Sharrif Floyd tackles his difficult past with eye on a better future

GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- On the eve of his next chapter, before he caught a ride to the airport in his high school guidance counselor's car for a flight that would help permanently carve his way out of a rough Philadelphia neighborhood, Sharrif Floyd had a story to tell.

Sharrif Floyd escaped his North Philly neighborhood for Florida, where he starred for the Gators.
Sharrif Floyd escaped his North Philly neighborhood for Florida, where he starred for the Gators. (Kim Klement/US Presswire)

So he and his grandmother, Lucille Ryans, sat down for a conversation neither one has since forgotten. Floyd, a defensive tackle who is now one of the best players in the 2013 NFL Draft class, told Ryans about his hidden past. About the abuse, both physical and mental. About the solitude and anguish of his youth, experienced both at home and during his early years in school.

"Oh, I remember that conversation," said Ryans, 76, who's been living in North Philadelphia since 1975. "I told him he could be better than all of that, to not let any of it stop him."

His grandmother reciprocated with stories of her own childhood, when her mother pulled her from school to pick cotton. Ryans showed him her thorn-scarred fingertips and her dirt-stained knees, two eternal reminders of a tough youth spent in the fields.

We all have scars, she told him. Some exist on our bodies. Some exist in our minds. But none of those scars stopped her. And none will stop him, either, she said.

"I idolized her right then and there," Floyd said last week during an extensive interview with NFL.com. "Even to this day, she's still grinding and working hard to make ends meet. And I think it's about time for her to relax a little bit and enjoy the rest of her days."

It is his life's mission to help her do exactly that -- a goal he can continue to realize Friday at his pro day when he performs for scouts and general managers on the football field at the University of Florida.

Inspired In Solitude

The basement was small, but at least he was alone. His solitude was the blessing and the curse that came with the days he spent down there, where Floyd could escape the man who, he said, made his childhood most difficult.

This is where Floyd lived: in a tough neighborhood, in a tough home, with a tough man who, Floyd would later find out, was not even his biological father. This is where he lived, unaware that his real father had been murdered when he was 3 years old.

Floyd liked being alone, even if it was often forced upon him. He could think and focus; he could cultivate his drive and plan his escape route from the North Philadelphia neighborhood that stained his eyes with shootings and drug deals and impoverished circumstances.

"It was just me, you know?" Floyd said. "And it was great. I mean, I had a lot of time to think to myself. No one really asked how I felt about anything or how I was doing about anything. But if I could change anything in my life, honestly, I wouldn't change a thing."

That's perhaps the best way to explain Floyd. It isn't natural to see the good in the bad or find the right in the wrong. It isn't normal to digest an incomprehensible past and find any positive in the situation.

Yet Floyd found it. He used it. And now, with general managers and scouts across the NFL drooling over his football potential, he is on the verge of making the most of it.

"People want to make excuses, saying some guys are just the products of their environment," University of Florida coach Will Muschamp said. "Sharrif Floyd defies that theory. There is no reason he should be the kid he is right now. His background is as tough as anyone I've been around."

How tough? How challenging?

Floyd was bullied as a boy before gaining confidence in himself through football.
Floyd was bullied as a boy before gaining confidence in himself through football. (Courtesy of Sharrif Floyd/NFL.com)

Not until he was 15 years old -- between his sophomore and junior years of high school -- did he learn the truth: The man who'd scared Floyd through years of harsh rules and harsher punishments was not actually his dad. His mother dealt with a drug addiction. And his real father was dead.

The man Floyd believed to be his father was in and out of jail while Floyd was living in that house. Floyd moved out upon learning the truth, but that man has since attempted to denounce Floyd in the wake of his football success. Those closest to the situation, those who helped Floyd out of it, say they all too often witnessed Floyd's troubling and disparaging past -- a past that somehow still molded a person driven to succeed.

"Through all of it, Sharrif never made excuses," said Andre Odom, a close friend and mentor who also dealt with the hardships that came with growing up in the North Philadelphia area. "He was just a really mature guy who went about his business."

Finding Football

For years during his youth, Floyd's size made him a target for ridicule from fellow classmates. He weighed 160 pounds when he was in the fifth grade. His pants were often missing buttons because they were worn out, and he had no way to replace them.

"I was already at an age where my pants didn't fit around my thighs and hips, so those buttons would break and my pants would constantly be falling down," Floyd said.

Sometimes, he'd skip classes just to avoid the bullying and scorn. Floyd switched schools once, but he eventually ended up back in the same place. He remembers a teacher once calling home to suggest Floyd shower more often.

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But as he grew -- both in age and size -- athletics entered the picture. Floyd started playing basketball, which led to football, which led to a meeting in his coach's office during his freshman year of high school at George Washington.

"My high school coach (Ron Cohen) sat me down and said, 'Pick a number,' " Floyd said. "I asked him, 'What number has nobody done anything with?' He gave me four numbers, and I said, 'Alright, 73.' And that was the number I made mine."

Floyd's ascent was rapid. He began dominating opposing players with his size and power. Suddenly, his life felt different, as if it had more purpose. It was then, Floyd recalls, that he had a momentous revelation: Football might be the answer to his hardships. This might be his way out.

"Growing up, I had a lot of anger inside me and wanted to get rid of it," Floyd said. "But I feel as though everyone has anger in them. What do you do with it? Do you go out and rob a bank? Do you go out and just hit somebody for no reason? That's not what I wanted to do. So I took it to practice."

His love of the game was instant, a bond that, he says, is stronger than everything in his life (well, except for his love of his grandmother).

"I can't get enough of it, even the smell of the grass," Floyd said. "You hit somebody, and they'll slide in the grass. And you'll get up, and you've got mud on your face, and you're just pulling it off. And you want to do that again."

So Floyd did it again. And again. And again.

With The Help Of Many

With his high school career flourishing, Floyd received an invitation to the U.S. Army National Combine -- a rare opportunity for someone from a part of Philadelphia that is not often scouted for its football talent.

Floyd, who had been splitting time between a number of neighborhood homes since moving out of his childhood home, wanted to go, but he knew he didn't have the money to get there.

So Floyd's guidance counselor, Dawn Seger, had an idea: They would sell brownies to raise money for the trip.

"We just started making and baking brownies with the special education kids at the school," Floyd said. "Mixing the batter, cracking the eggs, the whole deal. And we sold them.

Floyd first hit the national scene at the U.S. Army All-American Bowl, which features the best high school players in the country.
Floyd first hit the national scene at the U.S. Army All-American Bowl, which features the best high school players in the country. (Courtesy of Sharrif Floyd/NFL.com)

"I went to that combine, and I left as the top-rated defensive tackle in the country."

That situation sheds light on perhaps the most important aspect of Floyd's rise through football: It was accomplished with the help of a group of people who, because of his own kindness and work ethic, wanted relentlessly to see Floyd succeed.

Cohen, his high school coach, helped open lines of communication with colleges. He also allowed Floyd to sleep at his house some nights. Other times, he'd drive him wherever he needed to go after practice, whether that meant to his guidance counselor's home, his grandmother's place or somewhere else.

"As soon as he found out that that man wasn't his father, his life changed for the better, but it still required help," Cohen said. "The school rallied behind him. His counselor (Seger) even took him in for a while. He was with the right people."

Another one of those people was Odom, who became a mentor in his life. Yet another was his trainer, Greg Garrett. And another was Kevin Lahn, a multi-millionaire businessman who stepped into Floyd's life at just the right time.

Through a non-profit called the Student Athlete Mentoring Foundation, Lahn helped Floyd find his way to the University of Florida, funding recruiting trips for the impoverished senior in high school.

Lahn was also the man who, after the NCAA stepped in to say he couldn't continue financially assisting Floyd despite his circumstances, legally adopted Floyd so he could continue to make sure Floyd had what he needed to pursue his NFL career.

"He didn't have a sense of family other than his grandmother," Lahn said. "We wanted to show him that as part of our family. And he'll continue to be a part of our family for the rest of his life. He's such an incredible young man."

Paying It Forward

This January, on the heels of his decision to bypass his senior season to pursue his NFL career, Floyd took out a full-page advertisement in the Gainesville Sun to thank the fans who had supported him during his transition to a new life.

Why? For the same reason he also flew up to Philadelphia recently to attend a small ceremony for three players at his high school who signed their letters of intent to play college football. And the same reason that, on the Saturday after last month's impressive performance at the NFL Scouting Combine, he told teams he had to bounce in time to get to a bat mitzvah for Lahn's niece.

"He's only 20, and he's already a mentor to so many young people," Lahn said. "He's always humble, and he's already wanting to give back, talking about setting up scholarship programs for kids with similar backgrounds that he came from."

Floyd says he will never forget his roots; he'll never forget his childhood. He said it would continue to drive him to do good things for people. He learned how to make the right decisions by simply despising all of the wrong he witnessed as a child.

Whether he was watching a person get shot or watching his friends score quick money selling drugs at an early age, whether it was the bullying he took in school or the abuse he took at home, his experiences molded him.

And now, he wants to find ways to replace the hate that he saw with his own love.

"The type of bad that you see on a normal basis is not the normal bad I've seen," Floyd said. "Growing up, I was abused by my father. And now, I can't wait to have kids because I didn't have a father that took me to play baseball or took me to concerts and things that a father should do."

Floyd: 'I Can Be One Of The Greats'

Off the field, Floyd is poised to be a role model. He says he knew he'd find a way out of Philadelphia -- whether through football or another avenue -- and he wants to show others that they, too, can escape their hardships with the right approach.

On the field, however, Floyd is a beast.

"He's the complete package -- a player who has all of the tools to be great in this league," one AFC general manager said. At this year's combine, Floyd ran a 4.92-second 40-yard dash (fast for a defensive tackle) while showing he possesses feet that are quick enough to make him useful all over the field.

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"He has great position multiplicity, meaning he can play in several different places and schemes," said Muschamp, a former NFL assistant. "He's an ascending player, as far as his inside play on the line. He has great initial quickness and great football intelligence."

As a result, it appears he has a very good chance of being selected with one of the first five picks of this year's draft -- there's even been some talk that he could be taken first overall by the Kansas City Chiefs.

But Floyd isn't sweating the outcome. He knows his time is coming. And he believes he's destined for great things when it gets here.

"I think with more experience, more technique, I can be one of the greats," Floyd said. "And that's my goal -- to leave this game as one of the greats. And probably sometime down the line, to be looked at as a legend.

"So I'm just sitting back ready to get started, ready to show what I can do."

Moving On

After Friday's pro day, Floyd needs only to wait until next month's NFL draft to learn his future. He'll be in New York City for the big day April 25; his grandmother has already marked the date on her calendar.

Floyd made it his mission to help his grandmother, Lucille Ryans, yearning to provide her with a better life.
Floyd made it his mission to help his grandmother, Lucille Ryans, yearning to provide her with a better life. (Courtesy of Sharrif Floyd/NFL.com)

She said she'll make the commute from Philadelphia to New York to be there at Floyd's side. She'll wait for her grandson's name to be called. And then she'll remind him that his scars didn't keep him from reaching his dreams.

Because after all that Floyd has endured, after all he has accomplished, he never let the wrong he witnessed keep him from doing what's right. And soon, he'll be able to buy his grandmother a home away from Philadelphia. She thinks she'd like to move to Atlanta. He doesn't know where he'll end up. But they both know they are on the cusp of getting a fresh start.

It has long been Floyd's mission to help himself and his grandmother leave this past behind. They'll soon accomplish that goal together. Even if they both still know they'll never forget their scars.

"You're put in positions to overcome or see what you do in those situations, and it wasn't a good situation for me and my grandmother," Floyd said. "But we stuck together, you know? How do you come out of those hard times?

"We stuck through it. And now, she's getting ready to get out of Philadelphia real soon."

Follow Jeff Darlington on Twitter @jeffdarlington

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