TULSA, Okla. -- Robert Meachem's path to the NFL began on an 8½-acre farm he's owned since birth. The barn and small arena where his father first taught him how to rope calves are gone, but the memories endure.
Now that the former Tennessee wide receiver is being projected as a potential first-round pick in next month's draft, he's thinking about sprucing up the place.
"I'd like to build my mom a nice, big house right in the middle," said Meachem.
For Meachem's family, this piece of land on the edge of town once served as a sanctuary from a north Tulsa neighborhood prone to gang violence and fear. At age 22, he's already experienced tremendous loss, but he says the lessons he learned while working on the farm and his deep spiritual beliefs have seen him through.
About 25 years ago, Leon Meachem announced that his first grandson would inherit the farm at birth, and Robbie, as he's referred to by family and friends, was first on the scene in September 1984.
Every day after work, Robert and Beverly Meachem would take their son and his older sister, Tammie, to the farm.
Robbie Meachem received his first horse, "Little Man," when he was 3, and was roping calves by the time he turned 6. His father was an accomplished calf roper, and the two of them traveled to rodeos in California, Nevada, Texas and Louisiana.
When not at the farm, Robbie practiced his roping skills around the house.
"He used to rope his cousins by the feet when they'd try to leave the house," said his father. "It got to where everyone would look all around for him before walking out the door."
Robert and Beverly built a large barn and a small arena surrounded by tall light poles that allowed father and son to rope well past midnight.
Robert, who favors a black felt cowboy hat, remembers the first time his son was thrown from a horse.
Robbie loosened the reins and his horse took off. When he fell off the back of the horse, his father heard a loud thud.
"I thought that horse had stepped on my baby," Robert said. "But he just cried for a little bit and then climbed back on. I guess that's why I never worried when he got hurt in football."
Robbie's other passion as a child was basketball. His father put up a 10-foot goal and refused to lower it when his son complained it was too high. One day Robert looked out the window and saw Robbie shooting baskets while sitting on his horse.
Robbie said it never occurred to him that he was one of the few kids from his predominantly black neighborhood roping calves. It was something that had been passed down from his maternal great grandfather to his father, Robert, and then to him.
"Cowboys don't really see race," said Robert. "And that's one of things I loved about it. It's just a different culture."
As he walks across the property, Robbie speaks in almost reverent tones.
"This is where I learned to have discipline," he said. "And it's where I started talking to God all the time."
A sister's love
Robbie's sister, Tammie Brown, was 12 when he was born. She was Beverly's daughter from a previous marriage.
Tammie had been diagnosed with severe asthma as a baby and doctors said she probably wouldn't live past 5.
Tammie and her mother made hundreds of trips to the emergency room over the years. At one point, doctors even recommended Tammie go to a special hospital in Kansas where she could live in a "bubble" designed to control her breathing.
In addition to battling asthma, Tammie also had a skin disease that caused her to lose layers of her skin. Beverly finally had to pull her out of school permanently because of the teasing she endured.
Because of all the attention she had received over the years, Tammie was extremely jealous when Robbie was born. And that led Beverly to make an unorthodox decision.
"I moved his crib into her room and let her take care of him," she said. "I had to let her help raise him or she may have ended up hurting him."
Tammie's unique style of tough love had a lasting influence on her younger brother. Tammie, who had befriended several gang members in her neighborhood, was determined to make Robbie tough. She would punch him in the chest because she wanted to see if he'd cry.
"She told me I wasn't going to be no punk," said Robbie, who has a large tattoo of him and his sister on his chest. "She didn't want me to be scared of anybody."
Robbie was in the seventh grade when his mother showed up at school one day with the news he'd always dreaded.
"He caught me in his arms," Beverly said, "and told me we were going to be all right. He grew up right then."
Robbie said he still has conversations with his sister when something is on his mind.
"She was everything to me," he said.
Meachem dealt with his sister's death by pouring himself into sports. His Carver Middle School football team lost only one game in three years and his basketball team went 42-0.
"It was like a grown man playing against little boys," said one of his football coaches and mentors, Khalid Lowe. "We'd run a 38-sweep and he'd purposely reverse field several times just to keep from getting bored."
In basketball, he helped lead his AAU team, the Tulsa Jammers, to a national title the summer after eighth grade. The following season, the Jammers met up with a team led by a talented kid named LeBron James.
"We wondered why the gym was so crowded," said Jammers coach Albert "Buck" Buchanan Jr. "Then LeBron took the opening tip and dunked on Robbie. I said, 'Uh-oh, that boy's in trouble,' but then Robbie took it down and dunked on LeBron."
Already 6 feet tall, Meachem was one of the tallest players on the team, but Buchanan decided to move him to point guard. He led Tulsa's Booker T. Washington High School to back-to-back state titles in 2001-02. The main thing that prevented him from being a top recruit in basketball was an inconsistent jump shot.
After a brilliant high school football career, Meachem was named to the Parade All-American team and at least one major recruiting service ranked him as the No. 2 receiver in the nation.
His mother wanted him to stay close to home and play at Oklahoma, but he wanted to play at Tennessee. At one point, the two barely spoke.
Meachem believed Tennessee sent more receivers to the NFL, and he wanted to experience life away from home. He told his mom he wasn't going to college if she forced him to sign with Oklahoma .
"It's the first time we'd been really mad at each other," she said. "I remember crying all the way home when I dropped him off to take his visit to Tennessee."
Almost immediately after signing with Tennessee, Meachem suffered a serious setback. He tore the meniscus in his right knee during preseason practice and had to undergo season-ending surgery.
The following two years, he didn't live up to expectations. He had 25 catches for 459 yards and four touchdowns in his redshirt freshman season and only 29 catches for 383 yards and two touchdowns his sophomore season.
He blamed himself when his position coach, Pat Washington, was fired after the Vols went 5-6 in 2005, saying his drops played a role in the decision.
Washington's replacement, Trooper Taylor, said he had some major questions about his receivers.
"Sometimes the worst compliment you can give someone is to talk about how much potential they have," he said. Taylor told Meachem to lose 10 pounds because "he looked like a fullback."
For the first time since arriving on campus, Meachem began displaying some emotion.
When he beat talented cornerback Jason Allen in practice, he threw the ball into the stands and did a little good-natured jawing.
"He called me before his junior season and said, 'I love football now,'" said Beverly. "It was like he suddenly had a passion for it."
Meachem finished the 2006 season with 71 catches for 1,298 yards and 11 touchdowns and was a third-team All-American.
Deeply spiritual, he fasted for two days before deciding to forgo his senior season and declare for the draft.
"Jesus fasted for a lot longer than that," Meachem said. "I think I could make it a couple of days."
Meachem asked his mother, Lowe and longtime friend Carlos Foster to narrow a list of 40 agents down to four before he met with them following Tennessee's bowl loss to Penn State. He chose Jeff Griffin, who represented the late Darrent Williams, the Broncos cornerback who was killed in a shooting in Denver in January.
After spending time at Athletes' Performance in Tucson, Ariz., an elite training facility where top prospects prepare for the draft, Meachem had an impressive showing at the combine. He recorded a 4.39 in the 40-yard dash, but that wasn't good enough for him.
"I was mad because I wanted to run a 4.2," he said. "I did it in Arizona and I felt like I could've done it in Indy."
That's about as close as Meachem comes to being brash. He was so reserved during combine interviews that a few teams worried about his confidence level. But he quickly cleared that up with the way he competed during drills at the combine.
"He's the prototypical receiver," said Jeff Ireland, the Cowboys' vice president of college and pro scouting. "He's physical, he's fast, has good hands and has the versatility to play different positions."
Meachem doesn't have a preference for where he could end up, but he already knows what his first purchase will be.
"I'm getting mom an emerald green Lexus with gold trim," he said. "That's the one she's always wanted."
Not a bad choice for a farm vehicle.
Matt Mosley covers the NFL for espn.com. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.