When Billy Lynch first realized that Tandon Doss might allow his promising football career to implode, the Indiana assistant coach did not call the wide receiver into his office or even grab him by the facemask and stare him in the eyes.
Lynch took Doss, then a true freshman, into the stands at Indiana's Memorial Stadium after practice. Still wearing his pads, Doss followed Lynch as he climbed toward the last few rows of bleachers resting in the shadow of the press box.
"I knew then that with a kid like Tandon, the biggest impact would be for him to have to stare down at that field," said Lynch, now the receivers coach at Rice in Houston. "He lived for that field. And our conversation — it lasted more than an hour — all came down to him figuring out what he had to do with the rest of his life to make it so he could fulfill his dream."
Doss, the Ravens' fourth-round pick in the 2011 draft, had already established himself as one of the best young players in the Big Ten. His catching ability and body control set him apart, and those traits are what eventually caused quarterback Joe Flacco, who hand-picked Doss, to describe him as "easy to throw the ball to."
Lynch, who'd started recruiting Doss when he was a sophomore at Ben Davis High School in Indianapolis, could see how much football meant to Doss and how naturally it came to him. But he was only beginning to understand the forces that, in times when football gave him any resistance, seemed to push Doss to the verge of using his quick, up-field turn and powerful first step to leave the game behind.
Doss, 21, has not had his father in his life since he was 5. But he grew up in a loving household, kept together by his mother, Nikki, who always worked multiple jobs, and an older brother, Anthony.
Just as Doss began to emerge as a future football star, though, his brother began struggling in school and then got into trouble with police. He spent time in detention centers and eventually mental institutions before being diagnosed with schizophrenia. Tandon, three years younger and only in eighth grade, found himself thrust into being the man of the house. Determined to help, he lost focus on school and seemed to be drifting away from football.
His natural ability carried him. Doss had been called into camp with the varsity coaches at Ben Davis, which is one of the few schools in the basketball-mad state of Indiana to consistently produce Division I caliber football players. It did not take them long to realize that Doss would eventually play at the highest level.
"You could tell right away that he was one of those guys who was just a football player," said Justin Faires, the offensive coordinator. "He would — and could — do anything to help you win."
Faires found it difficult to begin building the sort of relationship he would need with Doss, though. The player was so different from his peers, who never stopped talking about themselves. Doss was reserved and didn't appear willing to trust anyone.
"I think he thought, 'I've got a mother and a brother and nobody else, and now my brother's in trouble and it's all up to me and I'm going to do it myself,'" Ben Davis head coach Mike Kirschner said. "He wasn't about to open up."
Faires, an English teacher, worked at it. He contacted Doss' teachers and quickly found that, despite high standardized test scores, Doss was falling behind.
Doss and his mother decided it would be best for him to leave the apartment they shared with Anthony, and he moved in with a friend. Watching his brother change so quickly, Doss said, taught him to stay away from drugs and alcohol but also made him keep to himself.
"With him it was about setting up a plan for the academics and then making sure he was making the right decision off the field," said Faires, who remains close to Doss and helped him pick an agent. "Once he saw that you really cared, he was this smart, funny kid. But coaching him on the field, that was no problem. We used him every way we could."
His versatility might have ended up hurting Doss when college recruiters watched game film. He played running back, wide receiver, wildcat quarterback and defensive back for Ben Davis, in addition to returning and covering kicks. As a senior, he had 37 receptions for 538 yards and four touchdowns, but carried 174 times for 1,164 yards and 12 touchdowns. Only Mid-American Conference schools and three mid-tier BCS teams — Indiana, Purdue and Kentucky — had shown significant interest, and Faires thought Doss would end up at running back.
Lynch, though, knew he was getting a wide receiver. He'd noticed Doss at a 7-on-7 camp because of the way he so nonchalantly made challenging catches. Barely tutored in the finer points of playing receiver, Doss still had perhaps the best hands Lynch had ever seen.
"His ball skills are unmatched," said Lynch, who played wide receiver (and point guard) at Ball State.