The road to success is prone to collisions, but success has been no accident for me.
I was drawn to the game of football early on in my childhood. Unfortunately, I could never play the sport in elementary school. My mother didn’t have enough money to sign me up for Pop Warner. She finally made it happen in seventh grade. We won the Super Bowl that year in my city league, and that’s when I fell in love. I also knew it could serve as an escape.
For the past three years, I’ve had the privilege of playing for the University of Florida and Gator Nation. Now, I’m fortunate enough to start the next chapter of my life and career. I will be forgoing my senior season and entering the NFL Draft. Like many kids, this was always a dream for me. But to play in the NFL, you must be a professional and a person of good character. Those qualities aren’t easily attained where I come from.
I grew up in Winter Haven, Fla., in a single-parent household with my younger brother. My father has been in and out of prison my entire life. I was the man of the house. My mother worked two or three jobs at a time, so she was rarely home while I constantly spent time outside. We lived in poverty-stricken neighborhoods. Eventually, I started hanging out with the wrong crowd and getting into trouble.
My mother wouldn’t tolerate that type of behavior, so she made me go live with my grandmother in Crescent City. There’s only been two Division-I players in the history of that town, but that’s where I became an Under Armour All-American defensive tackle. Throughout high school, people had negative opinions about me. They called me immature and hard-headed, but at the time it was true.
However, I refused to fall victim to those negative traits. I wanted to be the person my mother and grandmother raised, so I indulged myself in football and earned a scholarship to Florida as well as many other top programs. I ended my recruitment early, but my growing process had just begun. Shortly after arriving at UF, I realized my upbringing was different than most college students.
The first couple of years took some adjustment, but not everyone was encouraging. I had people in my life tell me I’d never make it at Florida. He’ll give up. He’ll quit. He’ll transfer. They thought I couldn’t handle the pressure of SEC football, but I knew what I was capable of. When the new coaching staff came in, I was a second-string player. By the end of the year, I was a full-time starter.
I entered 2016 with one goal: To be the best defensive tackle in college football. If you want to be big, think big. That was my mindset. And if you say it, prove it. Over the course of the season, I stopped going out and partying. It was just football, football, football. After the third game, I began watching film every day with my position coach, Chris Rumph. I didn’t miss a session.
For a kid who grew up out and about in the streets, those long hours inside the film room might seem like torture. But honestly, it was the complete opposite. It’s dedication. I put it all to the grind, and it’s not hard when you want it that bad. Nothing could stop me once I had my priorities in order. I reached a turning point and everything clicked.
When I made the tackle for loss at the goal line against LSU running back Leonard Fournette, that was the breakthrough moment. Coach Rumph not only helped me on the field, but he became my mentor. He taught me how to carry myself and be a man. In front of the whole D-line room, he told me I’ll always be special to him because I’m an example that football can be a vehicle for life.
I want to personally thank him, Jim McElwain and the entire staff for all they’ve done. My academic adviser, Ashley Kuhn, was probably my best friend at Florida. She saw my potential and helped bring it out of me. This week I had a conversation with George Wynn, our director of football operations. He reminded me of how much I’ve matured over the last few years.
When I first got to Florida, I used to try and fight my teammates for looking at me the wrong way. I was just a product of my environment, where you have to be on guard and protect yourself. I’m not like that at all anymore. I was voted one of four team captains this year, so my name will be on the wall forever. And that’s been my biggest accomplishment, just becoming a better person.
It came with the realization that I don’t know everything and need help sometimes. I didn’t always take to coaching, but now I love getting coached. I welcome input and constructive criticism to help me perfect my craft. My attitude has completely changed. And through my challenges and growing pains, Gator Nation still accepted me and cheered me on. They’re the best fans in the country and I’ll forever be grateful for them.
The highlight of my college career ended up being my the last one, winning the Outback Bowl against Iowa. Most guys don’t play hard or sit out bowl games because of the draft, so teams often lose. Nobody picked us to win that game, but we were waiting for our moment. The way we came together, it was real brotherhood and camaraderie. You could feel it. That’s the best group of guys I’ve ever played with.
I’ll look back on my time at UF with no regrets. Only lifelong lessons, memories and relationships. I’ll be the first person in my family to earn a 4-year degree when I graduate. I’ve become a role model for my brother. He sees me reaping the benefits of my labor, so now he wants to go to college. It’s a must in his mind. I don’t want my daughter, Caleigh, to grow up the way I did. My motivation is to take care of my family.
With the adversity I’ve faced in my life, I feel I can overcome anything. My childhood friends from Winter Haven are in jail now — all of them. I’m literally the only one doing something positive. It pains me to go back home and see those harsh realities, but I’m even more thankful to be living out my dream.