Detroit Lions linebacker Justin Durant wasn't a blue chip recruit coming out of high school in South Carolina, despite having been named to the all-state team. He didn't have a huge TV press conference announcing where he would attend college. In fact, Durant didn't have a single Division 1 scholarship offer to play football.
So he attended Hampton University in Virginia, a historically black college that competes in the NCAA's Football Championship Subdivision. At Hampton, Durant flourished.
He started all but four games during his four-year career there. With 353 tackles, he became the first-ever three-time Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference Player of the Year. But when he didn't have the greatest NFL Scouting Combine performance or the best athletic measurements, he was once again overlooked on draft day in 2007. Twenty-three defensive players were taken in front of him.
So when Durant was drafted 48th overall by Jacksonville Jaguars, he went to work again.
As a rookie, the 232 lb., 6'1" linebacker made 49 tackles. By his third season, Durant was a defensive stalwart for the Jags, making 98 tackles despite missing three games. What he had known about himself all along was now evident to the entire football world: He belonged.
"I've always kind of wanted to show people that there is talent out there," Durant told The Huffington Post. "I've always carried with me that I went to a 1AA school and black college. I play every game with a chip on my shoulder."
This year is no different. The 26-year-old signed with the Lions during the summer. Now he's enjoying another productive NFL season and finally playing for a winning team (the Lions are 7-3 heading into their Thanksgiving Day game against the undefeated Green Bay Packers). Despite missing three games with a concussion, he has registered 36 tackles in seven outings, helping a defense he believes has all the tools to reach an elite level.
"I think speed is the main thing that we have [on defense]," Durant said. "We have speed at every position. I think it all started with the new GM [Martin Mayhew] coming in, and Coach [Jim] Schwartz establishing a different thing here in Detroit. They brought in veteran guys like myself. We are all just gelling together. I think we have all the talent in the world."
Such talent is on display on both sides of the ball. Quarterback Matthew Stafford (coming off a stellar five-touchdown game) has emerged as one of the premier young quarterbacks, on pace for a surefire Pro Bowl season with his 25 touchdown passes and just 10 interceptions. Stafford's favorite target, of course, is Calvin Johnson, who is statistically having one of the greatest seasons ever for a wide receiver. Durant has taken notice of the offense's lethal one-two punch.
"[Johnson] is the best receiver in the game," Durant said. "I wouldn't have said this last year because I had never really played against him. Just seeing the things he's capable of doing every year -- he has the speed, hands and jumping ability. He has it all. ... And I think [Stafford] has all the tools to be one of the best quarterbacks in the league."
Durant is happy to fulfill his lifelong dream of playing pro football, but he's also aware that down the road there must be life after the NFL. He's begun contributing to the Detroit Metro Times, writing music reviews. He's "never really written or reviewed music" before, he said, but he's always enjoyed music. "They say it's not work if you love what you're doing," he added.
Then again, Durant hasn't worked as hard as he has on football to drop the game now for a career as a music writer.
"Right now," he said, "football is my main focus. It is the number one thing, and I'm always going to devote all the time that I have into football."
We shouldn't be surprised.
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