ST. PETERSBURG — In four days of practice for the East-West Shrine Game this week, Pierre Desir has gotten used to the squint directed his way.
Players in the senior showcase game wear the same white or blue jerseys but get to wear their college helmets; a source of pride from Notre Dame's gold to Miami's "U." And in Desir's case, an occasional raised eyebrow of curiosity from coaches, teammates and pro scouts.
The "LU" and Lion on the cornerback's black helmet stand for Lindenwood, a Division II school in the St. Louis suburb of St. Charles where Desir played his final two seasons. He finished his career with 25 interceptions and an unusual path to the NFL.
Desir, 23, is projected as a third- or fourth-round pick in May's NFL draft by cbssports.com. But he knows this week gives him his first real chance to show he can line up against athletes from the big schools.
"I have to show I can keep up with them even though I'm from a small school," said Desir (pronounced deh-ZEER), a 6-foot-2, 206-pounder who was born in Haiti and moved to St. Charles with his family when he was 4. "This is my competition. It doesn't matter who is lining up against me. I know I have a job to do. I have to line up and compete the same way to help my team win."
Desir was recruited by I-A programs, including Missouri and Michigan State, out of high school. But he didn't qualify academically and chose Division II Washburn (mascot: the Ichabods) in Topeka, Kan., where he redshirted in 2008 and was an All-American in 2010.
Desir and his then-fiance could not support themselves and two young children, so he decided to return to St. Charles, where his parents could help with the children while she worked and he played in town at Lindenwood — even if it meant sitting out another season.
His success continued after the year off with nine interceptions in 2012 and another four this past season as quarterbacks threw less to his side of the field.
"He's improved a tremendous amount," said Kent Maugeri, his defensive backs coach at Lindenwood. "The ceiling for him is huge. His technique, his footwork has improved every year, and he has things you just can't coach. Confidence is not going to be an issue. We've been blessed to have him here."
Now within a few months of a potential job in the NFL and the financial windfall that comes with that, Desir's motivation is, again, his family. He lost a grandfather and cousin in the Haiti earthquake of 2010 and remembers the helpless feeling he had, unable to help relatives to the better life he has in the United States. Now he wants to give the best life he can for his daughters, now 6 and 3.
"That's everything," Desir said. "They're the reason why I get up, why I push harder, give one extra rep. I have to provide for them, and they're my motivation for everything I do."
Desir was honored after his senior season with the first-ever Cliff Harris Award, given to the nation's top small-school defensive player and named for the former Dallas Cowboys star who played at tiny Ouachita Baptist.
Desir also can look to Philadelphia Eagles cornerback Cary Williams, who played at Washburn and just completed his fifth season in the NFL. Desir has an invitation to the NFL combine in Indianapolis, where he can show his speed — 4.45 seconds in the 40-yard dash.
"I know I'm going to run fast," said Desir, who grew up a soccer player like his father, not playing football until his freshman year of high school.
Back home in St. Charles, the people who know Desir best will look for his No. 3 jersey on the NFL Network during Saturday's game, smiling at the Lindenwood helmet on TV and excited for the future that awaits him.
"He's not just the best player in Division II, but I believe he's the best person," Maugeri said. "He's the hardest worker in our program, a yes-sir, no-sir kid. He's truly earned everything he's gotten just by outworking everyone around him."