Xavier Proctor could see the writing on the wall. It was the summer of 2007, just a few months before his senior year at Mt. Hebron High School, and Proctor was preparing for what could have been his final season playing football.
Over 6 feet in height, the youngster weighed only a little more than 200 pounds. He had the build of a player destined for bigger things, but he knew that success could be achieved only if he was willing to put in the work.
"What really motivated me was my family members really believing that I could actually play in college," he said. "I realized that my senior year didn't have to be the end. If I didn't give it my all then, though, it could have actually been my last year playing football."
Seven years later, having worked to fill out his now 6-foot-6 frame with an extra 80 pounds of muscle, Proctor no longer hopes for breaks. He has learned that good things happen to those who make opportunities for themselves.
This fall, as a defensive lineman on the Detroit Lions' eight-man practice squad, Proctor finds himself just one step shy of the biggest break of his life.
"I always knew how to achieve my goals without going the easiest route," said Proctor, who signed his first NFL contract on Aug. 1 with the Lions after being invited to training camp.
"Being this close to finally achieving my (dream) is definitely a rewarding experience, but at the same time it's give me even more motivation ... of making a career in the NFL."
Growing into his body
He may be listed as Xavier on Detroit's depth chart, but Proctor's close-knit family has always just called him 'Chaz.'
The middle child of three boys, Proctor and his brothers are close, according to his stepfather, James LeMon, principal at Wilde Lake High School.
The family moved to the Ellicott City area after spending Proctor's freshman year at Long Reach High School.
At Mt. Hebron, he joined a program that was enjoying its fair share of success. Just a few years ahead of Proctor was future Penn State star, and 2009 Buffalo Bills first round pick, Aaron Maybin, who was leading the way for the Vikings on the field.
"Him being in the NFL, and how good he was in college, was definitely something to look up to," he said. "I knew I could obtain that if I worked hard too."
Though they both graduated from the same school, Proctor's journey to professional football was anything but easy.
Many of the opportunities that Maybin had were far from what was available to him.
Maybin had the size, the drive and the skill. He had scholarship offers from top football schools, and premiere college coaches from across the country were coming to Howard County to knock on his door.
Two years later, when it was time for Proctor to determine his collegiate future, the same fanfare that had thrown Maybin into the local spotlight was nowhere to be found.
It wasn't until senior year that former Mt. Hebron coach Ross Hannon said "the light bulb came on" for Proctor in terms of preparation and his approach to the game.
"If nobody else wanted to take it seriously, he was not going to let it hold him down," Hannon said. "Unfortunately, with college and scholarships, it's not what you sell, it's what they buy. And they're buying the film."
Highlight reels, and the gaudy statistics to go along with them, weren't there for Proctor, who notched only 50 tackles (10 solo) in his senior year for the one-win Vikings.
There was still work to be done, and he knew it.
Though Proctor was mentally ready to take on the challenge of furthering his football future, his tall, lanky body wasn't.
"Chaz did not look like a football player," Hannon said. "He looked like a tennis player."
Coming into his own
Mt. Hebron head coach Phil Zacharias, an assistant along with Hannon during Proctor's playing days, had a connection to the North Carolina Central University football team.
Proctor took a chance on his future, choosing to enroll at NCCU as a preferred walk-on.
Given his build at the time, he joined the Eagles on the offensive side of the ball as a tight end.
After being redshirted as a freshman, Proctor earned a spot on the defensive line in his first season on the active roster, and for four years, he never relinquished that position.
"My first play ever, I had a tackle for loss," he said. "I was really nervous. I blew through the pulling guard and smacked the running back for a five-yard loss.
"It was the coolest thing ever."
Proctor ultimately earned a full scholarship all four years of his eligibility.
Even after building himself up as a prominent presence on the defense, every year was a new battle. Transfers would come and go, recruits would try to take his spot, and there was always the threat of injury.
Still, Proctor was an every-game starter by his senior year.
"I felt like I was a really good player, and that I should be starting," said Procter, a two-time Second Team All-MEAC selection. "I felt like I out-worked everyone."
In that game, Proctor recorded six tackles (five solo), 3.5 tackles for loss and 2.5 sacks.
Out of college, Proctor wasn't expecting to be drafted. In fact, he wasn't even invited to the NFL combine.
"I wasn't really all that disappointed," he said. "I knew that at this level, nothing was going to be easy. I knew I would have to claw for every inch."
Proctor worked out at a regional combine in Owings Mills, where he was able to catch some teams' attention. From there, he was invited to a super regional combine on April 7 at Cowboys Stadium in Dallas.
Following his trip to Texas, Proctor returned home. According to LeMon, he had received some interest from a few teams, but there were no official offers.
Then, one afternoon a few days later, Proctor received a text from someone with the Detroit Lions.
"I wasn't even paying attention. My friend saw it," he said.
He had received an invitation to the Lions' rookie minicamp on a tryout basis.
Although the camp didn't yield an immediate contract offer, Proctor officially had his foot in the door.
Realizing the dream
Proctor kept his head up, knowing that this uphill climb was not going to be easy.
He decided to temporarily take his talents to the Arena Football League, where he played in a few games over the summer with the Orlando Predators.
Then the Lions came calling again.
In the waning days of July, Detroit offered Proctor a chance to come to training camp. He appeared in all four of the Lions' preseason games.
The results weren't enough for Proctor to stick on the official 53-man roster, but Detroit saw potential, and offered him a spot on the practice squad — a position he's held for the first four weeks of the regular season.
Along the way, he's learned plenty from his NFL teammates.
"Since early August, I've spent almost every hour of the day with them," he said. "I look up to Nick (Fairley) and (Ndamukong) Suh and those guys. They've helped me, and showed me the ropes."
There are only eight members of an NFL practice squad, and though the potential for Proctor to be cut at any moment exists, so too is the chance to make it to an active roster.
Dave Birkett, the Lions beat writer for the Detroit Free Press, said that Proctor fits exactly what the organization is looking for in terms of size.
"Just looking at his body type, you knew he had a shot. He's a developmental guy for sure," he said. "Obviously he has a long way to go from a skillset standpoint. (But) they value his versatility."
For now, LeMon said Proctor is just trying to stay in the moment, being careful not to get too far ahead of himself.
"He has a good perspective, and he knows he has a lot to learn," said LeMon, who played his college football at West Virginia. "I know it's not easy to get that opportunity, just from my own experiences."
Proctor said his father has been a source of inspiration, and that he would like to go into education — as either a principal or athletic director — once he's played out his football career.
Proctor said he also wants to go into coaching at the high school level.
Not forgetting where he came from, Proctor said he is thankful for his positive high school football experience.
"It was great playing in Howard County," he said. "A lot of people don't give it the credit it deserves."
The young man who took a while to grow into his body, has gone on to mature in more ways than one, and that's the most important thing he's gained from the entire experience.
"He's always been a quiet, humble person. He knows how to treat people, and how to work hard," LeMon said of his son. "I am very proud of how he's handling this whole thing."Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun