TAMPA — Finally, incredibly, knock-on-wood blessedly, there are no obstacles between Donte Spires and college football again.
USF's senior linebacker is eight days away from the season, a walk-on recently rewarded with a scholarship by coach Skip Holtz. His presence on the team might go unnoticed, except by all the people who know the path he has taken to get there and the adversities that would have stopped others years ago.
"It's kind of amazing, after all he's gone through," said Robert Weiner, his coach in 2004 at Plant High. "I'm not sure where that spring of persistence comes from, but it's one thing he's always had. He keeps plugging along and keeping his head in the right direction."
Think of all the possible adversities a college football player can overcome, and Spires' personal checklist is nearly complete. Academic struggles? Financial hardships? Sacrificing personal goals to attend to family issues? Hurricane Katrina? Spires has survived them all.
"It has been a long road, but he has prevailed," said Susan Gray, a guidance counselor at Plant who loves Spires like a son. They met when he was a junior in her homeroom at Plant in 2003.
On the South Tampa campus of more than 2,000 students, Spires stood out, not because he was a talented football player, but because of everything else he somehow juggled into a hard, busy life.
Here was a 16-year-old who was going to night school to help get his academics strong enough for a college scholarship, who was working as a line manager at McDonald's, all while playing football. Each day, she saw him drive a cousin and aunt with him to school; both of them are in college now as well.
Spires signed with USF in 2005 but didn't have the scores for admission, so he signed with Pearl River Community College in Mississippi, just north of New Orleans. Just as his freshman year was starting, the campus was devastated by Hurricane Katrina, which caused more than $30 million in damage to the campus and washed away most of his modest possessions.
Unsure if he'd have a football season — or even a fall semester there — Spires returned home and took part-time classes at USF's St. Petersburg campus. Susan and her husband, Stanley, who played linebacker at the U.S. Naval Academy and served 11 years in the U.S. Marine Corps, took him under their wing. They set him up with an apartment, and Stanley taught him how to cook, how to budget his expenses, how to be even more independent than he was growing up.
He returned to Pearl River the next spring and was a junior college All-American in 2006, earning his associate of arts degree and joining the Bulls on scholarship in 2007.
He totaled 16 tackles that season as USF rose to No. 2 in the national rankings, but right before the Sun Bowl in El Paso, Texas, he made the difficult decision to quit the team, deciding he needed to get a job to help attend to family issues. Spires declined to elaborate, but Weiner said the decision was "pure altruism."
He worked 50, even 55 hours a week, bouncing from a construction job to shifts as a valet at the Moffitt Cancer Center. Money aside, that gave him humility and perspective, motivating him as he went to USF's campus each day, but not as a football player or even a student. If he started to feel badly for himself, he was reminded that for all his struggles, he was taking keys from people going through chemotherapy or visiting family members battling for their lives.
He resumed classes and returned to USF football last year, going through two-a-day practices, only to find out he hadn't passed enough classes to regain his eligibility last fall. Coach Jim Leavitt told him he could join the team in January on scholarship, but then Leavitt was fired at the start of the year, again casting Spires' future in doubt.
"Another speed bump," the 23-year-old said. "Whatever doesn't kill you makes you stronger."
His dedication this spring and summer left a strong impression on Holtz, who gave him a scholarship at the start of fall camp. Spires will not only contribute on defense, but all over the special teams units, working on kickoff return as well as the punt and kickoff teams.
"I wish I could coach him for three more years," defensive coordinator Mark Snyder said. "He bought in. He turned his whole life around, changed his body. I couldn't be more proud of him. He's one of those stories. … This is what it's all about."
Holtz sees Spires, 6 feet 1 and 220 pounds, as the kind of senior leadership he's hoping will carry his team in his first season with the Bulls. He has never seen Spires play in a game, but likes the model he's set for his teammates off the field.
"He has a lot of those intangible traits that you look for in a successful football player," Holtz said. "He's quiet, very reserved. He's not a real rah-rah guy. But I have a great respect for him, for what he's overcome. His name is never on my desk, he's never late, never in trouble. He's a great young man, and I love him."
His high school coach has seen other Plant grads find greater success in college and beyond, but Spires is one former player that Weiner always likes to see around his current players. Seeing Spires persist and succeed, they have no excuses to give up themselves.
"For so many of my kids, when they're battling through anything that comes their way, Donte is a great example for them," he said.
He'll take the field next weekend — his No. 56 jersey one off from the No. 55 he wore three years ago — changed in many ways and eager to make the most of a hard-earned opportunity.
"I have to keep staying focused, keep putting in the extra work," he said. "I appreciate this a whole lot. I want to contribute as much as I can. It's about not making the same mistakes, and when my number is called, to do great things."