PLANTATION, Fla. — The summer is over, and Dave and Jennifer LaMont have their sons set for the first day of the 2014-15 school year.
The oldest, Drake, is entering his senior year, while his younger brother, Drew, will be a freshman at American Heritage High. All the necessary shopping is done, and now the LaMonts embark on what will be the first and only year with two high school-aged boys in their home.
Or so they think.
As the final hours tick away on summer, the family receives a call from T.J. Slaton, a friend and teammate of Drew. In the years that follow, they will become much more.
“The night before freshman year starts, his mother gets evicted from their home,” Dave LaMont says.
Slaton has nowhere to go, no clothes to wear and no supplies for school — and that’s the least of his concerns. The first day of high school presents a range of emotions for youths. Helplessness isn’t a typical feeling.
“We certainly weren’t going to turn him away if he needed help,” LaMont says.
So he, his wife and their sons go pick up T.J. to bring him to their home. First, however, he needs his belongings.
“We pull up to his house and it’s all chained up,” LaMont says. “He has to go through a window — if you can imagine that — in order to get his stuff. It makes your heart sink quite a bit to see that scene.”
Slaton moved in with the LaMonts that night and has lived there since. He thrived under their roof, developing into a premier football recruit and a University of Florida signee on Feb. 1.
“Fortunately things have gotten a lot better, but it was kind of grim at first,” LaMont says. “My wife and I never experienced anything like that growing up, nor did our boys. And to see somebody who was their friend have to deal with that kind of harsh reality and not being able to do anything about it at that age, that was difficult. I was just happy to provide him a safe haven.”
For Slaton and the LaMonts, it is their version of “The Blind Side,” the book and movie about current NFL lineman Michael Oher.
Slaton has been a part of the LaMont family for four years now, and before that spent nights at their home while in middle school. Drew and T.J. joined the same basketball travel squad in seventh grade, and they hit it off.
“He was the only white boy on the team,” Slaton says. “I don’t know how I ended up bonding with him, but I did.”
LaMont, a play-by-play announcer for ESPN, knows the chemistry that sports can create. Both of his sons developed close relationships with teammates.
“Their friendship was just natural,” LaMont says of Drew and T.J. “The link of playing basketball was the big thing there. Even if you take a short travel trip and spend time, that always seems to bond athletes. And T.J. is just a gregarious, friendly kid. He started coming over to our house more and more.”
The LaMonts also took in friends of Drake on separate occasions, one for a few weeks and another for a whole summer. Dave never considered it a burden for himself and his wife.
Quite the opposite.
“We were lucky,” LaMont says. “Our house was a big center for Drake’s friends and Drew’s friends. We’d have four or five guys spread out all over the floor for sleepovers. Sometimes we’d wake up and didn’t know how any of them got there.
“But we never had a problem with it. We still stay in touch with some of them. You never anticipate providing a home for kids other than your biological children, but it’s been a really cool and meaningful experience for us.”
And one that greatly benefited Slaton, providing a healthy and stable environment. From fostering his growth to spending Christmases together, the LaMonts are like blood to Slaton.
“I treat them just like family,” says Slaton, who also remains in contact with his mother, Sheron Wilson. “They treat me right, they give me advice. They never tell me anything that would be wrong. So I appreciate everything that they’ve done for me.
“I played (basketball) with Drake my freshman year and we won state. Drew has always been by my side. I’ll tell people I’m with my brother and they go, ‘Who?’ I’m like, ‘He’s the tall, 6-foot-8 white dude over there.’ ”
Love & basketball
Drake is now a senior center for Western Michigan, while Drew signed with American University and will enroll at the school this summer.
Like his LaMont brothers, basketball was Slaton’s first love. His mother bought him a hoop for Christmas at age 5, and he began playing religiously.
“Every morning before school,” Slaton says.
As he grew in size, his passion for the game intensified. He began playing organized basketball in seventh grade at 6-foot-2, 265 pounds.
“That’s when I fell in love with the game,” Slaton says. “It’s just really competitive. It takes one play to get you riled up and basketball is constantly going. It’s such an up-and-down game. It keeps you in shape and it helps with your hand-eye coordination.
“You always have to see the ball and stay with your man. You’re always aware of everything on the court and always moving, except on free throws or a timeout. But there’s no time to relax. And being an undersized big makes me want to play even harder.”
Slaton ballooned to 6-foot-5, 360 pounds in high school, but don’t let his weight fool you. He runs the floor, has handles and can dunk the basketball.
His first flush came in eighth grade during a practice. Unfortunately, all of his teammates missed it.
“We were doing full-court layups and all I tried to do was put my hand on the square,” Slaton recalls. “I did it and no one noticed on my team, except for an assistant coach. He goes, ‘You just dunked that?!’ Then I did it again for everyone.”
( Roar ) pic.twitter.com/OVT6J8nfPT
— IamTJSlatonJr. (@d1bound0_77) May 17, 2016
Slaton’s athleticism isn’t limited to his leaping ability. His other feats include a back flip, a cartwheel and a handstand.
“I can do a lot of stuff,” he says nonchalantly.
Slaton calls the NFL “boring” and has only followed college football for a couple years. However, he’s been a fan of the Boston Celtics and Duke Blue Devils since third grade.
Michael Jordan lovers might want to skip this next line.
“Bill Russell is the G.O.A.T.,” Slaton says. “You gotta give it to the man with the most rings. Nobody ever did it like him. Michael did some great things in his years, but this man has 11 rings. All his fingers are covered up.”
In the summer heading into his ninth grade year, Slaton wanted to keep himself occupied during the basketball offseason. His coach suggested he try out for the football team at American Heritage.
“I never got recruited to go there,” Slaton says. “I just showed up to training camp one day and didn’t really have the intent to play. I was just checking it out.
“They asked me to join the team and there was nothing else to do. Basketball season was over, so it was something to keep me busy. I never knew it would go this far.”
Slaton was on a few football teams in elementary school, but hadn’t played the sport in five years. However, as a freshman he saw an opportunity to start on varsity.
“The right tackle spot was open so I took it,” Slaton says. “I played that position in little league. I still remembered my stance, my steps, my hand placement. I never forgot my technique, so it was like riding a bike.”
His recruiting process started before he even began pedaling again. The day before his first practice, he took an unofficial visit to Miami with a pair of his teammates, top-100 recruits Torrance Gibson and Tarvarus McFadden.
“That same day I got offered by Miami,” Slaton says. “Never played a down of high school football. Didn’t even have a practice under my belt. Then the next day at our first practice, I got offered by LSU.”
By the end of his first season, Slaton had 17 offers. His teams won state championships in basketball and football during his freshman year, and he won two more titles in football as a sophomore and senior.
LaMont was able to broadcast Slaton’s season opener in 2016 for the GEICO ESPN High School Kickoff. American Heritage defeated Colquitt County 17-14, and Slaton was a topic of conversation throughout the game.
“It was kind of fun to talk about T.J. and have someone analyze him with me,” LaMont says. “I was doing play-by-play and he was the most talked-about player in that game because he was the highest-ranked recruit. You look at him strictly from an analyst point of view, his strengths are obvious and there are virtually no weaknesses.”
Slaton expressed a desire to play defensive tackle heading into his junior season, so new American Heritage coach Patrick Surtain and his staff used Slaton on both sides of the ball. He held offers from the likes of Alabama, Clemson, Florida State and Michigan, but the majority of schools were recruiting him as an offensive guard.
“I’ve never played guard a day in my life,” Slaton says. “All of my film is at offensive tackle and defensive tackle. I really liked defense because of the aggression part. It’s hard to be overly aggressive when you got a person running at you and you’re trying to block them. I just like getting after the ball and tackling people.”
Many analysts have doubts about Slaton becoming a full-time defensive tackle in college, but he’s never put all his time and energy into playing the position. Surtain believes Slaton will flourish when that happens.
“I’ve never seen a guy that big that can move like T.J. I’ve seen a few that have similar size and athleticism, but most of them are in the NFL,” says Surtain, who played 11 years split between the Kansas City Chiefs and Miami Dolphins. “If he keeps it up and continues down the path he’s on, that’s where he’ll end up.
“He just has to hunker down and decide he wants to be great. Then there’s no stopping him. He already has brute power and strength as a defensive tackle. When you get a guy who can combine all those attributes, it makes for a pretty special player.”
Finding his future
Only a handful of programs liked Slaton as a defensive tackle, and Florida was among them. Defensive coordinator Randy Shannon led the charge on Slaton’s recruitment and made it clear that the Gators wanted him at his preferred position.
“He told me straight up that he wanted me on defense, so I was on board,” Slaton says. “I just wanted the opportunity. At the end of the day, it’s up to the coaches where I play.
“If the coach feels I’m going to be more successful on the offensive side of the ball, I’m going to work hard and do my best at it. But my goal is to play defense.”
Slaton officially visited Florida and Georgia during the final weeks of his recruitment, and the Florida trip won him over. He had been to Gainesville before for basketball tournaments, but spending time with players on the football team made him feel even more comfortable.
— David Furones (@DavidFurones_) February 1, 2017
He committed to the Gators on National Signing Day and was the highest-rated signee in Florida’s 2017 class, which finished No. 10 nationally. Defensive line coach Chris Rumph was thrilled about the addition of Slaton.
“Big dude, big dude,” Rumph told GatorVision on signing day. “We were really pleased to get him. In the recruiting process he had a bunch of choices and options. Randy did a good job of discovering the guy and building a relationship. He’s a guy that’s going to bring that big body inside with athletic ability, so we’re happy to have him on board.
“It’s shocking to find a guy his size that can move as well as he can. You watch him play basketball and he’s not just a big guy out there fouling and things like that. He actually has some basketball skills, so when he gets here I’ll have to string on my Converse Chuck Taylor’s and see what he really has.”
Defensive tackle was the biggest recruiting need for the Gators, who must replace both starters at the position. Despite his versatility, Slaton will be used on the interior of the defensive line.
“He’s a big body and we needed that,” Florida coach Jim McElwain says. “That will be the first spot that he’ll be at. There will be some more spots as we kind of go, yet that was a body of need for us. There’s enough clips (at defensive tackle) where he’s been in there.”
LaMont and his wife will send both Drew and T.J. off to college in a couple months, leaving them with a kid-less house for the first time in more than two decades. He’s confident that Slaton is ready for the next step of his journey.
“He has worked so hard to get to this point,” LaMont says. “As football kind of took off for him, he handled it like a pro. As much as he preferred basketball over football, he also understands his potential professional future will be in football.
“He’ll be in good hands at Florida. I’ve known Randy Shannon a long time and I couldn’t be happier that Randy will be overseeing his development. I trust Randy 100 percent. I’m just really proud of T.J. and unbelievably happy for him.”
Watching his mother struggle during his childhood weighs on Slaton to this day. It has fueled his drive and competitiveness in sports, and he knows the NFL could be in the cards if he plays his hand right.
“Just being the best, that motivates me,” Slaton says. “I don’t go out there and try to show anybody up. I don’t have to prove myself to anyone. I give my all regardless of who’s watching. I don’t care. I play for the fun of the game. It’s not about the money.
“But I know if I’m able to get to the league, that can help my mother. I don’t really show it too often, but everything we’ve been through still bothers me. I’ve kept that in the back of my head and I always will.”