TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Their road begins with disappointment. If they're lucky, it ends with a fresh start and a chance at a promising future.
Terrence Cody remembers the day he learned he wouldn't be going to a Division-I college. The nearly 400-pound defensive tackle's heart sunk as his high school coach relayed the news.
Football wasn't the problem. School was. After sitting out two years to improve his grades, he hadn't done enough. Scholarship papers with the likes of South Carolina, LSU and Florida State wouldn't be worth the ink they were printed on. The ACT and SAT tests were what stood in his way.
His dream, like so many other top prep prospects in the country every year, was put on hold. It was off to a junior college to get his grades right and fight for another opportunity down the road.
"It was very frustrating and depressing," Cody said. "I was very excited being recruited by those top D-I schools and play on television and all that stuff. Then my coach told me I wasn't going to be able to sign because of my grades. That was disappointing because I was very excited and had everything right."
Instead of going to Columbia, Baton Rouge or Tallahassee, Cody packed his bags for Perkinston, Miss., to attend Gulf Coast Community College.
"It took a while, probably about two months for it to really settle down for me," Cody explained.
Homesick was the phrase he used most often to describe how he felt early in Mississippi.
"It was a typical freshman, first day at college, kind of scared, didn't know what was going on, didn't know what to do," he said.
After a while, the pain subsided, reality set in, and Cody remembered why he was there in the first place. One disappointment was all he could suffer through when it came to football. Another wouldn't be tolerated.
"I looked at it as a responsibility," he said. "You're there to go to school and play football, but mostly to get that education. I didn't want to go thousands of miles from home just to be a bust.
"I was kind of upset, but then I was willing to do anything to be successful and get out of the neighborhood I was from."
In 2007, his second year at Gulf Coast C.C., the attention from college coaches returned. The offers were back on the table, the opportunity at a future within his grasp.
Cody signed with Alabama and the rest is history. The thwarted field goal known as "Rocky Block" against Tennessee in 2009, the All-American awards in both his seasons with the Crimson Tide, getting drafted by the Baltimore Ravens. There's pride in those accomplishments, but like any player who has gone through the junior college system, there's pride in that, too. There's pride in taking the road less traveled.
Up a hill, through a valley
William Jones is something like a shepherd for lost athletes, the ones like Cody with purpose and talent but no place to call home. The associate head coach and main recruiting coordinator for East Mississippi Community College seeks out kids with something missing.
On a Thursday in late September, he's lined up more than a dozen athletes with some type of flaw. Usually it's grades, sometimes it's other circumstances. It's never talent. Every one of the kids who steps into the coach's office has interest from Division I schools. Jones claims at least 10 of his players could end up at BCS schools.
There's Nickolas Brassell, who starred at Ole Miss as a freshman before academics forced him to transfer.
"God put me in a place like this with people like this to get me better," he said. "I just look at it that way. I think I've grown a lot."
Behind him, there's Darius Cummings. He's hoping his time in Mississippi pays off, too. The 6-foot-2, 301-pound defensive lineman had an injury-riddled career at Florida State before he decided to leave and hopefully preserve another year of eligibility.
"All those kids have aspirations," Jones said. "The big thing for them is understanding sometimes to get to your goal you have to travel down a different road, you have to go around this curve, up this hill, around this plateau and in the valley to get where you're going.
"If you have some substance to you -- some mental toughness, some physical toughness -- then you can make it to a school like an Alabama by hard work and commitment."
One of Jones' biggest success stories is playing defensive end for the No. 1-ranked Crimson Tide right now.
Quinton Dial signed with Alabama out of high school in Pinson, Ala., as the No. 28 defensive tackle in the country in 2009. Like Cody and countless others, the SAT and ACT stood in the way. And like Cody, he put in his time and came out on the other end wearing crimson and white.
"He's a guy that came here right out of high school and handled his business," Jones said of Dial, who he said he thinks of as a son.
"I love him to death. He's as great an example as anybody we've had."
Dial isn't the only player to come through a junior college and end up contributing at Alabama. This year there are two other such players starting on defense for the Tide: Jesse Williams and Deion Belue.
'A short stay'
When Belue finally got on the field in an SEC game at Alabama, it was a special moment, a dream realized.
"It was a great experience, seeing all the crowd," he said. "It was just the excitement of the first game and it was against Arkansas."
Belue finished the game with a tackle for loss and a pass breakup. He's started every game this season.
His contribution to the top-ranked defense in the country shouldn't have come as a shock for a player who wasted no time reminding fans why Alabama coaches liked him so much in the first place, signing him as a three-star athlete in 2010. Grades forced him to attend Northeast Mississippi Community College for three semesters before enrolling at Alabama in February. In his first-ever scrimmage in late March, he returned an interception for a touchdown.
Before long, it was clear he would be the starter from Week 1.
"I had the confidence the whole time," Belue said, "It was just the fact that I did get the pick six in the first scrimmage so I knew that that was going to give me a little edge, so I was really confident after that."
He said it wasn't easy getting to this point in his career, as the road from high school to junior college to Alabama wasn't the smoothest of paths.
"I was anxious just about the whole time," Belue said. "I just couldn't wait and I just had to stay on top of everything so then I can make it here."
In Boonesville, Miss., he learned a lot and focused on what it would take once he got to Tuscaloosa. Like Cody, it was a matter of staying patient and remembering what he was doing there in the first place.
"It's just a thing of just staying humble and just paying attention to details and just gave me that extra step coming in," Belue said. "It worked out for the best."
Through five games, Belue has cemented himself as the starter and a playmaker on defense. Like DeQuan Menzie before him, he looks like another UA cornerback capable of making the jump from junior college to the pros.
Menzie made the leap look easy. Cody did, too. Both left Alabama saying, "Roll Tide!" but they also departed remembering the road that took them to the promised land of the NFL. It wasn't easy, but a rocky path builds thick skin.
"I'm proud of the way that I went," Cody said.
The Ravens second-string nose guard will make a base salary of $630,000 next season before entering the free-agent market, where he will likely demand a much higher price tag.
"The junior college route I took kind of built the character I have today. It made me the man I am today because of the things I had to do and the things I was trying to accomplish there.
"I had to grow up fast and had to mature fast because I only had a short stay there."