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City grad Charles Tapper might soon have 'Lamborghini' lifestyle as the NFL draft approaches

Oklahoma defensive end Charles Tapper talks to a teammate during warm ups before an NCAA college football game against Texas.
Oklahoma defensive end Charles Tapper talks to a teammate during warm ups before an NCAA college football game against Texas. (Tony Gutierrez / AP)

On Wednesday, Mike Daniel was laughing at the absurdity of it, how Charles Tapper — four-star defensive end prospect at City, All-Big 12 Conference player at Oklahoma — had to be convinced to play football.

"Not a bad choice, huh?" Daniel said.

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It seems an obvious choice now, less than two weeks before the NFL draft. Tapper is 6 feet 3, 271 pounds and can cover 40 yards in under 4.6 seconds. He emulates Terrell Suggs. He might not last past the third round. He will make lots of money in a helmet and shoulder pads.

But in his freshman year at City, he played only basketball, and he saw himself as a basketball player, because he was a darn good one. Why pick up a second language when he was so fluent in his first? The answer soon came to define his life.

"I was a basketball player coming up," Tapper said in February at the NFL scouting combine in Indianapolis. "Baltimore is a big basketball city."

Tapper didn't start from Day 1 on City's varsity, "but I'm pretty sure he was in there Day 2 on," said Daniel, his coach at City and now the coach at New Town. The Knights won the Class 2A state title that first season and the next. He started alongside Maryland-bound Nick Faust, Xavier-bound Jordan Latham and Aron Phillips-Nwankwo, a walk-on at Pittsburgh. He looked like he belonged.

"He was so physical under the boards, it wasn't funny," longtime City football coach George Petrides said. "People would bounce off of him."

He was Wes Unseld-like, Petrides said, an undersized rebound magnet and space eater. Except Unseld was listed at 6-7. Tapper is as tall as Stephen Curry, a point guard. He could run and jump and score, but he would not grow, and for admission to the high-major level, height was a prerequisite.

At a school cookout before his sophomore year, Bob Wade, then the Baltimore City Public School System coordinator of athletics, approached Tapper's mother, Rhonda. He asked how her son was doing, how he was faring in football. Wade had remembered Charles' early days in the sport.

Rhonda told him he wasn't playing anymore, Petrides recalled, to which Wade said: Well, he should be.

"If it wasn't for Bob Wade," said Petrides, now City's athletic director, "I don't know whether he would've been out there."

He looked like he belonged on the football field, too — even if, early on, he might not have played like he wanted to. Petrides remembers Tapper racing City's top running back in the 100-yard dash. He won, of course. Before Tapper found a home at defensive end, he was playing wide receiver. At one point, Petrides fantasized about lining him up at running back. "He could've played any position on the field," he said, "including quarterback."

At a meeting inside a McDonald's during his junior year, trainer Cory Robinson asked Tapper whether he wanted to drive a Honda Accord or a Lamborghini. Tapper asked him what he meant.

Keep playing basketball, and you'll settle for a life of midsize sedans, Robinson said. Football was the path to a Lambo, to luxury. Tapper understood.

He was always a go-getter, just as he'd always been a basketball player, so he attacked his weaknesses as if each was a loose ball. He lifted weights, ran hard, refined his technique. With Robinson's help, he entered the offseason a changed man, in physical stature and athletic ambitions.

After a 50-tackle, 10-sack season in 2010, Tapper was invited to the prestigious U.S. Army All-American Bowl combine that January. Many of the linemen he faced there had more scholarship offers than he did years of experience in the sport. Didn't matter: He was named to the all-combine team. Less than a month later, Tapper had his first scholarship offer — from the Big 12 Conference champions.

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"From there, all my life just started taking positive steps forward," Tapper said.

Oklahoma assistant coach Bobby Jack Wright had heard about Tapper from Robinson, had heard what a good athlete he was. But as Robinson rattled off his attributes — size, speed, weight — he also noted Tapper's preference in sports. "Mostly and primarily," Wright said, Tapper was, "at that point, a basketball player."

So Wright, whose recruiting prowess as an assistant at Texas was such that it merited a 1989 Sports Illustrated profile, did what seemed necessary: He watched Tapper play basketball. Somehow, he came into possession of a highlight reel.

Wright had seen tape of Tapper on the gridiron, and his evaluations mirrored reality: The kid didn't look like had played the position for very long. But on the hardwood, he saw "flashes," and felt he had peered into the future.

The bursts of speed in the post, the lateral movement on defense, the power of his dunks — it was like a defensive end playing power forward, not the other way around.

"OK, this guy has got the skills," Wright remembered thinking. "He's got what you're looking for. … He's athletic enough. He could become a really good player in this position."

Miami, Penn State and West Virginia soon got involved, and Tapper's recruitment dragged into the summer. In July, an Amateur Athletic Union basketball tournament overlapped with an Oklahoma summer camp, and Tapper headed to Florida with his Nike Baltimore Elite team.

Wright told Robinson he couldn't promise Tapper a spot in the class if he waited too long. The team was taking two defensive ends, and Tapper wasn't their only offer. If he wanted to be a Sooner, it wouldn't hurt to commit, well, sooner. So at an event teeming with future basketball stars, Tapper called Wright and pledged to play football.

That he would go on to start in his second year on campus, twice earn first-team All-Big 12 honors and post seven sacks and 10 tackles for loss as a senior was inconceivable not long ago. In January, Tapper was asked what the 16-year-old version of himself would have thought about playing in the Senior Bowl, on the cusp of an NFL career.

"First, I would have said, 'What is the Senior Bowl?' " he said in an interview on Glenn Clark Radio. "Like, are you talking about the NCAA for basketball or something? Nah, I'm one-and-done. I'm going to go to college for one year and then I'm going to the NBA the next year."

That was the Honda path. The Lamborghini life suits him better now.

Baltimore Sun reporter Jeff Zrebiec contributed to this report.

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