It was early May of this year, and Tate, hoping to defy the odds, finally got to wear an NFL uniform.

Granted, it was only practice gear — Philadelphia Eagles shorts, a jersey and helmet. But given his recent history, the three-day rookie tryout at the team's training facility could hardly have meant more to him.

As if he needed more motivation, Tate's girlfriend texted him a quote from Vince Lombardi, the late Hall of Fame coach.

"Football is like life — it requires perseverance, self-denial, hard work, sacrifice, dedication and respect for authority," the quote said.

She ended the text with her own advice: "Have faith and have fun. Then there will be no room for failure."

The Eagles asked Tate to try out as a safety, his position of choice. But Tate hadn't played the position in a game since 2010. He said he weighed about 225 pounds — close to his linebacker weight of 230 — and was still shedding pounds from his last college season.

There were also concerns from the Eagles about his knees; he insists they are now fine.

Philadelphia didn't offer a contract, and Tate had no other offers. So he went home to resume working out and wait for another tryout.

One rainy summer day, he returned to DeMatha, his old high school, for a workout. Afterward, he sat in the bleachers of the mostly empty gym reminiscing about starring in football and basketball years earlier. "I was a dunker," he said softly. "I can still jump a little bit. I can still dunk."

A few months after the Eagles tryout, his Maryland diploma arrived in the mail at his mother's house, which is crammed with his old football trophies, jerseys, helmets and memorabilia. He had finished up his remaining course work during a summer session.

Tate, who majored in American Studies, has a job working with teens and pre-teens at a local rec center. It's part-time, and he hopes to soon acquire a sales job that pays better.

But asked about a career after football, he isn't ready to respond — not after all the practices, the soreness, the syringes, the pain.

"That's something that hasn't crossed my mind yet," he says defiantly.

At some point, his NFL aspirations took on a life of their own, becoming as real to him as the portrait of the small boy with the big dreams. The painting still hangs in the family's house.

"You want to be a professional in what you do," Tate says.

And what he does is play football.