Steve SMITH, SR.
Baltimore Ravens | 10.07.2015
A 15-year NFL career. A source of pride. A testament to the ability to withstand the mental and physical toll of the game, year in and year out.

For Baltimore Ravens wide receiver Steve Smith Sr., the end of his NFL journey isn’t a time for retrospection, but a chance to prove to everyone he is still at the top of his game.

As talented (and vocal) as he is, Smith had to take a long and unconventional road to NFL stardom. Raised in Los Angeles, he started his collegiate football career at Santa Monica College, playing alongside future star receiver Chad Johnson. But it wasn’t just about football.

“It was a lot of bus riding,” said Smith. “I worked at Taco Bell. I just grinded out. In that journey I had some pitfalls and things I had to work on, and things that I had no control over.”

Smith kept his focus on academics and football, eventually transferring to the University of Utah. In his two years with the Utes, Smith compiled over 1600 receiving yards and 12 touchdowns. His stellar career at Utah led the Carolina Panthers to select him in the third round of the 2001 NFL Draft. All Smith did in his 13 years in Carolina was become the Panthers’ all-time leader in receptions, receiving yards and receiving touchdowns.

But Smith had to start fresh when the Panthers unceremoniously cut him in the 2014 offseason. He eventually signed with the Ravens and became an immediate contributor to the team. For Smith, his intensity on the field all stems from his competitive nature.

“I’ve just really felt comfortable being uncomfortable,” he said. “Understanding that I’ve got to play at a high level all the time because there’s someone right now—a young guy in college—who wants my job. So for me, I’ve got to outwork him.”

Despite posting over 1,000 receiving yards and six touchdowns in his first year with the Ravens, Smith decided that the 2015 season would be his last. Smith said he’s looking forward to traveling the world, and even putting on a pair of skis in Switzerland.

For the boisterous wide receiver, the NFL has been a place of opportunity and a venue for personal evolution. Smith said there is one key piece of advice he’d give to his rookie self, if possible.

“Sleep on your answers a little bit more,” Smith said. “There were too many times I kind of made decisions based on emotions. Now, I make them based on facts and less on emotions.”

With a Hall of Fame-type resume and passion for the game, the fact remains that Steve Smith has been one of the best wide receivers of his generation. And whenever Smith’s season comes to an end, he’ll embrace the new journey that lies beyond the football field.

Steve Smith grew up in Los Angeles and started his college football career at Santa Monica College before transferring to the University of Utah. (University of Utah)
During his two years with the Utes, Smith compiled over 1600 receiving yards and 12 touchdowns. (University of Utah)
After a successful stint at Utah, the Carolina Panthers selected Smith in the third round of the 2001 NFL Draft. (Associated Press)
In just his third season with the Panthers, Smith put up over 1100 receiving yards and helped lead the Panthers to Super Bowl XXXVIII. (Associated Press)
After being cut by the Panthers after 13 seasons, Smith signed with the Baltimore Ravens and had 1,000-plus receiving yards in his first year with the team. (Associated Press)
Aqib Talib
Denver Broncos | 10.21.2015
Humbling. Competitive. Gratifying.

For Denver Broncos cornerback Aqib Talib, the NFL has truly been the fulfillment of a lifelong dream; one that has seen the Pro Bowler go from playing football on the streets of Cleveland to lacing up on Sundays in the Mile High City. But bringing his dream to fruition wasn't as simple as wishing upon a star. It required sacrifice, dedication and, above all, a commitment to his family.

By his own admission, Talib's childhood in Cleveland was a difficult one. Surrounded by drugs and violence, it was a tough neighborhood for any child to grow up in. Some would've used that as an excuse for going the wrong direction. Fortunately for Talib, he had his family guiding him.

"I had a great household. [My mother] always stayed on top of us," said Talib. "She made sure we were in the house at certain times. She made sure we went to school and made sure our grades were good."

Seeing the culture in the neighborhood around him further fueled Talib's desire to create a better life for himself and his family.

Talib's family served as a catalyst for his success. When Talib began playing competitive football after the family moved to Texas, the future NFL star relied on the advice of his older brother to help guide him on the path towards a life in football.

"My brother was three years ahead of me," Talib said. "So as far as SATs and stuff like that, he would tell me the process. You' got to get certain grades and have a certain SAT score to get to college. So, my brother kind of showed me the way to go in order to get to the NFL."

Talib's football career led him to the University of Kansas, where in three years he compiled 13 interceptions, leading the Tampa Bay Buccaneers to take him in the first round of the 2008 NFL Draft.

For Talib, getting drafted was the life-changing experience he and his family had been waiting for. But despite finding immediate success with the Buccaneers, Talib had a number of transgressions on and off the field, which overshadowed his play. Looking back on it, Talib admitted the new lifestyle of the NFL played a role in some of his troubles.

"I had a bunch of money and a bunch of new friends," Talib said. "So, there were a bunch of opportunities to get in trouble, basically. I used to just live like I wasn't in the spotlight."

While serving a four-game suspension in 2012 for Adderall use, Talib was traded to the New England Patriots. With the Patriots, Talib fell under the tutelage of head coach Bill Belichick, which was a blessing for the young cornerback.

"Bill is going to shoot straight. He never bites his tongue. He's going to tell you straight up what he needs from you. I feel like that helped me."

After two stellar years with the Patriots, Talib tested the waters of free agency and eventually signed with the Denver Broncos.

Today, Talib enjoys being the patriarch of his own household, being sure to take time out of his busy work schedule to be with his children and fiancee. For him, it's all about balance and opportunity on his NFL journey.

"It's not just me anymore," said Talib. "I want my babies and my family to be as happy as I am. And so everything I do is to make all of us happy."

Talib played high school football at Berkner High School in Richardson, Texas, where he was a first-team all-district and all-city defensive back.
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers drafted Talib with the 20th overall pick in the 2008 NFL Draft. In his first three years with the Bucs, Talib had 15 interceptions. (Associated Press)
While serving a four-game suspension for Adderall use in 2012, the Bucs traded the troubled cornerback to the New England Patriots. (Associated Press)
In his two seasons with the Patriots, Talib matured both on and off the field thanks to the guidance of head coach Bill Belichick. He earned his first Pro Bowl selection after the 2013 season. (Associated Press)
In his first season with the Denver Broncos in 2014, Talib had four interceptions and two touchdowns. He earned his second Pro Bowl selection following the season. (Associated Press)
Patrick Peterson
Arizona Cardinals | 11.04.2015
Being a household name was never the endgame for Arizona Cardinals cornerback Patrick Peterson when he began his football career in Pop Warner. For a six-year-old playing among eight and nine-year-old boys, it was all about displaying his talents on the field and proving to everyone he belonged. Today, Peterson continues his journey towards greatness, overcoming any and all obstacles that stand in his way, no matter how life altering they are.

Standing 6-foot-1, Peterson is the true embodiment of the prototypical NFL cornerback. With size and speed to match, the fifth-year player out of LSU has already established himself as one of the best cornerbacks in the game. But it hasn't always been easy.

After signing a five-year, $70 million extension with the Cardinals in the summer of 2014, Peterson soon found himself struggling on the football field. Many hurled accusations that the cornerback was playing lazy football now that he'd gotten paid, but Peterson knew it was something else.

"It was very, very frustrating and scary to go through that process not knowing what was going on," said Peterson. "Putting on the massive weight that I put on and not being able to move like in previous years."

Peterson tried to fight through the fatigue, both mentally and physically, but it became too much to handle on his own.

After some testing, it was revealed that Peterson had Type-2 diabetes. For a world-class athlete use to eating whatever he wanted, whenever he wanted, it was a wakeup call to change. For the father-to-be and the oldest of five children, Peterson takes pride in being a role model to others. v "That was another key component into me making sure I did everything the right way," Peterson said about his siblings. "'Is he speaking to elders the right way? Is he handling his business the right way? Is he at school on time?'"

Now, with his diet and weight under control, Peterson has come out this season and once again proven himself to the league and its fans, hoping that people will recognize him as more than just a great football player.

"I want to be remembered as a better person than I was a football player," Peterson said. "I believe if you treat people with respect, it definitely goes a long way and nothing but good things continue to come your way."

Peterson got his start playing Pop Warner football at the age of six going up against eight and nine-year-olds.
In three seasons at LSU, Peterson collected 135 tackles to go along with seven interceptions and 22 passes defensed. In 2010 he won both the Bednarik Award and Thorpe Award as the nation?s top defender and defensive back, respectively. (Associated Press)
The Arizona Cardinals selected Peterson out of LSU with the fifth pick in the 2011 NFL Draft. (Associated Press)
IPeterson was voted to his fourth-straight Pro Bowl after the 2014 season. Peterson has made the Pro Bowl three times as a cornerback (2012-2014) and once as a kick returner (2011). (Associated Press)
INow in his fifth season with the Cardinals, Peterson has amassed 17 interceptions and never missed a game due to injury. (Associated Press)
Lamar Miller
Miami Dolphins | 11.18.2015

Uphold the legacy.

Miami Dolphins running back Lamar Miller not only carries the ball with a purpose, but he also carries the legacy of other great running backs from the Miami area, including Clinton Portis, Edgerrin James and Frank Gore. Miller has embraced the tradition and is willing to do whatever it takes to be the next name in the pantheon.

At age seven, Miller began to demonstrate natural athletic ability, but it became apparent that he was too big, too fast and too good to play with kids in his own age group. He was moved up to play with the older kids. Instead of being overwhelmed he adjusted.

Miller's early experiences on the field helped him develop into a highly recruited player at Miami Killian Senior High School. His mother wanted him to attend the University of Florida, but the tradition of Miami swayed him to stay home and attend the University of Miami. However, Miller faced his first true test of adversity when he discovered he would have to sit out his freshman season after being redshirted.

Miller didn't allow the brief test to sway him from his goals. He did what he had always done: he made adjustments. Miller actually lettered in track and field, posting a personal best 6.78 60-meter dash in 2011. Miller also ran a 4.40 second 40-yard dash.

When Miller got his chance to take the field, he seized the opportunity. In 2011, he rushed for 1,272 yards and scored 10 touchdowns. He was one of the most highly sought after prospects in the 2012 NFL Draft. Through fate or coincidence, the Miami Dolphins drafted Miller. The prodigal stayed home.

"It's been a great opportunity for me," Miller said. "To grow up here, play here in my hometown that I was born and raised in front of my family and friends."

Miller saw limited activity in his first season and it seemed as if his first year with the club was mirroring his freshman season at the University of Miami. He stayed true, prepared for his moment and stayed present. Miller was named the Dolphins starter in 2014 and had the breakout season he knew he was always capable of rushing for over 1,000 yards.

Legacy upheld.

Lamar Miller began playing football at the age of seven and showed early flashes of his athleticism, dominating his peers.
Miller attended Miami Killian Senior High School, and as a senior was selected a Parade All-American. He decided to attend the University of Miami, but redshirted his freshman year. (Associated Press)
Miller rebounded by rushing for 1,941 yards and scoring 15 touchdowns in two full seasons as a Hurricane. The Miami Dolphins selected Miller in the fourth round of the 2012 NFL Draft. (Associated Press)
Although he saw limited duty in his rookie campaign, Miller scored his first NFL touchdown against the Oakland Raiders in a 2012 Week 2 matchup on a 15-yard run. (Associated Press)
Miller took over the starting running back position for the Dolphins in 2014 and rushed for over 1,000 yards. (Associated Press)
Muhammad Wilkerson
New York Jets | 12.2.2015
There's no glamour in the trenches.

But that hasn't stopped New York Jets defensive end Muhammad Wilkerson from playing the position beautifully. Wilkerson is a versatile defensive end who moves his 6-foot-4, 315 pound body with fluidity, power and uncanny agility. His skills and relentlessness at the line of scrimmage have made him one of the best defensive ends in the NFL.

Wilkerson experienced an emotional and spiritual turmoil at the age of 10 when his mother was diagnosed with breast cancer. The moment prepared him to be able to thrive in the trenches of the NFL game. Wilkerson believes his mother's faith and courage helped her survive, and it's become a motivating factor in his career.

"Knowing that she's still here," Wilkerson said. "That's where I get my strength from."

Wilkerson's football journey began at Linden High School in Linden, New Jersey. During his senior season, Wilkerson recorded 78 tackles, five sacks, one forced fumble and one fumble recovery. However, limited exposure for Linden High School football meant limited exposure for Wilkerson. It was another obstacle that Wilkerson would have to face. But experience had taught him resilience.

Wilkerson received one scholarship offer from Temple University and was one step closer to achieving his dream of being an NFL player. Yet, he never had the opportunity to attend any elite-level training camps or combines. So, he made the decision to enroll in Hargrave Military Academy for a year before attending Temple University on an athletic scholarship.

During his junior year, Wilkerson's stock as an NFL prospect began to rise when he recorded 68 tackles, 10 sacks and was a first-team All-Mac Selection.

Destiny was in his favor and his dreams would soon be fulfilled at the 2011 NFL Draft. On draft day, it may have appeared that Wilkerson was about to face another trench. He waited patiently as he was passed over until his hometown New York Jets chose him with the 30th pick.

"Being a local guy and having my family there attend all the home games," Wilkerson said. "I can go home and get a home cooked meal."

Wilkerson started all 16 games as a rookie for the New York Jets in 2011 and posted better than average stats for a first year player. In his second year, he increased his on-field production and has done so each following year. He was selected to his first All-Pro team in 2013, and has remained one of the most consistent defensive ends in the league.

"In the trenches, there's a lot of dirty work and a lot of hard work," Wilkerson said. "That's what I like to do."

The trenches can be a place of struggle and pain, but for Muhammad Wilkerson, they are a place of beauty, healing and consistency.

Muhammad Wilkerson's football career started at Linden High School where he showed early flashes of brilliance. Wilkerson had little to no exposure to elite-level football skill camps, scout combines or academies. However, his toughness and determination helped him earn a scholarship to Temple University.
Wilkerson showed steady improvement at Temple University, earning a starting position in his sophomore season recording 58 tackles and six sacks. As a junior, he recorded 68 tackles, 10 sacks and was named first-team All-MAC. (Associated Press)
In 2011, Wilkerson was selected 30th overall by the New York Jets in the NFL Draft, becoming the fourth Temple player to be drafted by the Jets. (Associated Press)
Wilkerson has been a steady force on the New York Jets' defensive line since he got drafted. (Associated Press)
During the 2013 season, he recorded 63 tackles, 10.5 sacks, two forced fumbles and one interception. He was also selected to his first All-Pro Team. (Associated Press)
Marcell Dareus
Buffalo Bills | 12.16.2015
Mr. Big Stuff

Buffalo Bills defensive tackle Marcell Dareus is a big man. At 6-foot-3 weighing 331 pounds, he's a force to be reckoned with. He also has a heart and zeal for life that matches his large athletic ability and is often symbolized by his magnetic smile. "Mr. Big Stuff" is a fitting nickname for one of the best defensive tackles in the NFL.

How did Dareus become a big-time player? "I've been playing the same position since I was 11 years old," Dareus said. "I've never played anything else but nose tackle or d-tackle."

Dareus had early glimpses of dominance at Huffman High School in his hometown of Birmingham, Alabama as a standout defensive tackle. As a senior, he totaled 117 tackles, 20 sacks and returned a fumble for a touchdown, and was touted as a four-star recruit.

Dareus chose to attend the University of Alabama, but didn't have immediate success. Though he saw limited playing time, it didn't deter him from pushing towards his goals.

"If you're really good at what you do, you do it because you're passionate about what you do," Dareus said.

He got his opportunity to shine on the biggest stage. As a sophomore, Dareus's number got called in the 2010 BCS National Championship Game. "Mr. Big Stuff" came up in a big way, returning an interception for a touchdown and being named defensive MVP.

The passing of his mother, Michelle Luckey, marred Dareus's big moment in the National Championship Game. Luckey died in May, and Dareus, who was on vacation at the time in Miami, rushed back home to be with his family. His mother's passing was just another tragic loss for a man who had already lost his father.

In 2011, after an understandably tumultuous start to his junior year at the University of Alabama, Dareus declared himself eligible for the 2011 NFL Draft. He was projected to be a first-round draft pick.

"I went from being a backup to a number one pick in the draft," Dareus said.

At the 2011 NFL Draft, Dareus was selected third overall by the Buffalo Bills. He signed a four-year deal with the team and started all 16 games his rookie year, registering 5.5 sacks, the most in franchise history for a rookie. In 2012, tragedy struck again when Dareus discovered his brother had been shot and killed. He mustered the courage to move forward. The following season he was named to his first Pro Bowl. In 2014, he recorded a career-high 10 sacks.

There never seems to be a moment on or off field that is too big for Dareus to handle. He's earned the title of "Mr. Big Stuff."

Marcell Dareus attended Huffman High School in Birmingham, Alabama, where he was a standout defensive tackle.
Dareus was a four-star recruit and turned down offers from Auburn and Tennessee to attend the University of Alabama. (Associated Press)
In the 2010 BCS National Championship Game, Dareus was named defensive MVP. (Associated Press)
Dareus was selected third overall by the Buffalo Bills in the 2011 NFL Draft. (Associated Press)
Dareus was selected to the Pro Bowl in 2013 and 2014. He was first-team All-Pro in 2014. (Associated Press)