Being a Harvard man is something. It might rank up there with being a seventh-grade boy teaching a college class.
Jacob Sykes can claim both distinctions. Having aced a college algebra class one summer, the baby-faced middle-schooler graduated to teacher’s assistant the following year. He was a natural tutor given his easygoing nature, not to mention his ability to dispense pointers on quadratic equations to wide-eyed students.
“I was just a seventh-grader having a good time,” he said plainly, as if the endeavor was on par with a binge session of video games. “They kind of had fun with it at first, but then they asked me genuine questions and I would do my best to kind of convey the material.”
In the statistics class Sykes took that summer at Langston University, about 45 minutes outside of Oklahoma City, he spoke in French so that the professor could brush up on his proficiency in the language. Sykes was already fluent, having attended an immersion school starting in first grade. He even sleep-talked in the language.
Whatever he wants to do, Sykes wows along the way. Academics are just part of it. He’s gone from Ivy League football to the Pac-12, the graduate transfer from Harvard having started four games as a defensive lineman for No. 12 UCLA.
“I like to think that I’m the best at whatever I can do,” Sykes said, “and not in an ‘I’m-the-best, no-one-can-beat-me’ type of way, but I want to have a certain amount of confidence that what I’m doing will work, what I’m doing is meaningful and I’m able to do whatever I’m trying to do, so I think that those who believe that they can’t and those who believe that they can are usually both correct.”
Sykes almost always can. Without notice, the onetime applied mathematics major who is enrolled in UCLA’s transformative coaching and leadership program was asked to recite as many digits in pi as he could. He hadn’t thought of the mathematical constant in years. His response?
He nailed 41 digits in 11 seconds, rattling it off as coolly as a McDonald’s drive-through order. Truth be told, he’s slipping a bit. He got the 42nd digit wrong. Years ago, he had 56 digits committed to memory.
The backstory was a challenge involving his older brother. The siblings were waiting in line to buy Josh Sykes’ first car with their mom when Jacob asked her if he could get a drink. She had $2 in cash. Perfect.
Except Josh wanted a drink, too. What to do? They would have a pi contest. Whoever could recall the most digits would get the drink. Being seven years younger than his sibling, Jacob was a heavy underdog. He got to 3.14159, thinking he was going to win. Sorry. His brother topped him with 3.1415926, going on to slurp the Fanta Orange in celebration.
Bad idea. Jacob spent the next week and a half memorizing as many digits as he could, concocting a fake bet to get his revenge. He won the rematch in a runaway, rolling off those 56 digits as easily as an iPhone passcode.
“I was not at all amazed,” Tamara Sykes, Jacob’s mother, said this week, recalling how her son would lean over in church and whisper some historical tidbit about the scripture their pastor was about to read based on what he had learned at his Jesuit prep school. “That’s just Jacob’s nature. Because of his intellect, he’s able to grasp and hold onto information like very few people I’ve seen in my life.”
Tamara wanted her son to uphold the family tradition and become an engineer. She had studied chemical engineering at Tuskegee University, falling in love with an electrical engineer named Dan Sykes who would become her husband.
Jacob was highly coveted by the usual brainiac football schools, earning scholarship offers from Northwestern, Notre Dame and Rutgers. Every Ivy League school also wanted him, including Harvard.
“Jacob was on our radar early in the recruiting process as one of those what we call unicorns,” said Crimson coach Tim Murphy. “To be a Harvard football player, you have to be a super high-character kid, high-academic kid and a Division I football player and who are those guys? Well, they’re unicorns, they’re really hard to find.”
After blossoming into a first team All-Ivy League selection last season with a team-high seven sacks, Sykes entered the transfer portal. He wanted to play in a new system at a higher level while experiencing a different part of the country.
UCLA offered it all. Scot Ruggles, then the Bruins’ director of football relations, reached out to express the team’s interest. Murphy, who once spent a week with UCLA coach Chip Kelly on an overseas United Service Organizations tour in which they accompanied slain soldiers’ bodies back to Washington, D.C., gave Kelly his highest endorsement, calling Sykes an NFL-caliber player.
Even at a slightly undersized 6 feet 3 and 277 pounds, Sykes has bolstered UCLA’s interior defense. He’s started four games for a team that’s in contention for its first Pac-12 championship since 1998, logging three quarterback hurries to go with his 17 tackles.
“Jacob’s twitchy, he moves well, he’s really smart, he’s got a great understanding of what schemes he’s facing and what he’s gonna do,” Kelly said of the player who’s believed to be UCLA’s first football transfer from Harvard. “He’s been a great teammate. I think everybody around him just enjoys being around him.”
That includes reporters who were slack-jawed after Sykes relayed a story from his philosophy class about a Socrates dinner party in which it was suggested that love was a function of people being split in half at birth, creating the need for a counterpart to complete them.
He’s also taking a U.S. history class covering the period from the end of slavery through the civil rights movement. It’s reinforced his admiration for W.E.B. Du Bois, the social activist who became the first Black doctoral graduate from Harvard. Sykes was already something of an expert on the topic, his mother serving as executive director of the W.E.B. Du Bois Learning Center in Kansas City, Mo.
Hatching his own plan for change, Sykes wants to create a fund to help underserved communities.
“Finances offer a multitude of opportunities that you can’t get with anything else,” he said. “Like, if there’s a school without a football field, it’s going to be hard for their football team to be good. So giving people opportunities to excel in areas that they may not have before finances is kind of the goal.”
If all goes well, Sykes can finance his endeavor through a professional football career. The 2023 NFL draft is in Kansas City, the Sykes family believing it’s an omen that Jacob will hear his name called in his hometown.
If not, no worries. He’ll plunge headlong into the workforce, enjoying the ride, teaching as he goes once more.