TAMPA — Long before he made the leap from tiny Heidelberg University to the Bucs' 53-man roster, there was a time even Division III football seemed like a long shot for Donteea Dye.
On Oct. 8, 2010 — five years ago nearly to the day — midway through his senior year of high school in Ohio, Dye dislocated a knee and tore the ACL, MCL and meniscus. After the injury, his only college offers were from two in-state Division III schools he had never heard of: Marietta College and Heidelberg.
"I was on crutches when they came to see me," the rookie receiver says. "They said to rest as much as possible and when you feel like you're ready to play football, we'll give you that chance. All I needed was a chance."
Five years later, the same is true. Even after catching 14 touchdown passes as a senior at Heidelberg, he needed help to get on the NFL radar, spending $150 to register himself for a regional combine in Chicago, wowing scouts with his speed.
He went undrafted and came to the Bucs as a tryout player. He showed enough in a weekend rookie minicamp to earn a contract. One of five rookie receivers in training camp, he missed the final cut but earned a spot on the practice squad, where he spent the past four weeks.
When the Bucs prepared to face the Saints in Week 2, it was Dye who donned a No. 10 jersey to simulate the speed of receiver Brandin Cooks. He played the part well enough that Monday, after a receivers meeting, a Bucs staff member was waiting for him in the locker room.
"Donteea, you've got to come upstairs," the staff member said. Realizing the look he got from Dye, who feared he'd been cut again, he smiled: "It's good news."
Coach Lovie Smith said Dye's speed "will give us something that we haven't had." Receiver Vincent Jackson called Dye a "grinder." Offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter raved about the way he has won coaches over since the spring.
"He's a guy that worked his way up — made the team, undrafted rookie, worked very hard in practice, flashed every day in practice," Koetter said. "He makes plays against our defense in practice. He's going to get some time, and we'll see what he can do.
"He's got some juice; he's got some confidence. It'll be a big week for him. He's playing in his first NFL game. He's come a long way. I'm proud of the guy. You've got to admire what he's accomplished. It's a good story."
Tell Dye he can't do something, he sets forth to prove you wrong. He struggled catching deep balls early in college, so he started carrying a tennis ball around campus. He squeezed it as he studied to improve his grip strength, he bounced it for hand-eye coordination, and he even learned to juggle to help him learn to catch when other things could distract him.
"I can juggle four," said Dye, who after each Bucs practice in training camp would lay on his back and have passes thrown to him to work on his hands. "Me and my receivers coach in college, we'd have juggle-offs in the middle of practice. It definitely helps. (Bengals receiver) A.J. Green does it all the time."
They're pulling for Dye back at Heidelberg, whose nickname is the Student Princes. The enrollment is about 1,300, smaller than that of Dye's high school, Fairfield, north of Cincinnati. His last game in college, he played to a crowd of 2,230. Sunday, he'll play in front of close to 50,000.
Among those in attendance will be his proud parents. Donteea Sr. was 18 when his son was born, and Lemonda was in her last month of pregnancy when they graduated from high school. They worked at the same grocery store to help pay the bills, with Dye's father always his coach growing up.
He remembers the year Donteea Jr. took up soccer instead and they had three football coaches knock on the front door, begging him to go back to football. "He's only 10!" his father said, but sure enough, the football team went undefeated that year.
Donteea Sr. has worked the past 15 years at the AK Steel mill in Middleton, driving a train. The mill was happy to give him time off to see his son's first NFL game.
"They always say, 'Tell him he has a whole steel mill behind him,' " Donteea Sr. said. "There's maybe 2,500 of us working there. They ask me about him every day, 50 questions at least. But I love talking about him."
Dye wears a T-shirt that says "BERG" under his jersey, proud of the small college that helped him reach the highest level of football. Back home in Ohio, they were talking about him long before he got the big news Monday.
"I'm always proud of him," his father said. "He enjoys life. He strives to be the best at whatever he's doing. He doesn't complain. He's humble. Everything you see, that's how he is, every day, all day."