From the Middle of Nowhere

I haven’t played in a primetime game yet in the NFL but when I do, I have it all planned out. You know when the starting lineups come on TV and the players introduce themselves — the little talking headshots in the corner of the screen? Some guys have a lot of fun with it, shouting out to their high school or their neighborhood from when they were kids.

As a kid from South Florida, who played at Nebraska and got drafted by Tampa Bay, I’m going to pay homage to the place that made me who I am today — the place where I learned about myself and where I became a man.

When it’s my turn, I’ll say: Lavonte David, Fort Scott Community College.

It was my own fault. That’s what I told myself and it was the truth. If I would have just taken care of my business, I wouldn’t be in this situation. But I was an immature kid and football was the only thing that mattered to me. I didn’t understand that I needed the grades to continue playing at the next level, and by the time it finally clicked, it was too late. I was about to graduate high school and I wasn’t going to be eligible for the fall semester.

Which meant I couldn’t play college football my freshman year.

A lot of schools recruited me, including some big-name D-I schools like Tennessee and Georgia — even my hometown school Miami came up a few times. But once it became known that I was going to be academically ineligible, everybody just fell off. The only school that stuck with me was Middle Tennessee State, so I signed my letter of intent to be a Blue Raider.

The plan was to sit out the fall semester, take the ACT again and re-apply in the spring, missing the football season. I had never sat out a football season before. I loved football, and I would have done anything to play that year. So when I got a call from a coach named Eddie Brown from some small community college in Middle-of-Nowhere, Kansas, I answered.

The eligibility requirements and transfer rules are different for junior colleges and community colleges. When Coach Brown called, he explained that I could attend Fort Scott CC, take classes and play football right away, and move on to a D-I college after getting my Associate’s without being subject to the normal NCAA rules that make you sit out a year after transferring.

Suddenly, I had an option other than sitting out my freshman year and I took advantage of it. I passed on Middle Tennessee State and went to Fort Scott Community College.

Going from Miami to a small community college in a rural area where there’s nothing around (the airport was two hours away and the next town was an hour out) was different for me. I had to deal with cold weather for the first time. It wasn’t like South Florida. Not in any way. The campus was small, too — smaller than my high school. There was only one building that all the classes were in. There weren’t a lot of students, either, so there were no more than 500 people coming to football games, if that.

Coming from Miami where we had thousands of people coming to my high school games, that was a big change. But some of the biggest changes I faced were on the football field.

Each junior college can only have 12 out-of-state guys who can qualify to play, and I was one out of 100-plus competing for a spot. I remember the very first day I was on the football field. I was running a conditioning test — something I never had to do in high school. I didn’t pass and I got chewed out by the coach. I’d never felt that before. When I was in high school, I never got yelled at. I didn’t have to cooperate with the coaches. Sometimes we’d just go out on the field and do what we wanted to do.

But in college, I could be replaced pretty easily. Even at Fort Scott, someone was always on standby ready to take your position.

Right away, I knew I had to man up. I realized that this was the real world, and I’m away from home and I’m on my own. I didn’t have my mom or my dad to call. I had to be mentally tough and take care of my business.

Fortunately, I made the roster.

I had a couple of high school teammates who went to Miami — Sean Spence, Jacory Harris, Marcus Forston — and they stepped on campus and started playing right away as freshmen. It was tough watching them on TV while I was playing in front of 500 people in a small town, but at the end of the day, I put myself in that situation so I took it for what it was. I felt like it was God’s plan for me to go to that school and learn from my mistakes, so I sucked it up and did what I had to do.

I told myself, One day, they’ll be watching me play on TV.

The school and the crowds may have been small, but it was still big-time competition on the football field. It was true college football. There were guys coming from all over the country to play football, trying to earn their way to D-I colleges. I played with Jason Pierre-Paul at Fort Scott. I played against Cam Newton in the NJCAA championship game. That league had players and I excelled on the field early against that high-level competition.

In my first year at Fort Scott, I led the conference in tackles. As a sophomore, I was among the conference leaders in tackles and tackles for loss. I was first-team All-Conference both years and a regional All-American as a sophomore.

But the most important accolade was that I got my Associate’s after a year and a half, which qualified me to transfer to a D-I school.

It was like déjà vu. Just like in high school, I was being recruited all over again and by a lot of the same schools, too. I really wanted to go home and go to Miami, but the two sides just couldn’t make it work. My parents thought it was best for me to go somewhere away from home, too.

Then Nebraska came calling.

Nebraska had everything. It was big-time college football, they were competitive and I’d be able to play right away. But just as important as all that, they had a great academic reputation — they graduate more than 80 percent of their athletes every year.

That was a huge deciding factor in picking Nebraska for both me and my parents. After what I’d been through academically and seeing the number of kids they graduated, I knew they’d do whatever they could to help me in the classroom as well as on the field. I wanted to be the first kid from my family to graduate from college.

It turned out to be the right choice. I was a two-time All-American at Nebraska, setting the team record in tackles my freshman year. My ultimate goal was — and still is — to graduate but before I could, I had the opportunity to go the NFL.

I had a small get together — nothing crazy — at my mom’s house back in South Florida for the second day of the NFL Draft. It was the middle of the second round so I was pretty sure I was going to come off the board soon.

My phone rang. It was an 813 area code.

In my mind, I thought I was going to end up with the Bears, Titans or Eagles. I had talked with those teams a lot. I answered the phone and it was Greg Schiano, head coach of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. It surprised me because I didn’t even take a visit to Tampa Bay. They interviewed me at the Combine but that was it.

Coach Schiano said, “How do you feel about being a Tampa Bay Buccaneer?”

I said, “That would be great!”

I didn’t know what else to say. He put me on the phone with the linebackers coach and he told me they were going to draft me. And I remember, as I was on the phone, former Buccaneer and Super Bowl XXXVIII MVP Dexter Jackson came on the TV screen.

With the 58th pick in the 2012 NFL Draft, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers select: Lavonte David, linebacker, Nebraska.

My name flashed across the screen and the whole house went crazy.

NFL scouts said I was too small to play linebacker. In 2012, I made the All-Rookie team. I was an All-Pro in 2013. I’m proud of my accomplishments on the football field and I’m excited about going back to Nebraska this spring to complete one of my other goals: graduating from college.

There are 256 names that’ll get called at this week’s NFL Draft. That’s 256 dreams that’ll come true and 256 young men who will stop and reflect on their journey — all the hard work and sacrifice that got them to that moment. And they’ll remember where they came from.

When my name got called, I thought about Fort Scott, Kansas.

Yeah, I wish I would have handled my business in high school. I wish I would have taken my education more seriously. But I wouldn’t go back and change anything because everything I went through led me to where I am today and, more importantly, to being the man I am today. Fort Scott is where I learned to be mentally tough. It’s where I learned to believe in myself. It’s where I learned to persevere and overcome adversity, even if it’s self-inflicted.

I made a huge mistake not focusing more on my education in high school and as a result, this South Florida boy landed at a tiny school in the small town of Fort Scott, Kansas.

And it turned out to be the best thing that ever happened to me.