Justin Combs stood in shock as he watched a video of his father introducing him to his new car for Justin’s 16th birthday.
Like any other 16-year-old, Justin was beside himself in excitement. He hugged his dad and called it the best birthday ever.
Unlike any other 16-year-old, he was on a stage surrounded by hundreds of people and cameras as his party was televised on MTV’s “My Super Sweet 16.”
And the car? It was a brand new Maybach, estimated to be worth about $360,000.
Justin lives in the limelight.
When he was just 3 years old, his father, Sean Combs, released his first single, “Can’t Nobody Hold Me Down,” which spent 28 weeks on the Billboard Top 100 chart and catapulted him onto the forefront of the music scene.
Since then, Sean Combs has developed into one of the largest figures in the entertainment industry as a musician, producer, actor and designer. His estimated worth is around $550 million.
“When I was conscious about everything, he was already famous, so that’s just life,” Justin said. “It’s weird sometimes but I’m so used to it now, it doesn’t faze me too much.”
With his father’s fame, Justin has become somewhat of a celebrity of his own.
He’s traveled the nation seeing his father perform. He was interviewed courtside at the 2012 NBA All-Star game. He has more than 250,000 followers on his verified Twitter account, on which he labels himself as Prince Combs.
While Justin will always live in the limelight, he will also never escape the shadow of his father’s accomplishments.
Justin is the oldest of Sean’s five children, and the pressure of being the heir to a throne has followed him throughout his life.
“A lot of people see me and think of me as just P. Diddy’s son,” Justin said. “They think I’m just going to ride his coattails, but that’s not how I was raised. My dad always taught me that nothing in life is going to be handed to you ““ you have to earn it.”
While his father’s presence loomed large in his life, Justin was primarily raised in New York by his mother, Misa Hylton. Still, the knowledge of his father’s success was enough to be a major influence on his life.
“Knowing what my dad has done and how he’s affected the world is huge for me. He’s the ultimate motivator,” Justin said. “He beat the odds growing up in a single-parent home without a father, but he went to college and made something of himself anyways. Seeing what he’s done motivates me to be the best in what I do.”
Finding his path
As a child, dealing with the conflicts between limelight and shadow was the least of Justin’s worries.
When he was 7 years old, Justin started playing Pop Warner football because of a friend, and it immediately became his passion.
“When I first played football, it was love at first sight,” Justin said. “I can’t really explain it, but there was something about being out on that field that I couldn’t get enough of.”
As Justin matured, those around him began to realize that he could have a future in the sport, and when he hit the age of 10, he decided that football would be his priority even though it wouldn’t be easy.
“I have to always work harder than the average person,” Justin said. “With my father being who he was, people always thought I wasn’t serious about football. That helped me, because coaches would be surprised that I even played football.”
Go to work
Justin worked tirelessly for the following seven years as he sought to play football at the college level.
Unfortunately for him, Justin was only 5-foot-7, 140 pounds entering his junior year of high school, which was considered well below the average frame for a Division I football player.
Scouts and college coaches alike dismissed Justin because of his size along with his lineage, thinking that football was merely a whimsical interest.
“His dad’s fame definitely helped him get attention, but it hurt him in the sense that people doubted his commitment,” said Brandon Huffman, a national recruiting analyst for Fox Sports, who saw Justin at camps and practices multiple times. “He didn’t need football, and a lot of people weren’t sure whether he’d be able to make it at the next level because of his size.”
Justin heard the criticism loud and clear.
Because of that, he worked with trainers and personal coaches up to seven times a week and traveled to Alabama, Texas, California, Pennsylvania and several other states for camps and seven-on-seven tournaments to showcase his skills.
“Those two years were the hardest I’ve ever worked in my life,” Justin said. “I had to because I’m undersized and people didn’t take me seriously. They thought I was just out there for fun. I had to show them I was serious.”
His commitment paid off, as Justin was recognized as one of the top cornerback prospects in the region despite his size.
He earned scholarship offers from Illinois, Iowa, Virginia, West Virginia and UCLA while also getting selected to the Semper Fi All-American game.
“It feels so great making your mother, your father, your grandparents proud,” Justin said. “And also being a positive role model for my siblings, just showing them it can be done. That’s one of the best feelings in the world.”
Finding a home
With a bevy of scholarship offers to choose from, Justin began taking visits to schools across the nation in search of his new home.
He visited Auburn, Illinois, West Virginia and others as he gathered information about his potential options.
The search ended in mid-August 2011 when Justin stopped by Westwood to visit UCLA.
“When I first came to UCLA, I knew I had to be here,” Justin said. “I have siblings out here, my dad has a place out here and it just seemed like a great place to go to school. I love the people, I love the tradition, I love the campus and just everything about it.”
Justin waited until late November to publicly commit, which came when UCLA was between coaches.
When new coach Jim Mora and his staff were hired, they knew that Justin was a player they had to keep.
“He’s tenacious, he’s tough, he’s very smart, he has excellent technique and really good feet,” Mora said. “He’s everything you want in a cornerback. We couldn’t be happier to have him on our team.”
Burned by the light
Four months after he had signed his letter of intent to register to UCLA, Justin was watching ESPN as he always does before he goes to sleep. It was a standard SportsCenter until he saw his name in the top left corner.
They were talking about how Justin had received a full-ride scholarship to UCLA, which was estimated to be worth about $54,000. CNN had done a story about Combs, questioning the offer and saying it may have not been deserved.
“I turned on ESPN and was like, “˜Why is my name on there?’” Justin said. “People that I watch everyday were talking about me and then it really hurt me that I was being criticized for having good grades and working hard and earning something that I worked for on my own.”
Despite athletic scholarships being entirely merit-based, Combs was criticized by the media for accepting the offer because of his family’s wealth.
What wasn’t discussed was the hundreds of other student-athetes who accept scholarships despite having the ability to pay their own way.
“Athletic scholarships are completely different than need-based scholarships,” Huffman said. “A family will spend up to $70,000-$80,000 for private, specialized training to get their kid offers that could be used for their college fund instead. They are completely different scholarships.”
Along with Justin, the UCLA football team also took a large amount of criticism for the situation, but Mora and his coaching staff never questioned bringing Justin aboard.
“Many young athletes have a dream to get a Division I scholarship and I don’t think they should be denied that opportunity because their parents are wealthy,” Mora said. “I felt bad for Justin because he earned it. This wasn’t about money, this wasn’t about fame. It was about his individual goal and he reached it. I was proud of the way he handled it.”
In the locker room, Justin is not Sean Combs’ son. On the field, he is not an heir to a throne.
Now that he is at UCLA, Justin receives the same treatment as anyone else who calls himself a UCLA football player.
He has practice starting at 7 a.m., class until 3 p.m., afternoon meetings and film study and evening tutoring sessions. Then he goes to sleep and does it all again the next day.
He does his job on and off the field like any other student-athlete.
“All I want to do is be the best student and player I can be,” Justin said. “I want to be a hard worker and lead by example. I want to be the one who fights through adversity and succeeds.”
Outside of his university life, Justin has the same responsibilities as any older brother would. He still picks up his younger siblings from class if his dad isn’t in town and he goes home on the weekends to be with his family.
Justin gets lost on his way to class and has a slight case of homesickness just like any other freshman.
“It’s kind of hard being away from my mom because I’ve lived with her my whole life,” Justin said. “I’m still getting used to it, but it’s time to just leave the nest and fly on my own.”
It is this normalcy that now shapes who Justin is. He has worked hard in his classes to start college with a 4.0 GPA and his coaches agree that he is a valuable asset to the team as a scout team player.
“He’s just a great kid,” Mora said. “He has worked so hard to get where he is and it’s fantastic having him on our team. He’s a great example for everyone; I really like the kid, I really do.”
His own combs
During the bye week of every season, UCLA traditionally has a scout team scrimmage in which the younger players who don’t see time on Saturdays get center stage.
About halfway through the scrimmage, a UCLA receiver caught a ball in the backfield and started to turn upfield. He was met by Justin and then firmly planted into the ground.
The field went silent for a moment; then it erupted.
The entire starting defense ran from the far side of the field to congratulate Justin, as the 5-foot-7, 165-pound cornerback had completely upended a receiver almost seven inches taller and 40 pounds heavier.
“I live for those moments,” Justin said, “where all of your hard work comes full circle and pays off ““ that was one of those moments and it was great to just soak it all in.”
As a football player, Combs is a playmaker and his size doesn’t define what he does.
“He’s a brother to us,” said defensive backs coach Demetrice Martin. “He comes out here every day and goes against our best receivers and best quarterbacks and best running backs because he wants to get better. That’s who he is. We don’t see him as Sean Combs’ son. He’s Justin Combs ““ UCLA football player.”
This season, Justin is redshirting, meaning he will not compete in live competition, but both he and Mora expect him to be a major contributor down the road.
“I’ve pushed a lot of shorter corners in the NFL who have some of the qualities Justin has,” Mora said. “I think he has the potential to be a really good nickel corner and special teams guy in the near future. I think he’s going to play here and make a difference.”
Justin sat searching for words. He asked for the question to be repeated, but he still couldn’t grasp the perfect sentence.
“What is my greatest fear?” Justin said aloud to himself, pausing for several seconds. “I guess my greatest fear is failure. Not meeting my self goals and not being the best person I can be or the best player I can be.”
He sat for a few moments, not content with his answer.
“Actually, failure is not an option in my family,” Justin said. “So I guess I don’t really have any fears.”
The gifts he’s been given by his father are tremendous, but so are the expectations.
“Most people think that I have it easy and that football is just a side thing that I do, but this is my life,” Justin said. “I want it just as much or more than the next guy. I need to succeed.”