Denham's road took him 'to hell and back'

May, 29, 2014
May 29
12:15
PM ET
In the weeks and months after an 11-year-old Anthony Denham was taken from his family and placed into foster care, he often felt alone.

His three siblings were all in different places. His mother battled drug problems away from them all. He didn’t feel like he fit in as a black kid placed in a Hispanic household in a mostly Hispanic neighborhood.

But Denham was always a kid who wanted to see the bright side of things. He wanted to trust people; he wanted to believe things could work out better for him than they did for so many of his family members and friends. So he did.

[+] EnlargeAnthony Denham
AP Photo/Michael ConroyCompeting at a crowded position in Houston is just another challenge in a life full of them for Utah tight end Anthony Denham.
“I didn’t want to be poor,” Denham said. “I kind of lived that life. I didn’t want to struggle. I know if I kept going on that path, I would be either dead or in jail. I’m more someone who, if I set my sight on something, I’ll go and get it to the best of my ability.”

His sight right now is on trying to make the Texans’ roster. Signed as an undrafted free-agent tight end this month, Denham is part of a group that is one of the Texans’ strongest positions. It includes veteran Garrett Graham, second-year player Ryan Griffin, this year’s third-round draft pick C.J. Fiedorowicz and free-agent acquisition Zach Potter. That will also make winning a roster spot tough. Denham has plenty of experience with tough.

“What’s harder is what’s best,” Denham said. “What’s easy is not the way. It don’t take nothing to drop out. It don’t take nothing to choose the wrong path. You don’t have to think to do certain things. When you’re thinking, you’re on the right path. When you’re thinking, your mind is good. Just stay focused and maintain your goals. Set them. Set goals.”

That mentality took a while for Denham to develop. He grew up in Pasadena, California, a suburb of Los Angeles. In addition to his mother’s drug problems, he had no contact with his father. His mother was in and out of jail during his childhood.

In elementary school, because he wanted to be like his older brothers and cousins, there were days when he didn’t get up to go to school. He guesses he missed school more than he attended in fifth and sixth grade.

One day, Denham’s great-grandmother had enough of his mother’s inability to take care of her children. She called child protective services and had them removed.

One brother went to live with his father’s family. His younger sister bounced around between foster homes. Denham was placed in a home with a single mother to her own biological children as well as several foster children in El Sereno, a neighborhood in east Los Angeles.

"When I moved into the foster home, just being around everybody that wasn’t like me, not being from that culture, I was just like, 'What’s the point?'" Denham said. "'Everybody’s different. I don’t fit in this area because it’s predominantly Hispanic.' I was like, 'I could at any moment just leave.' But I didn’t do that. I stayed positive and just focused. I had a goal. My goal was to do my best and make it to the NFL."

Denham started to see football as a way to reach his goals when he started excelling at the sport in high school. He says he used football as a "father figure." There he had structure and learned morals. Back then, he was a lanky wide receiver who drew comparisons to Randy Moss. But it took more than his athletic ability to accomplish that -- that was another lesson Denham learned.

He passed the classes he took in high school, but was missing a core class he needed to qualify to play at a Division I college. So Denham went to East Los Angeles College instead and worked his way up to a Division I program.

"Very shy, very reserved kid that didn’t talk much," said Nick Garrett, then an assistant at East L.A. College who recruited Denham. "Just kind of kept to himself a lot. He had a hard time trusting people and dealing with people. ... My impressions of Anthony, he’s a quiet kid, very respectful kid. Once you earn his trust, he would run through a brick wall for you."

Denham became a two-time junior college All-American, the top receiver in junior college and earned scholarship offers from a handful of schools. He chose Utah, where he could stay close to his home but also leave the state.

This past winter, his size (6-foot-4, 235 pounds) and pass-catching ability got him invited to the NFL scouting combine, but he was described as raw by NFL.com analyst Nolan Nawrocki.

It’s another challenge in a life that has been full of them.

Late in high school, Denham reconnected with his siblings. He’s now reconnected with his mother, too, who he didn’t see for several years.

"It’s better now, because I’m more mature," Denham said. "I see her situation, and I know sometimes you can’t beat drugs. It’s really up to her. It’s all in her head. She’s been in and out of jail a majority of my life, but every time she sees me she can’t do nothing but cry. That’s all she can do, because she’s just, I’ll say, motivated by what I’ve become from where I came from.

" ... I look at it all the time like, man, I’ve been through hell and back. Honestly, I’ve really been there. I’ve always managed to find positive and upside to every negative situation. You know what they say in math, a negative and a negative is a positive. So everything that happened negative turned into the situation I have today."

Tania Ganguli

ESPN Houston Texans reporter

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