- Ashley Fox
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Sandra Poe took the day off. She was nervous. Her youngest son was running the biggest race of his life. She had to see it. Driving a school bus would have to wait.
So when Dontari Poe rocked the NFL scouting combine in February by running the 40-yard dash in 4.98 seconds at 6-foot-3 and 346 pounds, Sandra Poe jumped up and down screaming, alone, so happy she could cry. Her boy, that round 9-pound, 2-ounce baby that she somehow kept off the streets of Memphis and out of the trouble that landed her middle son in prison, was fast.
Soon, he will be rich, too.
Combine performances can be the NFL's version of the one-hit wonder, particularly when they don't mesh with a player's performance in college. Is the player a physical freak? Does he simply test well? Was the college system he played in not designed for his particular skills? Were there circumstances out of his control?
Anything can happen. A defensive tackle in college, Poe vaulted up draft experts' boards because of an explosive combine performance and his unique combination of size, speed and flexibility, not really because of anything he did during his three seasons playing for the University of Memphis.
Will he pan out? Will he be like Vince Wilfork or Haloti Ngata, or will he be a bust? After that 4.98 40, some team will take a chance on Poe. Some team will be wooed by the high ceiling, not deterred by the low floor. Some team will use a first-round pick on Poe. Some think that team will be Carolina, with the ninth pick overall.
"I think he's a 20-to-32 guy, but when people are looking for a big, old stud, before you know it he can move up," said one NFL personnel person. "There's an element of rawness that has people wondering. This is the kind of guy people would love to take in the second round, to get out of the pressure that he has to perform."
To Poe, that isn't pressure. Pressure is not having food to eat or a place to live. It is watching your big brother carted off to jail on drug and gun charges. It is growing up without a father as an active participant in your life. It is watching your mother struggle to make ends meet. It is living in a dangerous neighborhood in a city where trouble is easy to find, if you want it.
The NFL? That is business, and Poe can handle his business. If that blistering 40 time proved anything, it was that.
Developing a big advantage
The fact is Poe had run fast before. One summer while in high school, Poe went to a 7-on-7 tournament at the University of Alabama with his football coach, Cedric Miller. Poe wasn't playing in the tournament -- he was a defensive tackle and offensive lineman at Wooddale High School -- but Miller, having recognized Poe's potential, wanted to expose the youngster to a college environment.
And Miller knew kids were safer out of town in the summer than with idle time in Memphis.
Poe ran a 40-yard dash at Alabama. Already 300 pounds, he was clocked at five seconds flat.
"I saw that potential then," Miller said. "I always knew he was going to run a good time, but I didn't know it would be as fast at the combine."
The third of Sandra and Robert Poe's three sons, Dontari grew up in the rough Whitehaven section of Memphis. Sandra moved the boys there after leaving her husband of 17 years and moving temporarily into her mother's two-bedroom apartment.
When he wasn't tapping on a snare drum, Dontari tried to keep up with his brothers, Pierre, now 28, and Robert Jr., now 26. Neither took it easy on their baby brother.
Poe was always big. A big baby. A big toddler. A big kid. And he loved to eat -- pasta, hamburgers, chicken, whatever his mother put in front of him. One day in fifth grade, Poe came home from school upset that some boys had called him "little fat boy."
"He was a little self-conscious about his size, because he got teased about it," Sandra Poe said. "I would just tell him to use his size to his advantage. Don't let them make it your disadvantage. Make them wish they was as big as you."
Kids also teased Poe and his brothers about their shoes and their clothes -- and about being poor.
"There were times I didn't know how I'd pay my rent," Sandra Poe said. "We were walking or catching the bus in cold, bad weather. There were times I couldn't keep my lights on. I didn't even have money for my children for field trips. I didn't have $5. That really bothered me. Or going to the grocery store and you can't buy them a candy bar. You have to explain to your child that you can't get them the best shoes. They want Nikes and Air Jordans, and you can only afford Walmart or the dollar store.
"They got teased, but my children really encouraged me. They didn't whine or complain. As young as they were, they understood their mama was doing the best she could. I just made sure I gave my children my attention. We can all give something. I felt I could give them my love and attention."
The summer before Poe's freshman year at Wooddale, Miller spotted him practicing with the band. Miller asked the bandleader who Poe was, then told Poe to report to football practice the next day.
Poe had never played a snap.
He was so massive that the only helmet that would fit his head belonged to a senior offensive lineman. Poe spent his freshman year learning the game, and then started the next three seasons on both sides of the ball.
It suited him. On the football field, it was OK to be big. It was an advantage.
"I couldn't get enough," Poe said. "I stayed on that."
And he stayed out of trouble. Before Poe graduated, his brother Robert was arrested for aggravated burglary and cocaine possession. Up until two months ago, he was serving most of his sentence at a federal correctional facility in McCreary, Ky., and once a month, Sandra, Dontari and Pierre would drive six hours to the facility, visit with Robert and then drive the six hours back home.
Robert recently was transferred to a prison in Memphis. His family now sees him weekly.
"He was the one always telling me not to do what he was doing, which was kind of weird, in a sense, because he was doing it," Dontari said. "He was always telling me not to use drugs. He was the one who kept me out of trouble in Memphis.
"Trouble can find you in Memphis."
Miller knows about that trouble. He also grew up in Whitehaven. He understands what he calls the "potholes" and "traps" in Memphis. The poverty. The drugs. The crime.
"I taught Robert at Wooddale, and the streets had him," Miller said. "It was so tough. He loved it, and that street life had him. Don saw that and I think Don wanted to do better. He didn't want to make those same mistakes. Football was his avenue to release all his frustrations going on in his in-house life. He released it on the football field. That's where the passion and drive and the 'want to' came from. 'I don't want to be like them. I want to be better. They're still my brothers and I love them to death but I'm going to show them the right way, by performing.'"
Workouts versus production
And so Poe ran.
He went to Memphis because he wanted to stay home, close to his mother and brothers. He also was academically ineligible as a freshman. Poe earned the requisite 24 hours and was eligible for the 2009 season. He started 30 games during three seasons for two head coaches on teams that went a combined 5-31. Poe opted to leave with one year of eligibility remaining.
"I don't think we used him quite the way we should have," said former Tigers defensive line coach Mike DuBose, who coached the Alabama defensive line from 1990 to 1996 and was the Crimson Tide head coach from 1997 to 2000. "We didn't put him in the best situations, but he never complained about it
"He's a great young man and potentially the best defensive lineman that I've ever coached. I've never been around anybody as big, strong, explosive and flexible. To me, the flexibility part is the part that's rare."
The quickness doesn't hurt. Neither did his 44 bench press reps of 225 pounds at the combine.
To prepare, Poe spent two months training at Athletes' Performance in Phoenix, learning how to properly start the 40-yard dash, how to stay low and drive his legs through the first 10 yards, how to keep his legs up and lean forward through the middle 20 yards and how to fight through the fatigue and finish strong in the last 10 yards.
"It was really something that I kind of knew I could do, I just had to do it at the right time at the combine," Poe said. "Proud of it. Proud that I did what I came to do. I was excited about it. A lot of people were shocked and surprised about it."
Which leads to the obvious question: Why doesn't the game tape match the combine work? As a junior last year, Poe finished with 33 tackles, including eight for minus-26 yards. He managed one sack.
"There's no question teams have to be very mindful of not being overly wooed by his performance in shorts at the combine," said Atlanta Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff, whose club does not have a first-round pick this year. "Ultimately, this is about how a player produces on the field. You have to take into consideration his entire collegiate career, but human nature is to look at that workout at the combine and you light up a little bit and think, 'Wow, maybe this guy is significantly better than we gave him credit for.'
"That's where teams have to be careful evaluating outstanding workouts. It's imperative the combine workout is synonymous with the play on the field."
ESPN draft experts Mel Kiper and Todd McShay have Poe going No. 9 overall to Carolina, but on Monday NFL Network draft expert Mike Mayock said he moved Poe down his board, saying, "Coming off the combine, I wanted to show people what a freak this kid Poe is, and he is a physical freak, no doubt. However, the tape is very average, so how do you match the two up -- potential versus his actual game footage?"
Poe doesn't care where he goes. He said he is looking forward to a change of scenery, to leaving home really for the first time. Sandra Poe said Dontari plans on living with his twin 22-year-old cousins and his oldest brother because, "They're not wild kids. It's not like I'm going to be concerned."
Sandra lives in a two-bedroom duplex in East Memphis now, but she is looking forward to moving elsewhere and finally being able to buy a home. In January, two weeks after Sandra turned 50, Dontari flew home from Arizona and surprised her with a new 2012 Cadillac Escalade.
All those sleepless nights spent worrying about money? Gone.
"It's already starting for her," Dontari said.
And it is starting for Dontari, too. He interviewed scores of agents before settling on Jimmy Sexton of Creative Artists Agency. He put in eight-hour days in Arizona preparing for the combine. Now, he waits. He will be in New York for the draft, with his cousins and brother and mother. He has never been there, but "I heard it's a bright city," Poe said.
He isn't the fat kid anymore. He used his size to his advantage, just like his mother taught.
"He just be serious about it," Sandra said, "and he lets anybody around him know, 'It's not a game to me. It's my livelihood. I can help my mom, my brothers. We don't have to struggle.'
"That's the main thing Dontari kept in his head. He got tired of seeing his mother struggle. He got tired of seeing his mother work hard. That's a blessing for my children to notice. I just wouldn't think children would pay attention to that. I was really surprised. To me, it was just a way of life. I guess he was determined that wasn't going to be his way of life."
Defensive tackle Dontari Poe's big combine performance raised his draft stock -- and questions about his production in college, writes Ashley Fox.