The path to success in the NFL is never easy—it takes countless hours of back-breaking work. Prospects also deal with school, family matters and the back-and-forth life that young adults experience as they grow up. Each player has a different story, and some players have overcome greater odds than their peers.
Certain prospects weren’t supposed to make it this far, but were successful because of heart, hard work and determination. These young men overcame tremendous circumstances by showing strength early in their lives and receiving some support along the way. Here are six players whose stories will make root them on as they attempt to live out their dreams.
Pierre Desir, CB, Lindenwood
When looking for a player to support, a great place to start is always at small schools. Division II and III schools don’t receive attention from ESPN or hear their names talked about across the nation. But they take the field every Saturday just like every other player across the country, often going unrecognized once the draft rolls around. Desir is the type of talent that can change that and his backstory is one that will draw a lot of support from fans.
Desir was born in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. After four years in Haiti, the family moved to Missouri, opening up brand new opportunities for the family. While Desir has emerged as a star on the gridiron, he first shined on the soccer field growing up in St. Charles. It wasn’t until his freshman year in high school that he made the transition to football.
Disaster struck the Desir family in 2010 when Haiti was struck by a massive earthquake, resulting in over 100,00 lives lost including Desir’s grandfather and cousin. While Desir was unable to return to Haiti at the time, his parents made multiple trips back to help the recovery efforts. Desir spoke in an interview shortly after the earthquake, “With me being a family guy, and all of us being so close…it’s something I think about a lot”. He further opened up about playing football and why it was so important to him. “That’s a big reason why I want to succeed, to do good in school and football, to be able to help them eventually. I feel kind of helpless right now. I want to do more.”
After the devastating earthquake and years of juggling schedules with his fiancee to try to find help for their kids, Desir decided to transfer and move back to Missouri. He found a home at Lindenwood, a place where he could be near his parents and stay focused on football. Desir’s relocation couldn’t have gone better both on and off the field—he posted nine interceptions in 2012 and was largely avoided by opposing quarterbacks this past season. NFL scouts quickly took notice and Desir was bringing more attention to the university.
Now, Desir is just a month away from living out his dream and having the opportunity to provide for his family. He earned his degree and now has his mind focused on living out his dream of being drafted and becoming an NFL player. A small-school player with big-time talent and a world-class heart—he has earned the success that is coming his way.
Michael Sam, OLB, Missouri
He was the 2013 Southeastern Conference Defensive Player of the year—and is more recognized for now being the first openly gay player to attempt to play in the NFL. This is how Sam has been known leading up to the draft, but his story goes even further beyond that.
Sam grew up in Hitchcock, Texas—a state where football was everything and every young boy was raised to live and breathe the sport. But life can be cold, and it hasn’t been easy for him dealing with his family life.
He grew up as the seventh of eight children, raised by a single mother after his father left the family for a trucking job. His mother, JoAnn Sam, raised the eight children but tragedy struck the family early. Before Sam was born, one of his sisters drowned at the age of two. And this wouldn’t be the last time death struck the family. Sam also lost his 15-year-old brother when he was shot and killed, and another brother hasn’t been seen since he left for work in 1998. Sam also has two brothers in jail, making him just one of three siblings who are still present and accounted for.
Football was a major part of his life but his mother was completely against his involvement in any athletics. Sam spoke about the disagreements with his mother to the New York Times: “I love my mother dearly. But I needed sports. I needed sports to make sure I can’t get in trouble.” Not being accepted by a parent was something Sam has dealt with numerous times in his life, but he always had support from his teammates.
When Sam told his Missouri’ teammates last year that he was gay, they were in full support of him. But not only did they support him, they let Sam decide when the time was right to let the public know. Unfortunately, he didn’t receive the same warmth when he told his father. Sam’s father didn’t like the news and spoke about how Hall of Famer Deacon Jones would have hated the idea of a gay NFL player. But as Sam told the New York Times, “I am closer to my friends than I am my family.”
Now Sam is preparing for the draft. And while he may be a day-three pick, he has a future on an NFL roster. He will run into some bumps along the way and may encounter players who don’t like who he is, but none of that matters. Sam has already seen so much in his life and has overcome the worst circumstances, so much so that it probably won’t affect him. Sam is a person everyone should feel proud to support in football and in life.
Greg Robinson, OT, Auburn
As the college football season approached the final weeks, Robinson was quickly emerging as a rising prospect and had dozens of scouts flocking to his final games with the Auburn Tigers. Dominating at left tackle all the way through the BCS National Championship, Robinson carried over his success to the Scouting Combine where once again he shined for executives and coaches in attendance.
Throughout the excruciating days spent working out non-stop, and being poked and interviewed by teams, it’s all been a breeze for Robinson. Just getting to this point was a major accomplishment for him and his family. From being forced out of their homes, to a prolonged stay in a new state, and the passing of a loved one and family members in prison, Robinson has seen it all in 22 years.
Robinson grew up in Thibodaux, Louisiana and lived with his parents and four older siblings. Life was rough for the family and even with parents at work, there still wasn’t enough money to support the family. So Robinson’s brothers followed the path of many in the area—selling drugs to help the family’s income until they were eventually arrested. In an interview with SportsonEarth, Robinson spoke about how common it was: “It’s the norm where I come from.”
Seeing his brothers arrested inspired him to not take the same path as his brothers and not hurt his family even more. “I saw my mom crying about it night after night, I didn’t want my mom to go through that again.” So Robinson turned to football, something where he could focus his time and energy and stay out of any trouble. Things were starting to go well but things changed in 2006.
After Auburn’s disappointing 2012 season, a new coaching staff was brought in during the offseason. Robinson was dealing with a new coaching staff and an uncertain future, but none of that mattered in April 2013, when his father passed away. One of the biggest role models in his life and someone who supported the family for so long was gone. He still remembers his father, with his face tattooed on his shoulder, a reminder of what he is working for every day.
Now Robinson is approaching the ultimate moment of his life so far—not just being drafted but being one of the top prospects in the country; with a chance to live out his dreams and help provide for his family and teammates who helped him along the way. While Robinson is a phenomenal athlete and will be a great football player, what makes him truly outstanding is his dedication to overcoming the greatest odds and his commitment to family. In a time when many news reports about a player are negative, Robinson will bring a fresh, positive face to the NFL.
Ra’Shede Hageman, DT, Minnesota
Talk to scouts and you will hear about his “inconsistent motor” and “questionable work ethic”, two labels that could seriously damage this prospect’s chances of being a high-draft pick. While Hageman might not have always shown up on film, he has put in a ton of work off the field to make it this far.
Born to a mother who was addicted to drugs and alcohol, you couldn’t draw up much worse of a situation for a child to grow up in. He never had the chance to meet his father, leaving Ra’Shede to spend most of his time locked up in small rooms while his mother was involved in drugs. The situation got worse—to the point that he was taken by state to foster care at the age of four, along with his younger brother Xavier.
The Knox brothers bounced around from one foster home to another. And just when he thought he could settle down, it was off to another family and a new environment. It quickly became difficult for Hageman to trust anyone, never having the chance to really grow up. After three years of being relocated, Ra’Shede and Xavier finally found a strong home when they were seven.
The brothers were adopted by Jill Coyle and Eric Hageman, and this is would prove to be their final home. Graduates from Minnesota, they adopted the brothers and made them a part of their lives immediately. They of course realized Hageman’s athletic ability and were in full support of his desires to play football.
On and off the field Hageman showed flashes—flashes of pure dominance where no one on earth could stop him, but also flashes of an anger that boils inside of him. Opponents would deliver cheap shots during games and he got into a few fights in school. He opened up about his anger to SBNation. “When I’m on the field, I always have that anger I carried as a child.” His anger goes back to the life he never had, the things every child deserves. But it was a childhood he would never get to experience.
This is a player with all the talent in the world who just needs to be surrounded by people he can trust and help him channel the aggression. He isn’t “lazy” and doesn’t take the easy way out. Just look at the growth he has made from when he was born to now, a transformation that can continue to the NFL. He needs support, and if he gets it, his level of success is limitless.
Teddy Bridgewater, QB, Louisville
There has been a lot of talk over the past few weeks about Bridgewater’s on-field ability and offseason workouts. While a majority of the reports have been negative, they can’t compare to the struggles Bridgewater encountered earlier in his life.
Bridgewater grew up in Miami, Florida and lived with his mother. Bridgewater’s father was gone and his mother was left to support him and his older siblings. While Bridgewater played football and started to draw the attention of high school coaches, his mom worked for the Miami-Dade County school system.
Bridgewater went to Miami Northwestern High School and was set to play wide receiver, when the family’s life would change forever. At 15, Bridgewater found out his mother, Rose Murphy, was diagnosed with breast cancer. Rose would go through chemo and radiation. Bridgewater wanted to help his mother and was ready to quit football and support the family.
It was almost the end of his football career. Despite his outstanding athleticism and size, he was ready to focus his efforts on helping his family. Bridgewater spoke about his plan in an interview with ESPN. “I was the last child in the household, so I basically just wanted to give up everything and take care of her.” Rose wasn’t going to have any of it—she wasn’t going to let her son throw away a promising future in football.
Bridgewater kept playing football and made the same commitment to the game as his mother did to beating cancer. When he made the switch to quarterback and became the starter, his mother was declared cancer-free. Bridgewater became the star his mother knew he would become and had universities trying desperately to land him. When the Miami Hurricanes fired head coach Randy Shannon, Bridgewater decommitted from Miami (FL) and signed with Louisville.
When Bridgewater wasn’t named the starting quarterback as a true freshman to start the season, his confidence took a hit. Then his mother reminded him about her battle and how important it is to never give up. He went back to work, and eventually took over as starter. The rest is history.
While some scouts may not like Bridgewater’s size or NFL potential, we can’t look past him and his family’s struggles. He became a man—nearly sacrificing his entire future to provide for their family. His selflessness and commitment to providing for his family will help drive him to success in the NFL.