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The Spear

Dec 5 2017
Photo by
Colin Abbey/FSU Athletics
Photo by
Colin Abbey/FSU Athletics
Derwin James
Los Angeles Chargers
Dec 5 2017

I get asked about one particular tattoo of mine all the time. It’s on my left arm, and I got it when I was in ninth grade. Here’s a picture:

Logan Stanford/Icon Sportswire

When people found out about it during the recruiting process, they kind of poked fun at me. They compared it to how Reuben Foster got an Auburn tattoo in high school before eventually signing with Alabama. Even when my mom first saw it, she said that I had better be real committed to FSU.

I can understand why getting a tattoo like that would maybe surprise people, but to me, it wasn’t a very tough decision. I didn’t worry about whether my loyalty to FSU would eventually fade. That’s because before I was ever offered a scholarship or before I even played a down of organized football, I was committed to Florida State — 100% solid.

For me, it always started with the spear.

My earliest memory of watching FSU was when I was around five years old, sitting in the living room with my mom and my stepdad. The first thing that caught my attention was the spear. What I remember is being completely in awe as I watched Chief Osceola ride out on a horse towards midfield to the steady beat of drums. The crowd got louder and louder the closer he got, and then all at once, his horse lifted its front legs as Chief Osceola planted the spear right in the center of the logo. Then you could see the camera shake from all the noise in the stadium. It had nothing to do with football, but it just left this huge impression on me. It was one of the coolest things I’d ever seen.

And that’s when I knew.

Don Juan Moore/Getty Images

As I was growing up, FSU became a bigger and bigger part of my identity. Nobody had to guess what my team was — I was always wearing some kind of Seminoles gear everywhere I went. I had garnet and gold all over my bedroom. And from the time I first started playing Pop Warner, I’d tell any teammate who would listen that I was going to play at Florida State one day.

Some people would hear that and dismiss it as a pipe dream. Barely anybody where I’m from made it to college at all, much less earned a scholarship to play ball. So I think that by being vocal about my dream of one day playing here and then going to the NFL, I was almost trying to speak it into existence. When I said it out loud, it didn’t seem as insurmountable — even if I did get a few side eyes from people.

Then, after one of my Little League games the summer leading into ninth grade, Coach Fisher and Coach Odell invited me to a junior day in Tallahassee. It completely blew my mind to be honest. It seemed like a dream. I was only 14 years old. Nobody had started recruiting me yet. I didn’t even know I was on the radar. I wasn’t a junior. I wasn’t even a freshman yet.

This was in February of 2012. At the time, I was mostly just excited to get to check out the campus since I’d only seen it on TV. That’s all I was really expecting out of the trip — getting to experience Tallahassee for the first time with my dad. But that all changed when I got called into Coach Fisher’s office while I was there.

Honestly, I was surprised he even wanted to talk with me. There were a bunch of blue chip recruits on visiting campus at the time, and I hadn’t even played a single snap of high school football yet. What would we even talk about? But what you learn about Coach Fisher is that he has a way of pulling the conversation out of you. We ended up speaking in his office for about 30 minutes. But, honestly, I was so young and such a fan that I don’t think I really understood what he was trying to tell me. I was just kind of thinking, Am I really here right now? Is this actually happening?

It wasn’t until we left Coach Fisher’s office and met with Coach Odell that it actually registered what had gone down.

My head was still kind of spinning when Coach Odell said, “You know he just offered you a full scholarship, right?”

Even then, it still took me a second to really get it. At that age, I didn’t even really understand how offers worked or anything. I almost had to do a double take right then, like, Wait, for real?

It was the first scholarship I was ever offered, and it was the only one I needed.

I walked right back into Coach Fisher’s office and without really having to think twice, I committed on the spot.

I had always known deep down that I was going to attend Florida State one day — but now, it was official.

And then I got the tattoo.

Monica Herndon/Tampa Bay Times/ZUMA Wire

It’s only after all these years later that I fully appreciate the opportunity that the coaching staff trusted me with.

Like I was saying, I come from a neighborhood where not a lot of people make it out. There’s a lot of really good kids, but they just don’t get the opportunities they need to excel. Not many of them ever really get to think about the future because they’re just worried about making it from day to day.

There are certain distractions that might have knocked me off my path, but having that scholarship to my dream school waiting for me gave me a different kind of focus throughout high school. I knew I had a microscope on me, and all of my decisions were made through the lens of whether it would affect my scholarship. It wasn’t just about playing football at Florida State, but I wanted the opportunity to become the first person in my family to attend college.

The coaches taking a chance by offering me at such a young age gave me all the motivation I ever needed to become the player they believed I was. It made me feel like, no matter how big my dreams were, they weren’t dumb. I knew I was working towards something bigger.

It seems like I was always destined to play football for a living one day. Even my first word as a child was ball. When I was barely old enough to walk, my mom says, I used to jump out of my stroller anytime I spotted a ball in public. She used to have to chase me around the grocery store as I ran for imaginary touchdowns in the cereal aisle.

What Florida State offered me was a chance to grow and prepare myself for the next step. Deion Sanders, Antonio Cromartie, Xavier Rhodes, Jalen Ramsey and so many others over the years proved that, if you embraced the system here and did the right things here, playing at the next level wasn’t a pipe dream. There was a proven road map.

Now, after a lot of prayer and plenty of conversations with my coaches and especially my teammates, I’m ready to begin preparing for my next chapter: becoming the next great Florida State DB in the NFL.

I feel extremely grateful that every person I spoke to supported my decision to begin my training immediately. They all know how much this program means to me and they saw firsthand how much it killed me to be away from the field when I injured my knee last year. It’s hard to really believe I’ll never wear that garnet and gold uniform again, but everyone I’ve reached out to has agreed that this is the best decision for me and my family.

But that doesn’t make it any easier to say goodbye.

Logan Bowles/AP Images

The first people I need to thank of course are my mom and my dad. They along with the rest of my family have been my rock, never letting me forget who I am and what I’m playing for. I’m only a couple of credits away from my criminology degree, and I can’t wait to see you all watch me become the first person in our family to walk across that stage to accept my diploma — the first of many to come.

And of course I have to thank my teammates. The guys like Trey Marshall, my brother in the secondary, who pushed me to the limits and expected nothing less than 100% effort every single play. I wouldn’t be the person I am today without your constant motivation. I’m never going to forget all the things we’ve experienced together on and off the field. I trust I’m going to be seeing a lot of you on Sundays, but I know I’m going to stay in touch with most of you every other day as well.

Then, there’s the tremendous coaching staff. I feel prepared for whatever is next in life largely because of all the work they put into my personal growth. I can’t thank Coach Kelly, Coach Odell, Coach Vic and the entire staff enough for all the lessons they have taught me not only as a player, but most notably as a man. I may have come here as a talented player, but they taught me that talent wasn’t enough. It needs to be balanced out by maturity or else it can be wasted. So because of them, I leave FSU understanding the importance of not only being great in between the lines but being just as great off the field.

And finally, thank you to Coach Fisher. For everything. Throughout my time here, you showed me how to handle success and more importantly, how to handle adversity. I have nothing but great things to say about how you coached and mentored me since that first meeting we had all those years ago. I know I’ll always feel nothing but love for you, coach.

Except if we ever happen to face you in a bowl game ?

As I move on, one truth I’ve always known about FSU seems clearer than ever. This program is special not because of any one player or coach. It’s not about any particular scheme or strategy. It’s still all about that spear. That’s the foundation of everything — since way before my time until long after I’m done playing. Florida State football was built on a culture created by a lot of amazing players, coaches and especially fans. None of that has changed. It never will.

The opportunity to follow in the footsteps of all the legendary guys who have worn this uniform is an honor I’ll always treasure, regardless of what comes next.

I’m always going to have the Seminole logo proudly displayed on my arm, but the impression that the past three years have left on me is something that can’t be seen. But it most definitely will never be forgotten.

Sincerely, to everybody who helped guide me to this point, thank you.

It truly takes a village, and I am forever grateful to you all.

Go Noles — forever,

Derwin

Derwin James
Los Angeles Chargers