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2020 NFL Draft: Jeff Gladney's optimistic approach to the grind

NFL.com's "Why I Play" series provides a thoughtful peek into the minds of the next generation of NFL players to better understand what drives them to make it in the league. Other prospects included in this series: TCU DT Ross Blacklock, Auburn DT Derrick Brown, Florida edge Jonathan Greenard, USC OT Austin Jackson, Utah CB Jaylon Johnson, Wisconsin RB Jonathan Taylor and Michigan LB Josh Uche. Today's featured prospect is ...

2020 NFL Draft standing: Gladney sits at No. 46 on NFL Network draft analyst Daniel Jeremiah's ranking of the top 50 prospects.

Prospect bio: The New Boston, Texas, native started eight games in 2016 as a redshirt freshman, recording 46 tackles and six pass breakups. Gladney earned honorable mention All-Big 12 the following season (28 tackles and two interceptions, including a pick-six). He received second-team all-conference notice in 2018 after posting 41 tackles and tying for the team lead with 13 pass breakups. Gladney recorded 31 tackles, one INT and a Big 12-leading 14 pass breakups in his senior year, a performance that resulted in first-team all-conference honors.

This interview, conducted on March 11 at NFL Network in Culver City, California, was condensed and edited for clarity.

How I started

I started playing football around second grade. I played all sports growing up, but I liked hitting people. I couldn't do that in basketball or track, so I kinda made football my focus. I figured out that football was going to be my thing around sixth or seventh grade, but I still played a lot of sports. I have a sports family on both my mom's and dad's side. Everyone is a sports fanatic and football is one of the favorites. I have three older brothers who all used to play football. I remember watching my brother who's closest to me in age take a punt return back when he was in high school, and I remember thinking, "Yeah, I'm gonna do that."

Who inspires me

My family. They've given me the world and I feel like it's my time to return it. My mom and dad and uncle and aunt haven't missed one game in college. Not one. No matter where the game is at, they've always been there. They will still be at every game going forward.

I want to get my family out of the [area where they live]. They don't want to leave but I want them to leave. I'm trying to get my mama that house on the hill, so whatever I gotta do to get her out of there, that's what I'm gonna do. My drive has always been predicated on my family, just returning the favor. Not really even a favor. Just returning the support and all they've done for me.

My mentor

My uncle, Wayne Jefferson. He was my coach in everything growing up for a lot of AAU sports -- football, basketball, a little bit of track. He just taught me the game in every phase and in every sport and still does to this day. Even in college, when I went to the locker room, he'd be texting me from the stands, like "you could probably do this or that better." No matter what it is, he's texting me giving me information. It's constructive criticism most of the time. I know he's going to tell me what I need to hear. Other people are straight up with me, too, but he's the one who I really take what he says to heart because we've been rockin' for too long.

My greatest challenge

I tore my ACL and LCL in the first round of the playoffs my senior year in high school, and TCU held my scholarship, so that helped a lot. But redshirting my first year at TCU, not playing and being out of football kind of pushed my confidence down a little bit. I had to come back from that and grow. The recovery was a long process and I wasn't full-go until the spring of my freshman year. It felt great to be back and to show everybody that I had it in me the whole time. When I first got to TCU and was initially coming back from my injury, some people questioned why I was on scholarship. But when I took my brace off that next spring, I felt like myself again and it felt good to express myself on the field the way I wanted to.

Everything happens for a reason and the grind will always pay off. So coming out of this surgery on my meniscus [which Gladney underwent on March 12), I'll be ready to go rehab and get back to 100 percent. That feeling that you get when you wake up on game day. Those butterflies. I live for that.

Follow Brooke Cersosimo on Twitter @BCersosimo.

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Los Angeles Chargers quarterback Justin Herbert (10) rushes during an NFL football game between the between the Kansas City Chiefs and the Los Angeles Chargers, Sunday, Sept. 20, 2020, in Inglewood, Calif. (AP Photo/Peter Joneleit)

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