By Chris Korman, The Baltimore Sun
8:10 PM EDT, July 2, 2011
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.
Doss earned reps with the first team almost immediately when Indiana opened fall camp in 2008, only to be forced to miss a week when the NCAA eligibility center opted to review his transcript because he'd retaken some of the courses he struggled with early in high school.
When he returned, he learned how physical college football would be and dealt with several nagging leg injuries. While he fought through and had a breakout game in the Hoosiers' only Big Ten win that season — catching eight passes for 107 yards and a touchdown against Northwestern — he was sent reeling when, a week later, Indiana lost to Central Michigan.
It was during a practice a few days after the loss that he angrily responded to Lynch, a high-energy, emotional coach.
"I got on him about something, and I think in the end he may have been right, but I was challenging him," Lynch said. "And the way he responded, you could just see he was on the brink. He wasn't sure about Indiana. He didn't feel comfortable. Football had gotten hard in a way it hadn't been, and I wasn't sure he wanted to deal with it."
During their talk, Lynch explained that their relationship would be built on openness and honesty.
"I don't think he understood that when things were most difficult, that's when you work through them together," he said. "That's how you cultivate something real, a bond that matters."
Doss continued to hedge, though, and in the spring feuded with one of his professors. This time, Billy Lynch arranged a meeting with the head coach — his father, Bill Lynch — and Doss was suspended for three days of spring practice.
"I think he left that meeting a changed man," Billy Lynch said. "He finally got it. You've got to do what you don't like to do so you can do what you love to do."
Doss credits Billy Lynch with changing his life.
"I was angry," he said. "I had this attitude. I didn't want to lean on anybody. Billy opened me up to the idea that we're better when we push together."
Doss became close with his academic advisor, Mattie White, and often acted as her enforcer when other players misbehaved during study table.
"I still call him now, because he has insight on all of the guys and how I should work with them," White said. "But he also knows me. Tandon's the type of person that, if you open up to him and he opens up to you, he's going to take the time to really understand you. And he's going to be honest with you when you seek guidance."
Doss had his best year as a sophomore, making 77 receptions for 962 yards and five touchdowns.
During the first week of camp last year, he aggravated a groin injury that had bothered him, on and off, for months. Tests showed that he had torn the muscles from his hip bone, but Doss opted to play. He missed the first game of the season, then refused to even sit during practice. On several occasions he snuck onto the scout kick coverage team, and he always refused the yellow, no-contact jersey.
"No question, one of the toughest, most competitive kids I've been around," said Bill Lynch, who was fired after the season and is now an assistant athletic director at Butler. "That level of determination, it's pretty special."
Doss has long looked at the NFL as his ultimate goal, going so far as to tell reporters that he wanted to turn pro to help his family. But he never boasted — "The kids who talk most about the NFL are the ones hoping and wishing," Bill Lynch said — and never let his frustrations with Indiana's record (they were 3-21 in conference play) cause him to write-off his time there.
After Lynch was fired and Doss heard from NFL officials that he was likely to be drafted in the third round or better, he opted to leave a year early. Surgery kept him from running at the combine and, his former coaches believe, hurt his draft stock. A party thrown by a downtown Indianapolis bar in his honor ended awkwardly when the third round passed without Doss being selected. The next day, Doss gathered with only a few friends and was surprised to hear from the Ravens, who'd shown little interest.
Doss has no immediate plans to buy his mother and brother a sweeping mansion, set far off from the old neighborhood. He hopes to help them move to a nicer apartment and wishes she would work less — since much of her work at a FedEx shipping center requires manual labor — but knows she probably won't. Doctors have only recently found the right medication levels for Anthony — he'd literally fallen asleep mid-conversation under old dosages — and he's feeling motivated enough, for the first time, to look for a job.
"It's always going to be tough for him," Doss said. "But I think as I prepare for this next chapter, he's finally ready for his."
While Doss continued living away from his family for all of high school and college, he said that his bond with his mother grew stronger.
"You can't explain how hard it is to go away from your family when all you want to do is help your family," he said. "But I think we knew that in the end it would be better, and that pulled us together."
As a fourth-round pick for a team with solid depth at receiver, Doss knows he'll have to do all he can to earn the sort of second contract that might set his family up long term.
While waiting for the lockout to end, Doss is living in Indianapolis near high school friends. Though he has been working to rehab at an athletic training facility, he still lifts in his high school gym and runs routes on the field outside.
At night, he studies the Ravens' playbook. Flacco met with Doss and two other recent draft picks — Maryland's Torrey Smith and Virginia Tech quarterback Tyrod Taylor — when the players convened in Towson, and urged them to concentrate on learning formations and specific routes. Trying to understand the entire offense wouldn't be fruitful without film to watch and coaches to consult.
Certainly the mental side of the game will pose an early challenge for Doss, who played in a simplified, up-tempo offense at Indiana. In the NFL, he'll need to read and react more often. And though he's probably faster than he's shown recently — he ran the 40-yard dash in about 4.5 seconds a few months after surgery — he projects as a prototypical possession receiver in the NFL. At 6 feet 3 and 210 pounds, he's also trying to gain weight so he can improve his blocking and play a role in special teams.
"I'm just blessed to make it this far," he said, "and I'm going to do what I have to do."
He knows it won't always come easily.
When doubt creeps in, he raises his left hand slightly and reads the tattoo that encircles his wrist.
"My Rock," it says, "Nikki Doss."
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