Being a Harvard man is something. It might get up there being a seventh grade boy teaching a college class.
Jacob Sykes can claim both awards for himself. After passing a college algebra course with flying colors one summer, the baby-faced middle schooler graduated as a teacher’s assistant the following year. His easy-going nature made him a natural tutor, not to mention his ability to give clues to quadratic equations to wide-eyed students.
“I was just a seventh grader having a good time,” he said simply, as if the endeavor were akin to a video game binge session. “They kind of had fun with it at first, but then they asked me honest questions and I did my best to somehow convey the material.”
In the statistics class Sykes was taking that summer at Langston University, about 45 minutes outside of Oklahoma City, he spoke French so the professor could brush up on his skills his mastery of the language. Sykes became fluent after attending an immersion school from the first grade. He spoke the language even in his sleep.
Whatever he wants to do, Sykes is passionate about it. Academics are just part of it. He joined the Pac-12 from the Ivy League, the Harvard grad who started four games as a defenseman for UCLA’s No. 12.
“I like to think that I’m the best at everything I can,” Sykes said, “and not in the ‘I’m the best, nobody can beat me’ kind of way, but I want to have a certain level of confidence that what I’m doing will work, what I’m doing makes sense and I’m capable of doing anything I’m trying to do, so I think those who think they can’t and those who think they can are usually both right.
Sykes can almost always. Without notice, the one-time 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 about the mathematical constant for years. His answer?
He nailed 41 digits in 11 seconds and rattled it off as cool as a McDonald’s drive-through order. To be honest, it slips a bit. He’s 42nd Digit wrong. Years ago he remembered 56 digits.
The backstory was a challenge involving his older brother. The siblings were in line to buy Josh Syke’s first car with their mother when Jacob asked her if he could get something to drink. She had $2 in cash. Perfect.
Except that Josh wanted a drink too. What to do? They would have a pi contest. Whoever could remember the most digits got the drink. Jacob was seven years younger than his sibling and a strong outsider. He hit 3.14159 and thought he was winning. We’re sorry. His brother beat him with 3.1415926 and sipped the Fanta Orange to celebrate.
Bad idea. Jacob spent the next week and a half memorizing as many digits as possible and concocting a wrong bet to get revenge. He won the rematch in a breakaway, rolling off those 56 digits as easily as an iPhone password.
“I wasn’t amazed at all,” Tamara Sykes, Jacob’s mother, said this week, recalling her son leaning forward in church and whispering some historical tidbit about the scripture her pastor had given her based on what he was learning from him would read aloud Jesuit prep school. “It’s just Jacob’s nature. Because of his intellect, he is able to grasp and hold information like very few people I have seen in my life.”
Tamara wanted her son to continue the family tradition and become an engineer. She had studied chemical engineering at Tuskegee University and had fallen in love with an electrical engineer named Dan Sykes, who would become her husband.
Jacob was highly sought after at the usual Brainiac football schools and received scholarship offers from Northwestern, Notre Dame and Rutgers. Every Ivy League school wanted him too, including Harvard.
“Jacob was on our radar early on in the recruiting process as one of those unicorns,” said Crimson trainer Tim Murphy. “To be a Harvard football player, you have to be a super character kid, a high academic kid, and a Division I football player, and who are these guys? Well, they’re unicorns, they’re really hard to find.”
After blossoming into an All-Ivy League first-team selection last season with a team-high seven sacks, Sykes entered the transfer portal. He wanted to play at a higher level in a new system while experiencing a different part of the country.
UCLA had it all. Scot Ruggles, the Bruins’ director of football relations at the time, came forward to express the team’s interest. Murphy, who once spent a week with UCLA coach Chip Kelly on a United Service Organizations trip abroad where they escorted the bodies of slain soldiers back to Washington, D.C., gave Kelly his highest endorsement, calling Sykes an NFL-caliber player .
Even at a slightly undersized 6ft 3 and 277 pounds, Sykes has bolstered UCLA’s central defense. He has started four games for a team battling for its first Pac-12 championship since 1998 and logged three quarterback rushes with his 17 tackles.
“Jacob is nervous, he moves well, he’s really smart, he has a great understanding of what plans he’s facing and what he’s going to do,” Kelly said of the player, believed to be UCLA’s first football transfer from Harvard is. “He was a great teammate. I think everyone around him just enjoys being around him.”
These include reporters who went limp after Sykes shared a story from his philosophy class about a Socrates dinner party that suggested love was a function of humans being split in half at birth, thereby eliminating the need for a counterpart arises to complete them.
He is also taking a US history course covering the period from the end of slavery to the civil rights movement. It has increased his admiration for WEB Du Bois, the social activist who became Harvard’s first black graduate student. Sykes was already something of an expert in the field, his mother was executive director of the WEB Du Bois Learning Center in Kansas City, Mo.
Sykes is hatching his own plan for change and wants to set up a fund to help underserved communities.
“Finance offers a multitude of possibilities that you can’t achieve with anything else,” he said. “For example, if there is a school without a soccer field, it becomes difficult for their soccer team to be good. So the goal is to give people the opportunity to excel in areas that they might not have before finance.”
If all goes well, Sykes could fund his venture through a professional football career. The 2023 NFL draft will be held in Kansas City, and the Sykes family believes it’s an omen that Jacob will hear his name in his hometown.
If not, don’t worry. He’ll throw himself head first into the world of work, enjoying the ride and teaching again along the way.
https://www.latimes.com/sports/ucla/story/2022-11-11/ucla-football-defense-jacob-sykes Harvard transfer Jacob Sykes has bolstered UCLA’s defense