“"Football’s been in my life forever. With Marcus, my cousin Grady, my cousin Omar, they all played football. I’ve always been around the game. I was at practices running around with them, my cousin had his practices, I was the ballboy on Marcus’ team when they went to the state championship, things like that. As far as I can remember, football’s always been in my life."” ~ Desmond Trufant
Tacoma isn’t a city of dreams. It’s a mill town, a blue-collar city, the ugly middle child between genteel Seattle and the crunchy capitol in Olympia. But on clear days at Wilson High School, where the Trufant brothers played football, Mount Rainier rises into the sky without connection to the horizon, a floating colossus of impossible height. It is ghostly and distant -- but in truth, it’s not so far away. It can be climbed.
Lakewood, the nondescript Tacoma suburb where Lloyd and Constance Trufant live now, was, until the mid-’90s, just another undesirable stretch of Tacoma: the closest place to Fort Lewis and McChord Air Force Base for young married soldiers and airmen to live. As such, many of the houses date back to the post-Cold War military boom and are appropriately shabby -- mold creeping up from the ground, yards and roofs overrun with wet leaves, a general low-slung disrepair exacerbated by the long shadows cast by towering conifers.
Stumble onto the right street, though, and you’ll find enclaves of wealth, usually on the shores of one of the town’s four lakes. It’s here, on Lake Steilacoom, nine days before the 2013 NFL draft, that I find the house Marcus Trufant bought for his parents after an All-Pro selection led to a six-year, $50 million contract with the Seahawks in 2008.
Whereas most of the houses on the block are hidden by hedges or fences, the Trufant residence is open, welcoming. The split-level is neither ostentatious nor modest, but the wide deck over the lake makes it clear that it’s in no way cheap. The house is filled with family photos, football paraphernalia and floor-to-ceiling windows on the lake side.
Next week, Marcus, who went to the Seahawks with the 11th overall selection in the 2003 draft, will see his youngest brother, Desmond, go to the Falcons with the 22nd pick. Isaiah, the middle brother, went undrafted in 2006 and played arena football and in the UFL before landing with the Jets, where he’s played the last three years. The stated purpose of the family gathering -- including grandfather, aunts, cousins -- is a celebration of Desmond’s impending jump to the pros. But over the course of the night, I get the feeling that they’re together simply because that’s what they do.
New York Jets
Desmond was 12 years old when Marcus, a second team All-America cornerback at Washington State, was drafted by the Seahawks.
"I remember he had a separate party, family or coaches or anybody that influenced him, at this place called Julius’s. I was a young kid, I really didn’t know what was going on, I was just excited for him, I was going to be happy for him no matter what happened. And he got picked by Seattle, we went over to the party, and I remember him having to do his press conference."
A lot has changed since 2003, from the way the NFL draft gets covered to the rules that hamper a defensive back’s game.
"All the rules, all the stuff you can’t do nowadays, it’s a little bit crazy, but that’s just how the game is," Marcus says. "You gotta be able to adjust, but I think he’ll be OK. And I’m going through the same thing as the game changes -- I just finished my 10th year, of course -- and you have to adjust if you wanna make it in the game."
A decade later, Desmond stands in front of the Atlanta press in a smart navy suit -- zip sweater, natty plaid tie, pocket square -- for his own press conference, offering the Teflon platitudes about his work ethic and skill set that are at once true and too general to sound like anything substantive.
"I can fit into any scheme," he said to me -- and likely other media members at different times. "Because at Washington, we did a little bit of everything. We played zone, we played man, I played off coverage, I played press, I played slot, I even lined up at safety sometimes. I’m diverse, you can put me in different spots."
It is the practiced art of saying nothing (encouraged by the media’s habit of asking the same questions), and if the press conference was all I knew about Desmond Trufant, I wouldn’t know him at all.
Lloyd "Chill" Trufant has a cornerback’s build: even in his 50s, he’s compact and trim with ramrod posture. He acts and dresses like a New Orleans musician, which he is, in parts. Though he grew up just outside of the Crescent City, he didn’t play music until he was an adult. "I craved music as a child," he says. "I always wanted to be in the school band, but we couldn’t afford it. And I’m not ashamed to say that, because there were 10 of us. For me, to go ask my dad to buy a trumpet, or a guitar, that would be like suicide." He laughs.
"I got to working as a teenager -- I’m talkin’ slave labor, pickin’ tomatoes and cucumbers -- and I bought me a guitar and an amplifier. I didn’t know how to play nothin’. I got chased out of the house ‘cuz I didn’t know how to play it."
Stationed at Fort Lewis after being drafted, Chill borrowed a bass and taught himself how to play one song. "I was playin’ that song, and this old sergeant came up and said, ‘Man you sound good on that. You wanna be in the band?’ I said, ‘Yeah!’"
Chill’s love of music was the spark for his future family. Or, in his words: "Constance was kinda like a groupie. She was stalking me."
His wife laughs. Did she have a crush on Chill? "I did. I followed the band around." But they never actually met until her car broke down. She glances sheepishly at her father, Frederick "Pa" Johnson, before telling the story. "My father probably don’t know this," she says, eliciting laughter.
"I had a little orange Pinto, ’72 hatchback, I went on Fort Lewis with my friend Anita to meet her friend -- I had to drive her because I had the car. But the car broke down. ... It was my shining star, nice and orange, big rims and everything. It was tricked out. I know a tricked out Pinto sounds bad, but you had to see it. Anita called her friend that we were going to meet, and lo and behold, Lloyd was in the car -- he was best friends with her friend, and I didn’t even know that.
"And so he fixed the Pinto, and ever since then, he’s been fixing my cars. Thirty-five years later, here we are."
"I just wanted to take advantage, show everybody that I’m elite."USA Today Images
Without games on TV, it’s easy to forget that even the offseason is rigorous for players, and this is truest for the college players who declare for the NFL draft. After finishing his senior season at the University of Washington, Desmond had a week to relax before moving to Arizona to train at Athletes’ Performance -- the "leader in integrated performance training, nutrition, and physical therapy for elite and professional athletes," according to its website -- where he trained for the Senior Bowl.
A sparkling Senior Bowl performance in January catapulted him up the draft charts. As NFL.com analyst Daniel Jeremiah noted:
Most teams that I spoke with prior to the Senior Bowl had Trufant pegged as a middle-of-the-second-round-type player. Following three days of practice, nearly every personnel executive I spoke with considers him a likely first-round pick.
Most scouts pegged Desmond as the best cornerback at the Senior Bowl, where he shined against the toughest wide receivers in college. "I just wanted to take advantage, show everybody that I’m elite," he says of the showcase.
After that, it was back to Arizona. "I continued to work, work really hard there to get ready for the combine," he tells me, and the results from Indianapolis in February reflect his words: He ran "a cool 40," he says, opting not to disclose the time of his blistering 40-yard dash (4.31 unofficial, 4.38 official). He survived the other hoops, as well -- "the meetings, the interviews, the hospital, the psychological tests -- there’s a lot of things at the combine. It was a stressful time, but I was prepared for it."
He returned to Arizona once again, this time to prepare for UW’s pro day in March, where he skipped the 40 and weights but put on a positional workout that NFL.com described as "phenomenal." The long build to the NFL draft, he says, "has been an incredible journey," and the miles alone justify a literal meaning.
Music was Chill’s passion, but it didn’t pay the bills. "I was what you call a ‘starving musician’," he says. During the day, he worked as a framer for Milgard Windows, while Constance was a manager in the Social Security Administration. Their focus on family sounds like a political ad’s description of middle-class triumph.
"We put them first," Constance says. "My husband and I did a lot of sacrificing to give the kids what they wanted. I think they saw that we made sure that they were fed, they were clothed, that they were in school and did their homework, and that it mattered. We cared, and they saw that we cared."
Marcus’ stories of childhood reflect effective parenthood: the adults rarely appear in the stories, but they’re an ever-present source of boundaries. "We’ve got a lot of cousins," he says, "either we were at my grandfather’s house and we was tearin’ up his front yard, or runnin’ through the yard, actin’ crazy, or at our parents’ house. There were games; we would race all the time. There were games our parents didn’t know about. We’d be downstairs, turn the lights off, and just go crazy, fight, then we’d wait for a little bit because someone was crying, then we’d talk about it, then we’d do it again. We had a lot of fun."
"Everybody kind of fed off of each other," says Grady Maxwell, a cousin two years older than Des and a former three-star recruit who signed with Washington State before injuries ended his career. "It’s always been competitive. My grandfather had 10 girls, but he’s got over 40 or 50 grandkids, and over half of them are boys, so we’ve always been competing, no matter what it is. Even though [Marcus and Isaiah were] way older than me, I was competing against them, regardless of what we were doing."
"We’d go to the park as a family," says Marcus, "me and all the cousins -- me, Isaiah, Des, everybody. There’d probably be about 10 to 20 of us, everybody in the neighborhood. We played out in the street. And we did that stuff all the time -- it was always competitive, it was always fun, it was always lots of laughter."
But the Trufant boys were never pushed into sports, insists Chill. "Our objective was mainly to keep them active with the boys’ clubs and sports. We just let them try everything, and made sure they did what they said they were going to do. To me it was exercise -- something besides going to school, come home, and look at TV. You gotta go to practice, you gotta go to school, and you gotta do your paper route in the morning ... That made them stronger, to realize that you can accomplish things with hard work.
"There were times when they were real little, they wanted to play, but somebody might not want to go to practice. ‘No, you goin’ to practice!’"
Constance interjects: "You make the commitment, you follow through."
"People will respect you for your word," Chill continues, "and that’s what I instilled in them. Don’t just say something to pacify [others] -- and I see that in them now, as grown men. One of them calls me and says, ‘I’m doing this,’ I can bank on that."
Despite the money Marcus has made, and the lucrative contract Desmond will soon sign, the family remains committed to the competitive nucleus of family that fostered its inherent athletic talent.
"When I look at my sons with kids," says Constance, "Marcus and Isaiah, they’re very caring, very nurturing. Desmond, he doesn’t have any children yet, he loves kids--"
Des laughs his assent, a distinct, relaxed laugh that sounds like a less energetic version of Jay Pharoah’s impression of Jay-Z on "Saturday Night Live."
Constance finishes: "--he loves playing with his nieces, his nephews, he’s really kind-hearted."
She reminisces about the family and the time they spent together before her mother died, before the turn of the century. "We were always together at get-togethers like you saw tonight, having chicken or whatever, sweet potato pie, barbecue--"
"Cakes," Marcus adds.
"My mother’s cakes," Constance explains.
Des chimes in: "Blackberry pie!"
She finishes: "That was our family, so that’s our heritage, that’s our tradition. That’s what we do, and we want to carry that on, and the kids, they carry that on also."
Desmond had originally planned to be in New York for the draft, but changed his mind out of his concern for Pa. "I wanted my grandfather to be with me, it’s hard for him to travel, and I want him to experience the moment with me. I’m gonna be home with my family -- it’s gonna be similar to Marcus’ [draft party] -- we’ll have all the friends and the people that have helped me get to this point."
"My entire family was there. It was a beautiful thing."USA Today Images
On Thursday night, Atlanta trades up from 30 to 22 in order to draft Desmond. ESPN shows him on the phone, mostly listening to coach Mike Smith and owner Arthur Blank, while tears well in his eyes.
"It was just exciting," he tells me a few days later, back in Seattle after the Atlanta press conference. "So much hard work throughout my whole life, you dream about that one day, you finally reach it, you’re just so happy. I was just happy and thankful."
"Was it the biggest night of your life?" I ask.
"Definitely. I’ve been working for that moment my whole life, to reach it and finally get there, and just having my family with me there and supporting me, it was big. My parents were right there, my brothers, my cousins, my little nieces and nephews were there, too. My grandfather -- my entire family was there. It was a beautiful thing."
Before the draft, I asked Constance if she felt spoiled having Marcus in Seattle for 10 years while Des played his college career at UW. "We’re definitely going to miss him," she said. "We were just blessed to have Marcus here close, Desmond here close. ... It was great. It was easy. We were definitely spoiled."
But, she added, they traveled to the Meadowlands regularly to see Isaiah, so they’re accustomed to long travel.
"We’ll come see him. We’ll be there."