Kenny Tate couldn't have known how fleeting it would be -- those heady weeks after his junior season of 2010 when the NFL beckoned and he made a fateful decision to postpone the career he long imagined and return to Maryland.
It didn't surprise anybody that the NFL was interested.
Not the scouts who projected the 6-foot-4, 218-pound safety as at least a second-round draft pick, one likening him to former NFL Defensive Player of the Year Troy Polamalu of the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Not his envious Maryland teammates, who called him a "freak" because he possessed a basketball player's height and hops in a football player's imposing frame.
And certainly not Tate himself.
When he was in elementary school, his mother, Michelle Fields, hung a painting of a little boy that reminded her of Kenny in his bedroom. Dressed in overalls, the boy naps in the grass clutching a football in his tiny hands. Above his head — in a thought bubble representing a dream — a football player in a red and white uniform strides powerfully down the field of a vast stadium.
Tate couldn't help but see himself in the picture.
"It was over my head the whole time I was growing up," he says. "The thing is, I actually wore those colors in college — red and white — and the same No. 6 as the player in the picture. The picture was like a dream."
But today, at 23, the little-boy dream has been overtaken by big-boy reality — by a troublesome right knee that required syringes to periodically drain it, and, later, a cartilage transplant from a cadaver to heal it. By the disorienting experience of having three defensive coordinators and two head coaches and switching positions three times while at Maryland.
College is supposed to be about beginnings, not endings. But in the multibillion-dollar business of college football, some prodigies get used up before ever making a dime.
Tate — back living with his mother in the family's modest brick rambler in District Heights — appears caught between loving the sport and being victimized by it. Looing back, he says he believes collegiate athletes deserve to be paid a stipend. But his challenge now is to keep looking forward and not allow his life to be defined by what he left on the table. (Excluding signing bonuses, the minimum base salary for players entering the NFL in the 2011 season was $375,000.)
Nearly a year after his fifth and final college season ended, Tate still gets up, dons workout clothes and heads to a college or high school field with a trainer for sprints, backpedaling and other drills intended to make his body NFL-ready.
He's preparing for an audition that might never come.
'A team player'
Before taking his position for the opening kickoff of his college career, Tate allowed himself to survey the scene. It was 2008 and Byrd Stadium was nearly filled. "It doesn't get any better than this," Tate recalls thinking to himself.
But college was not going quite as he imagined.
Tate had barely arrived on campus when he got his first clue that football careers don't necessarily follow predictable arcs. He had been heavily recruited from DeMatha as a wide receiver, choosing Maryland over Illinois, Ohio State and other big-time suitors. James Franklin, then a Maryland assistant and now Vanderbilt's head coach, hooked Tate by showing him a PowerPoint presentation on how the Terps could be expected to spread the ball around to Tate and the other receivers.
But as his first training camp was opening, Tate and his parents were summoned into then-head coach Ralph Friedgen's office and asked whether he was willing to switch to safety to bolster the secondary's depth.
Considering Division I games are akin to preliminary NFL tryouts for the best players, position switches — particularly from one side of the ball to the other — can make or break careers. But Tate readily agreed to the shift.
"I'm always going to be a team player and I'm always going to listen to my coaches," says Tate, who possesses a subdued, almost shy countenance off the field.
Tate was 18 at the time and seemed even younger. He didn't even own his own alarm clock before arriving at the dormitory suite he shared with five other Terps, including current Ravens wide receiver Torrey Smith. He had always relied on his mother to wake him up.
Tate was placed in a program — then called the Intensive Learning Program — designed to get athletes up to speed academically. Because of their special skills — in Tate's case, football — many in ILP were admitted to Maryland without the same academic credentials as other students.
Tate struggled at times with his studies, often falling asleep in his dorm with the light on and his schoolwork spread out in front of him.
Considering all the hours football players put in — for practices, games, weightlifting, team meetings — Tate believes athletes should receive some sort of stipend beyond their scholarship. "I just think about how much the NCAA is making in general," he says.
On the field, Tate was developing as his coaches hoped. By his junior season, when he was selected as an All-Atlantic Coast Conference safety, he was clearly rattling opposing offenses. Before the snap, he would often creep from his safety position to the edge of the line and stare menacingly at the quarterback. He was big and aggressive enough to blitz effectively, but mobile enough to drop back into coverage.
In the final minute of Maryland's opening game in 2010, Tate slammed into Ricky Dobbs before the Navy quarterback could cross the goal line on fourth-and-1. Tate, not usually animated in his celebrations, emerged from the pile of players pumping his fist, and the Terps ran out the clock on a 17-14 victory at M&T Bank Stadium.
By season's end, Tate was showing up in pundits' mock drafts as a first- or second-round pick.
"A one-year starter at free safety, Tate has the ability to start at the NFL level," said a report on Tate by New Era, an independent scouting service. "Very aggressive in coming up to make a tackle. Reminds of Troy Polamalu in this regard."
Many of his teammates assumed Tate would declare for that April's draft. They didn't know he was being pulled — as if by a gang of tacklers — in several different directions.
Tate's decision whether to enter the draft or return to school to pursue his degree and burnish his football credentials was already complicated enough. But then came the NFL lockout, raising the possibility that there would be no NFL season.
If he were drafted, Tate could be stuck indefinitely without football or a contract. As long as the lockout continued, teams were not permitted to sign free agents. If Tate went undrafted, the free agent route would not be available.
Prior to 2011, Tate had always felt lucky. His mother and father were no longer together, but he remained close to his dad, who lived nearby. His family didn't have lots of money, but it seemed like enough. His scholarship paid for most of his needs. Every few weeks, his mother — who works with youths at a recreation center — would deposit $20 into his bank account.
But the lockout was the most unwelcome of wild cards. It ultimately led Tate to return to Maryland, where — unbeknownst to him — two more position changes and a game-changing injury awaited.
"I knew if I came back, I was guaranteed a football season," he says. "The NFL, I figured, wasn't going anywhere."
But nothing is guaranteed in football.
Early in the 2011 season, the cartilage in Tate's right knee was beginning to break away. Loose parts were floating around the joint, causing the knee to swell. Once a week, a syringe would be inserted to drain out fluid.
No one knows for sure what caused the injury, but Tate — a team captain switched to a linebacker-safety hybrid position before the season by new coach Randy Edsall — suspects it began with a block to the knee during a win over Towson in the season's fourth game.
A month later, he was in a Baltimore hospital receiving a cartilage transplant.
"We said a prayer before he went under, and we said a prayer in the waiting room, and we said a prayer while he was still in surgery," his mother says. "We just kept praying."
Tate obtained a medical redshirt to play another season with the Terps. Switched to a slightly different linebacker spot in a new 3-4 defensive scheme, he struggled physically.
"When you injure one part of your body, your body compensates for it," Tate says. "So I had a minor complication with my left knee."
Tate signed on after the season with an agent, Chad Wiestling, a former Maryland football player. "I took a chance on him. I'm a Maryland Terp," Wiestling says. "Love him to death."
But he went undrafted and no team opted the sign him as a free agent — including the Ravens, who were among the teams to scout him in college.
"You feel for him because he's had a lot of injuries," says Ravens assistant general manager Eric DeCosta. "I think he's a quality person. I think he's a great player. It's just that the injuries have taken a toll on him. I wish him the best."
Steve Suter knows the ache of feeling a promising career being slowly, steadily hijacked by injuries before it could reach an NFL payday. Now 31, the former Maryland receiver-returner has been told he'll eventually need two knee replacements, and his football these days is confined to a game of touch on the weekends.
A decade before Tate's final season, Suter was one of college football's most dynamic punt returners. Fans would sometimes lose sight of the 5-9 Suter as he weaved between bigger bodies on long returns. He returned six punts for touchdowns during 2002 and 2003.
But injuries had diminished him by the time his opportunity came for a pro career in 2005. He had torn a hamstring, broken a hand and had a plate and six pins inserted into his left index finger. He had four knee surgeries between 2001 and 2004.
Suter didn't make the NFL and had only a brief Canadian Football League career that ended with a broken collarbone.
"I guess every year I got slower," says Suter, now a commercial insurance salesman in Washington, D.C.
Suter — who has met Tate but doesn't know him well — says he wishes he could be encouraging to Tate about moving past football. But the truth is, Suter, who is married with a young daughter, never quite got over the sense that his football life was incomplete.
"I wanted to get to the pinnacle," says Suter, who, like Tate, believes that college athletes should be paid. "I saw my buddies in the NFL who I thought I was comparable with. I'd be lying to you if I said I was over it. If he [Tate] finds the answer, I would like to be sitting on the couch next to him."
Tate and Suter join a long list of top college athletes who have endured injuries before they could cash in on their athletic talents. In 2011, Tate watched another all-conference Maryland star — middle linebacker Alex Wujciak — fail in his NFL bid after enduring serious knee injuries in college.
Tate and Wujciak "were two of the best," said quarterback and former teammate Danny O'Brien, now playing for North Carolina's Catawba College and also hoping for an NFL shot.
According to the NCAA, there were more than 41,000 reported football injuries across the association's 633 teams from 2004 to 2009. Half of the injuries were to players' legs.
A fraction of mostly big-name players — such as South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney — take out insurance policies to protect their financial interests in case of severe injuries while in school.
Asked if he had considered such a policy, Tate replied: "Didn't know I could."
The NCAA sponsors an insurance policy, but it only kicks in after career-ending injuries. Tate's injuries may not have qualified even though they have clearly damaged — perhaps ruined — his prospects.
'Football is like life'
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.
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