he allows his creativity and emotions to run as wild and free as he does between the endzones. While questions circulate around his loyalty to the game, it’s clear Toney’s football fidelity is undeniable. 

“I’m using my talent, do things you can’t even imagine.” (“Sum 2 Prove,” Warrior II, 2021)

Shoulder and shin injuries plagued two of Toney’s first three seasons as a Gator. But he exploded during the final game of his third regular season against the Florida State Seminoles when he juked fellow Reese’s Senior Bowl invitee Hamsah Nasirildeen so hard the defensive back tore his ACL. 

Toney gained 47 yards on that play.

The 2020 season saw Toney become one of three FBS players with a rushing, receiving and punt return touchdown. He led Florida with 70 receptions for 984 yards and 10 touchdowns in 11 games — an abbreviated, conference only schedule in light of COVID-19. 

In his last home game against LSU, Toney recorded a season-high 182 receiving yards, with his longest catch coming at 49 yards. 

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Peering through unusually dense fog in The Swamp, he darted through throngs of opposing players, finessed his way down the field and owned all 100 yards of real estate between the pylons.

When the clock hit zero and the Tigers won by three, he made his way to the middle of the field. He knelt down inside the Gator head logo, pressing his fist into the turf and holding his head in his hand. After a surreal senior season, he finally felt certain of what his father learned when his son was just 6 years old: Kadarius Toney was preordained to play football.

“I guess it really came out my senior year,” Toney said. “Everything just felt different.”

“Tryna see me, and they wanna see confidence.” (“Tyedie,” MillionDollarJokez, 2019)

When Toney was in high school, children from the area attended his games and would rush the chain-link fence hoping to meet him.

“They would call, ‘KT! KT!’ And he would shake their hand,” Williams said about her youngest child. “He’s just humble. Always has been.”

Lev Holly, Toney’s coach at Mattie T. Blount High School in Eight Mile, Alabama, met Toney in 2015 and is grateful for the opportunity to have coached the then-quarterback. He appreciated Toney’s parents trusting him enough to mentor their son.

“He poured his heart and soul, and I think he’s reaping that benefit now,” Holly said. “Because he gave a lot to this program, a lot to this school and did a lot for this community.”

He believes Toney’s good upbringing contributed to his outstanding leadership qualities and work ethic as the team’s leader under center.

“I think that anytime that you have mom and dad in your life, I think that’s a positive. And I see (the opposite) a lot in this area — dads are in their lives, but dad’s not there,” Holly said. 

Armed with his parents’ positive influence, Toney commanded the huddle in high school, Holly said.

Kadarius Toney, senior night

Kadarius Toney stands between his parents, Angela Williams (left) and Dana Toney (right), outside Ben Hill Griffin Stadium after his Senior Night game versus LSU on Dec. 12, 2020.

In honor of his leadership and drive, Blount High School retired Toney’s No. 4 jersey at a pep rally on Jan. 29. Holly called the decision a “no-brainer,” citing Toney’s high school stats — which include nearly 6,500 passing yards, almost 1,800 rushing yards and exactly 100 total touchdowns during his two final seasons — and explaining how he paved the way for future recruits at his alma mater. 

“He would come around, speak to (the players), give them words of encouragement,” Holly said. “And that’s what you want in a kid that’s done it all, that’s done it right.”

The next day, Toney played in the 2021 Reese’s Senior Bowl set in his hometown of Mobile, Alabama. He earned wide receiver of the week honors on the American team.

“You scrape from the surface, I dig a little deeper.” (“Eirene,” Warrior, 2019)

Ahead of the draft, some NFL scouts weaponized Toney’s passion for rap to question whether he’s committed enough to play professional ball. 

“He actually has, like, two (recorded) albums and three additional singles,” one scout told Bob McGinn at The Athletic. “It’s a concern whether he has enough commitment to do it at this level with all the stuff he has going on.”

“Music seems to be his passion, more so than football,” another scout added.

Toney first flirted with music in middle school, pounding on tables in the cafeteria and classroom. He started formally rapping almost three years ago, releasing his first single, “Fat Rue,” in 2019.

As of April, Yung Joka is a verified artist on Spotify with 769 monthly listeners. His songs have nearly 36,000 views on YouTube.

Holly, his high school coach, grew exasperated reading these reviews of his former player. 

After all, NBA and NFL figureheads like Kobe Bryant, Damian Lillard (known to his listeners as Dame D.O.L.L.A.) and even Deion Sanders recorded rap albums during their respective athletic careers (although LL Cool J reportedly talked Bryant out of releasing his gangsta rap album “K.O.B.E.” after the all-star played it for him).

“As his high school coach and a father figure in his life, did I like that? No, I didn’t, ‘cause I don’t think it’s fair,” Holly said. “And me, personally, I think it’s stereotyping.”

Holly felt Toney was singled out and criticized because of stigmas surrounding Black culture and rap music. He doesn’t see a difference between Toney pursuing a rap career off the field and another athlete wanting to play the game while also running a business.

“When I first saw that, it was jaw dropping. It was eye opening,” Holly said. “And as his coach, I didn’t respond at the time, but I would love to talk to that reporter.”

While the anonymous scouts flagged Toney’s rap career as cause for concern, he feels music keeps him disciplined. Rapping clears his mind, allowing his worries and distractions to fall away. Every bar, every bass drop lightens his load. Then he can focus on football.

“It gave me something to do outside of football instead of going to the club,” Toney said. “It’s really a balance.”

“All them people that I lost, it still hurt me.” (“Don’t Give Up,” SplitWorld, 2020)

Football has always been Toney’s No. 1 priority, Williams said. So her son’s budding rap career initially took her by surprise.

Williams believes her son’s love affair with music came after his childhood friend, Ja’Christopher McCants, died in a car crash in 2018, shortly after Toney started at UF. The two knew each other since they were 5 years old, Williams said, and played football together in high school. Rap was how Toney worked through the loss.

Charnesia Lumpkin, Toney’s 24-year-old girlfriend, said he doesn’t talk about McCants often because it hurts too much.

“That was his right hand,” she said. “When he lost (McCants), he felt like he lost a part of him.”

Lumpkin and Toney weren’t dating when McCants died, so she doesn’t know too much about their relationship. She said they started making music together, and after the crash, Toney began taking rap more seriously. 

Some days, she said, he closes himself in his room for two, three, four hours just to write music.

When he returned to Gainesville from football conditioning in Los Angeles on March 20, Lumpkin said Toney didn’t go home, but went straight to his producer, Swanbeatz, and got to work. 

“He is just trying to get as much as he can with his music right now, because he knows when everything kicks into full gear, he may not have the time,” she said.

Rick Wells, a Gators wide receiver and one of Toney’s closest friends, applauded the dedication to his craft. Whenever Toney isn’t at home or at practice, he’s at the studio, Wells said.

“I feel his inspiration comes from his life,” he said. “Everything he been through, he just put it in his music.” 

Toney’s sound reminds Wells of two popular Atlanta rappers, Young Thug and Future.

In college, Toney sported a sparkly chain that read “Joka” in all caps, which found its way into official Gators photoshoots and onto album covers. He donned white pads with a black illustration of Heath Ledger’s Joker on one and the villain’s signature “Ha ha” comic book text on the other. This infatuation with superheroes and villains is where the alias “Yung Joka” came from, a clear allusion to Batman’s arch nemesis.

Kadarius Toney, peace sign and Joka chain

Kadarius Toney, wearing his signature "Joka" chain, throws up a peace sign and smiles for the camera at the Gators' homecoming game versus Auburn on Oct. 5, 2019. He watched from the sidelines due to a shoulder injury.

Toney has some iteration of The Joker tattooed on his body in three places: an image of the killer clown on his right forearm and chest and “Joka” written vertically along his left sideburn.

His septum piercing and gemstone earrings peek out from under a veil of blond dreadlocks. Standing at 6 foot, Toney is smaller than a lot of the guys he lined up next to in college, including 6’4” receiver Trevon Grimes and 6’6” tight end Kyle Pitts. But his ability to juke grown men out of their shoes makes him just as intimidating.

“I walk inside the building, people notice me.” (“Close to Me,” SplitWorld, 2020)

As Toney prepares for the NFL draft, which begins Thursday and ends Saturday, Angela Williams hopes to find her son a suit worthy of the occasion. 

“He always have to be extra,” Williams said. “He has to be this standout.”

When he was in high school, Williams helped pick out his game day outfits. For a banquet to celebrate the Alabama vs. Mississippi High School All Star Game, she dressed him in a matching bow tie and suit jacket covered in frames of the Man of Steel with action verbs like “BAM!” and “WHAP!” sprinkled throughout. 

Kadarius Toney, superman suit

Kadarius Toney stands for a picture dressed in a matching Superman blazer and bow tie at a banquet for the Alabama vs. Mississippi All Star game in December, 2016. [Photo courtesy of Angela Williams]

Dana said his son’s interest in superheroes proves he’s just a likeable, all-American guy.  

In 2019, Dana wore his Kadarius Toney jersey, something he only does on occasion, to the Sunshine Showdown in The Swamp.

With Toney several paces ahead, Dana walked alongside his brother toward the car. The trio was on its way to a heaping helping of steak and potatoes as is post-game tradition, Dana said. Suddenly a group of young people approached and noticed the last name on his jersey. The strangers started, “Oh, you’re —”

“I am, I’m Toney’s dad,” Dana replied.

“They started talking to me, and they’re going on and on and asking me about a lot of questions. ‘Oh man, your son is cool,’” Dana said. 

They asked him to deliver the message to Toney. When Dana nodded ahead and told them to tell him themselves, they erupted. 

“Oh — they almost died! Oh my gosh,” Dana said. “And the funniest thing was we all were laughing when we got in the car.”

His son’s celebrity is exciting, albeit strange, Dana said. He’s more used to seeing Toney wear headphones, play video games in his room and goof around with his cousins than as a big time college athlete.

“He’s Yung Joka when he’s rapping,” Dana said, “but he’s just Kadarius around the house.”

In the coming days, all of Toney’s hard work will come to fruition when he hears the NFL selection chime and Commissioner Roger Goodell read his name off the draft card. 

But regardless of where he ends up, when Toney’s parents look at their son, they’ll still see the same eager boy who put three pairs of socks over his injured foot to play the game he loved.

Contact Payton Titus at ptitus@alligator.org. Follow her on Twitter @petitus25.

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Payton Titus

Payton is a sophomore journalism major from Jacksonville, Florida. She is The Alligator&#39;s Spring 2021 digital managing editor. Her previous roles include softball beat writer, football beat writer and online sports editor. Payton&#39;s home in Jackson


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