A pack of reporters and cameras approached Jeff Locke at his locker Wednesday. The Vikings punter fielded questions about the best stretch of his career.
Had that mass interview happened in college, Locke would have broken out in a cold sweat and looked for a place to hide.
“I would have been head down, looking around, mumbling to myself,” he said privately.
Locke had such a pronounced speech impediment that he feared talking in class and once concocted a fake story about being German to avoid being teased. He actually was born in Germany, but he has no German heritage; his father was stationed in Frankfurt with the Air Force. The family returned to America when Locke was 18 months old.
Locke pretended to have a German accent in high school “so they wouldn’t make fun of me for my speech impediment.”
Born six weeks premature, he had underdeveloped ears. Among his challenges, he could not roll his tongue, which created difficulties pronouncing r’s. So rabbit became “wabbit.”
Kids at school had a field day with that.
“There was a whole lot of [teasing] because other kids don’t understand,” Locke said. “They don’t understand why other kids are different.”
Today, he speaks clearly, and confidently, though he says he still can’t roll his tongue that well. He hopes to use his platform as an NFL player to reassure kids who face similar challenges that they don’t have to feel helplessly different.
“Most kids just want to be one of a group and not be different at all,” he said.
Locke’s speech problems caused him to be socially uncomfortable in group settings. He took speech therapy lessons from kindergarten through eighth grade, but felt self-conscious around classmates.
“I dreaded being the kid that got picked to read out loud in front of the class,” he said. “I was always trying to duck my head. The teachers wanted me to try and work through it, but I was just so scared to do it, even though I could read at a pretty high level.”
Teasing from classmates made things worse. Kids would imitate him or ask him to repeat sentences that included words that started with r’s.
“I’d just say, ‘Let’s go play soccer and we’ll see what happens,’ ” Locke said.
Sports became an outlet; he loved recess and gym because he dominated other kids. He became an All-America kicker in football and an all-state soccer player in high school.
He excelled in class, too. He liked math, which hardly required reading aloud: “I could grind on a worksheet and turn it in first.”
Making a difference
When Locke was a freshman in high school, classmates tried to identify his “accent.” They often asked if he was from Boston.
“I knew nothing about Boston so I couldn’t lie my way through that one,” he said. “I would say I’m from Germany.”
One problem: Locke has a brother three years older. Locke moved to the varsity football team as a freshman, and seniors on the team knew his brother.
“They’re like, ‘You guys aren’t from Germany,’ ” he said. “Straight busted with the accent.”
Locke remained socially shy his first two years in college at UCLA. His speech improved, but he still talked very fast and didn’t always enunciate words clearly. He gradually became more comfortable as his speech improved and eventually assumed a leadership role within the UCLA athletic department, serving on the student-athlete advisory council and also became involved with a national organizational that studies various issues with college sports. He was UCLA’s male student-athlete of the year in 2011-12.
An economics major, Locke developed a financial literacy program for UCLA teammates that is still used today. He researched the financial scope of full-ride scholarships and created a power-point presentation outlining how much players need to live off-campus once they transition from dorms.
“I highlighted the stuff that the scholarship doesn’t cover,” he said, “and broke it down by month and showed which months would be especially hard.”
The NCAA has since amended scholarship benefits to include full-cost of attendance.
As an NFL player, Locke stresses the importance of education in his community outreach. He partnered with a local program called ACES (Athletes Committed to Educating Students) to provide tutoring to low-income students in grades fourth through eighth. Their mission is to decrease the gap in state test scores.
Every Tuesday morning, Locke helps students at a St. Paul school with their curriculum and homework.
“They usually pay a little more attention when I tell them to do their homework,” he said, smiling.
He’s doing good work on the field, too. Locke ranks second in the NFL with 12 punts placed inside the 20. He’s also third in fair catches forced (11) and tied for the lead in fewest return yards allowed (16).
“I’m being much better about executing my game plan,” he said. “I’m not going into each game with any doubts in terms of what I’m going to do. Sticking with that makes me much more confident.”
His success brought a crowd of reporters to his locker. Locke looked completely confident and comfortable answering questions. No hint of any impediment.
“I don’t think about it at all anymore,” he said.