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How Lavonte David became so inexplicably good

Undersized and overlooked for most of his football career, it's impossible to ignore the Buccaneers' All-Pro linebacker these days.

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David Manning-USA TODAY Sports

Ask Lovie Smith to name his favorite Lavonte David story and his response might surprise you. He doesn't bring up a game-saving tackle or a game-changing interception. He doesn't bring up some acrobatic play that he once saw David pull off in a practice or one of those rah-rah locker room speeches that coaches love, which David once gave to rally the troops.

"We were getting beat as badly as I've ever gotten beaten in my life," Smith says as he begins to recall the moment. He's talking about a Week 3 loss his Buccaneers suffered last year to the Atlanta Falcons. The 2014 season was a rough one for Smith. Instead of turning the team's fortunes around in his first year on the job, he won just two games. But in a season full of losses, this particular one, a 56-14 dismantling, stood out. It was in front of a national audience on a Thursday night against a division rival. At one point the Bucs trailed 56-0, meaning the game wasn't even as "close" as the final score.

So it's a bit surprising that this is where Smith goes when searching for a way to highlight David's greatness. After all, it's not like the linebacker is lacking for prodigious moments. At just 25 years old and in his third year in the league, David has already established himself as one of the best defensive players in the NFL.

As a rookie in 2013, he recorded 139 tackles, tied for eighth in the league. The next year he was rated by the website Pro Football Focus as the best outside linebacker in NFL. "David is a smaller linebacker but lightning quick and makes up for that lack of size with how fast he can read the play, react to it and blow it up," the website wrote. That same season he set a record for defeats, a statistic kept by Football Outsiders. David had 50, which was the most ever by a linebacker and the second-highest total the site had ever recorded (Watt had 56 that same year). Last year David registered 42 defeats, second again only to Watt, who had 43.

But Smith doesn't mention any of that. Instead his mind travels back to that devastating loss, to the third quarter of a game only being kept alive by a still-ticking clock, to Matt Ryan, taking a snap up 35-0 and handing the ball off to running back Devonta Freeman, to Freeman running behind the left side of his offensive line for 7 yards, to David, not giving up in a game where doing so would have been the easy thing to do, closing in on Freeman and jarring the ball loose with a vicious hit, to David, leaving even more of himself on the field, scurrying after the loose ball and eventually securing it.

"To me, it just showed the kind of guy and player he is," Smith says. "He's the best outside linebacker in the NFL and everything you want a great linebacker to be."

Photo via Getty Images

Photo via Getty Images

A second chance is something most athletes don't get. A third is almost unheard of. Lavonte David knew this and so as he lay there, on the grass of the Fort Scott Community College quad under the hot Kansas sun, vomit on the ground near him, he began to fear. This, an August conditioning test, was his first day with the team. Was it also about to be his last?

David is a Miami native, a kid born and raised in the Liberty City neighborhood, and a starting linebacker for a Miami Northwestern High School team that went 15-0, won a state title and was ranked No. 1 in the country by ESPN. He had grown up watching and emulating University of Miami linebackers like Jonathan Vilma and D.J. Williams. The plan was to follow in their footsteps. The plan was to stay home. The plan was to become the next great linebacker for "The U."

But the plan didn't work out, mostly because it wasn't thought out. School, for example, had been pushed aside.

"Teachers were letting me get away with things," David recalls today. "I started skipping classes, not handing in papers. I took advantage."

Also, he was small, maybe not for a normal human being, but football players aren't built like normal human beings. David was barely 6'0 and 200 pounds, not big enough to play linebacker at the Division I level, or at least that's how most of the country's Division I programs felt. The ones that did show interest in David didn't see him as a linebacker.

"A lot of people thought I was a safety," he says. "But that's not the position I wanted to play."

There was one, though. Middle Tennessee State, a small Conference USA school located in Murfreesboro. The Blue Raiders saw David as a linebacker and offered him a scholarship -- only his low grades meant he was ineligible to play in the fall. Take the ACTs again, he was told, and then join us for the spring. At that point David had no other options and so he signed on. Meanwhile, eight of his teammates were planning on heading south to Coral Gables to suit up for "The U."

"I thought I let my family down," David says. "I was in a low place then. Seeing all those guys go to the college that I wanted to go to ... I felt horrible. That I wasn't going was my fault, but I also felt like I deserved to go."

Then he received the phone call that changed his life. Eddie "Rabbit" Brown had seen David play years ago. Brown is a former Arena Football League star and the father of Pittsburgh Steelers Pro Bowl wide receiver Antonio Brown. He also grew up in Miami and is a known figure within Miami's football scene. Ten years earlier he attended a Pop Warner game when an 8-year-old linebacker caught his eye.

"I remember watching that game, wondering who was that kid who was tackling everybody," Brown recalls. Later he found out it was David, whose family Brown had known for years. Now David was looking for a home and Brown, then a running backs coach at Fort Scott Community College in Kansas, thought he could provide one for him. That July he and the school offered David a spot on the team.

"My mom said I should take the first opportunity that I get," David says, explaining why he decided to attend Fort Scott and not Middle Tennessee State. "So I decided JuCo was for me."

Everything seemed to be finally falling into place. David arrived on the Kansas campus in August excited about the opportunity he was being given. But by then the team had already been practicing for more than a month. David had been training a bit, and he certainly kept in shape, but he wasn't ready for anything like the workout he was about to be put through.

Before the season, all Fort Scott football players are required to pass a conditioning test. The template, designed by Jeff Simms, the team's head coach, is simple: Players line up on the campus's front lawn. About 55 yards away stands a tree. Run there and back, is what players are told. Sometimes they have to do it 20 times, sometimes 10. There's always a time they have to make. If they don't make it, they do it again.

David was never one of those football players addicted to working out. Some athletes love the sounds of the gym, of barbells and weights and grunts. David is not one of them. His passion was always the game itself. Some of the other stuff that went with it, well, not so much. To this day he still loves watching cartoons. "I'm a kid at heart," David says, before naming his favorite shows. "Spongebob. The Boondocks. Teen Titans." One can assume that not every hour that summer after high school was spent in the gym. And so, when it was it his turn to run, David, predictably, failed. That's when he collapsed onto the ground.

"Please don't send me home," he pleaded as he looked up toward Simms and Brown, both of whom were approaching their newest player, ready to scold. "I promise this won't happen again," he added as tears dripped down his cheek. "Just give me another chance."

"From then on out," says Brown, "Lavonte tackled everyone and their momma."

Photo via Getty Images

Photo via Getty Images

Mike Ekeler's players are sick of hearing about Lavonte David. Every time they walk into his office, they're greeted by a picture of Ekeler and David sitting on the coach's desk. The ironic part is that Ekeler never really wanted to coach David in the first place. That is, he never wanted Lavonte David to be part of his football team ... until he met him.

Ekeler, now at the University of Georgia, was the linebackers coach at Nebraska from 2008-2010, head coach Bo Pelini's first three years at the school. In 2009 Pelini was looking to put together his defense and needed some bodies. Nebraska already had one former Fort Scott player on the roster -- wide receiver Brandon Kinnie -- and the junior college had sent plenty of other players to the NFL. Pelini gave Jeff Simms a call.

Simms told Pelini about David, how he was one of the two most passionate football players he'd ever coached, how he'd never seen a linebacker better at finding the hole in the line scrimmage or recognizing a play, how he was the best tackler he'd ever been around, how he'd racked up 12 tackles and been named the Most Valuable Defensive Player of the 2009 Junior College National Football Championship game while playing a team led by a young quarterback named Cam Newton.

Nebraska was intrigued, but also skeptical. First off, David was still small. In fact, his size was the only reason he was available. David's first choice remained the University of Miami. Simms even called up the school's head coach, Randy Shannon, to let him know that this was the case.

"You won't have to do any recruiting for this one," he said over the phone. "If you want him, the kid's yours."

"How big is he?" Simms says Shannon asked. Simms informed him David was 208 pounds. Shannon said he needed his linebackers to be at least 215. He never reached out to David or had him visit the school. But Nebraska was more open-minded. On Nov. 20, 2009, David met with Ekeler in his office. The coach wanted to pick David's brain, see what he could digest.

Nebraska was wary about adding a player who would only be around for two years. The fear was that his collegiate career would be over before the team's defensive system was fully absorbed.

"Everything in that system falls on the linebackers," Ekeler says. "If you're a linebacker and you're not very intelligent, if you can't process information quickly, then you can't play for us."

Normally these meetings last a few minutes. That day David and Ekeler spent two hours together talking defense and formations and technique. "He was one of the smartest players I'd ever met," Ekeler says. He had to show his boss. Ekeler brought David down the hall and knocked on Pelini's door.

"Bo," he said. "You gotta check this out. This is our guy right here."

Photo via Getty Images

The summer before Lavonte David's senior year of high school was a strange one. The team's football coaches had been fired the previous season and the district's search for a new coach was taking a long time. The players, though, didn't want to wait. They were planning on competing for a state title and couldn't afford to. A decision was made: David and the rest of the elder statesmen would act as coaches until new ones were hired. This went on through the summer and into the fall, until a week before the season began.

"We ran things ourselves," says Jacory Harris, a high school teammate of David's who went on to play quarterback for Miami and is now a member of the Canadian Football League's Hamilton Tiger-Cats. "We were the coordinators and calling out the plays and running film sessions, and Lavonte was the guy on defense."

In high school, his mind might not have shined in the classroom, but on the football field it certainly did. During lunchtime David would take a tray of food out of the cafeteria and find a classroom where he could watch film. In games, Harris says, David would rarely look toward the sideline. "Most of the time he was the one calling out the plays."

"Watching film is his pastime," adds Brown. "Nine out of the 10 times I'd knock on his door (at Fort Scott) and that's what he'd be doing."

As his career progressed, David's football mind only got sharper. At Nebraska he was named first-team All-American during his junior year and was awarded the Big Ten's Butkus-Fitzgerald Linebacker of the Year the season after.

"I couldn't believe how fast he diagnosed things on the field," Ekeler says. "The way he studies the game, the way he anticipates things, the way he understands the relationship between the ball carrier and the blockers and figures out how to navigate that area, it's incredible. His instincts are ridiculous."

David honed his mind during practices by standing as close as possible to Ekeler as often as he could. He heard every word and call that came out of the coach's mouth.

I couldn't believe how fast he diagnosed things on the field ... his instincts are ridiculous. -Mike Ekeler

He also started taking school seriously. He'd meet with an academic advisor, Andrea Einspahr, nearly every day. The two would go over his schedule for the week -- he was a criminal justice major -- while he ate from the candy dish in her office.

"I learned how to study," David says. "I did all my assignments. I remember sitting there writing 15-page papers and thinking, man, I've come a long way."

David was selected 58th overall in the 2012 NFL Draft by the Buccaneers; once again, he fell because of his size. All of this paid off in the NFL when he was handed the responsibility, by then-head coach Greg Schiano, of calling out his unit's plays, an honor almost never bestowed upon an outside linebacker, let alone a rookie.

"How do you explain smart guys?" says Lovie Smith, who allowed David to calls plays last year as well. "How do you explain a guy's natural instincts?" Smith adds that last year David "immediately picked up" the coaching staff's new defensive system. "A lot of guys it takes years," he says. "It took Lavonte less than one."

And while he's still smaller than most of his peers, he's had no problem bringing them down.

"His tackling is what stands out to me," says FOX NFL analyst and former Buccaneer defensive back Ronde Barber, who played one season with David in Tampa Bay. "He's got great technique and just never misses. The way he hits people stands out, especially for someone his size."

In the long run, Lavonte David might not be as valuable as the controversial quarterback the Buccaneers just selected with the No. 1 overall pick in the draft. But, in just his third year in the league, he's already the player Tampa Bay hopes its new prize eventually becomes.

He's the best in the league at what he does, a player capable of taking over games with his body and his mind.