Courtney Upshaw once lived in a house with no electricity or running water. He slept some nights on a worn couch that barely contained his growing frame. He arrived at the University of Alabama with little more than the clothes he was wearing.
April 26, 2012 was supposed to be the night Upshaw would be rewarded for his perseverance. Yet as he sat in Radio City Music Hall in New York City, surrounded by friends and family, Upshaw fought back tears. He watched four of his college teammates become first-round draft picks. Upshaw kept waiting but his name wasn't called that night.
"I had high hopes and honestly I got teary-eyed," Upshaw said. "We went back to the hotel and we really prayed and we were hoping that Baltimore would draft me. It was a really tough night."
The Ravens ended Upshaw's wait, taking the outside linebacker with the third overall pick of the second round. As an NFL rookie, Upshaw, 23, has done what he's done all his life — adapt to a situation and make the best of it. He battled minor conditioning issues, a nagging shoulder injury and command of the playbook but he's become a reliable run stopper and a potential long-term replacement for Jarret Johnson. He has started 10 games and made 55 tackles for the Ravens who play the Denver Broncos on Saturday in an AFC divisional playoff game.
"We've had kids that were probably better than Courtney," said John Gilmore, an assistant football coach at Eufaula High (Ala.), where Upshaw developed into a top prospect in two seasons. "We've had some damn good football players that are in prison right now or were in prison. We tried to help them the same way we helped Courtney. But he took our help and he did the best he could. He knew this was his way out. He wanted to take care of his family, his brothers and sisters. He's going to be a good one in the NFL."
The first thing that Upshaw will tell you is that he doesn't remember a lot about his upbringing nor does he feel it was particularly unique. Upshaw gets dressed for practice about 5 yards away from the locker of offensive tackle Michael Oher whose own story was used as the basis for the hit movie, The Blind Side.
"Especially during the draft, [I told] this story. A lot of people said you should make a movie or write I book," Upshaw said. "I said, 'It's already been done.' Not only did Mike go through what I went through, there are a lot of other athletes that went through the same thing."
He also isn't overly eager to discuss it – "the way I grew up, the things I endured or encountered, I kind of have trust issues," he admits — but he is exceedingly polite and complies because it shines a positive light on friends and family members.
A helping hand
When Upshaw was about 5 years old his mother, Lisa Upshaw didn't feel like she had the time or resources to take care of him on a daily basis. As a result he was taken in by an aunt, Donnella Williams who had kids and financial pressures of her own. Still, she made sure that Upshaw and his siblings had food to eat and a place to stay. She mandated that they went to school, behaved and treated elders with respect.
"She raised us to be successful and to try to do something with ourselves," Upshaw said. "It wasn't always great times. That's just me being honest. Just moving from place-to-place, I know my last year of high school, I stayed with another aunt because we couldn't keep the lights on or pay the rent. I lived in public housing for a while. We stayed in a couple of houses but it was never long. It was tough, man. But I did have help and I made it with that help."
Upshaw didn't have much, but he was not the type to ask for more, but others, charmed by his polite and friendly demeanor, reached out to him.
The McKenzies, a white family who are University of Georgia fans, were among those touched by Upshaw. The family's relationship with Upshaw began when he was in kindergarten. That's when Will McKenzie, the youngest of Tom and Leigh's three kids, was involved in a fight and Upshaw stepped in to defend him. They grew so close that McKenzie came home from school in second grade and asked his parents if he could use his Christmas money to sign Upshaw up for organized basketball. To this day, Will and Upshaw say they are more brothers than friends.
"We'd always play sports and he was always the first person picked," said Will, now a senior in college. "I realized that he may not be in the best situation, but he should at least have a chance to do some of the things that I could do. The man grows and blossoms from difficulties and hardships in life. My parents, all they really did was give him opportunities that he may not have been able to get earlier. But he's the one that got himself to where he is now."
With Williams' permission and with the understanding that they would take him to and from practice, the McKenzies signed Upshaw up for basketball and then football. Tom McKenzie coached Upshaw in both, but it was off the field or court where Upshaw made an impression.
Upshaw never asked for anything, and any time something was offered, he explained how his younger sisters — Tanzania and LaQuanda — needed it more. At different points, Upshaw slept on a couch so that his sisters could have the bed.
"The thing that really got us was after practice or after a game, we would stop by McDonald's because I wasn't sure if his aunt had already cooked supper or not," Tom McKenzie said. "Courtney always saved his french fries from his meal for his little sister. It's not that she wasn't being fed. He just knew how much she loved french fries and he wanted to bring her home something."
A football scholarship loomed as a perfect lifeline, but that didn't initially appear realistic. Upshaw hurt his ankle during his freshman season and opted not to play as a sophomore. That was also the year that he was sent to alternative school, a punishment, he said, resulting from him getting in a fight.
He returned to the field his junior season, catching the eyes of recruiters who were coming to Eufaula games to watch Jerrel Jernigan, now a New York Giants wide receiver. Eufaula, which sits on the Alabama-Georgia border, is Auburn country. Upshaw, though, wanted to go 200 miles away to Alabama. However, nothing during his early days in Tuscaloosa was easy.
"He went up there with athletic football shorts that they issue for the players and very little else," said Leigh McKenzie whose family's assistance for Upshaw was cleared by the NCAA. "I don't think he had any sheets when he went up there. He just hung in there and did the right things."
In four years, Upshaw had 141 tackles and 17.5 sacks and was on two national championship teams. However, one incident marred his time at Alabama. In his sophomore year, Upshaw and a female companion were arrested on campus after a verbal altercation turned physical. Initially facing a misdemeanor charge of domestic violence and third-degree harassment, he was granted youthful offender status and required to undergo anger management counseling.
"I learned that you can't make dumb decisions," Upshaw said. "At the end of the day, you're not allowed to touch a woman in any way no matter what the story said that I did. You have to stay away from stuff like that. Even when I was getting interviewed by teams during the draft process, I would get asked questions about it. I told them, 'All I know is the right thing to do is walk away.'"
The Upshaw that his family and friends talk about graduated from Alabama with a degree in Human Development in 3 1/2 years, started a fund to raise money for the victims of the 2011 tornado in Tuscaloosa and befriended an ardent Crimson Tide fan named Dewey Norton, who has cerebral palsy and can't speak but lights up with the mere mention of Upshaw's name.
"He is really, really special," Leigh McKenzie said. "We've been honored to be friends with him. We've gotten a lot more out of it than he has."
Accompanying Upshaw to April's draft was the McKenzie family, his brothers and sisters and his mother, Lisa Upshaw. She first saw her son play during his junior year against Florida and he played so well that he deemed her his "good-luck" charm and decided that she needed to go to the rest of his home games During one of those visits, Lisa Upshaw explained to her son why things happened as they did.
"I didn't have very much," said Lisa Upshaw, who now lives in Upshaw's old apartment in Tuscaloosa. "I worked and did whatever I could but I was staying with my mother in Birmingham and my sister already had Courtney. Don't get me wrong, whatever I had, they had, but it was just not enough. It felt good to talk to him. I told him things that happened and why they happened. He was very receptive and he got emotional about it. He told me, 'Mom, you are telling the truth. I had figured that out.'"
Lisa has grown friendly with the McKenzie family and thanks them every time she seems them for what they did for her son. Upshaw does the same.
"I just find it to be a blessing to have the McKenzie's come in my life," Upshaw said. "I know I didn't have much and without them, I probably wouldn't be where I am now. I know right from wrong. I know how to treat people because my aunt raised me right. The difference between me and a lot of people is instead of me waiting on somebody to give me something, I went out and made it on my own."