Before signing the papers that bound him to the Florida Atlantic football program, Devin Santana let out a slow, deep breath.
The Sickles High all-county defensive end was the most relieved person in the room Wednesday, and after scribbling his name, the second-most relieved person in the room, his mother, Jackie Santana, came up behind him to pose for pictures.
They were happy. Overjoyed, really.
But mostly relieved.
What a journey, Santana thought to himself.
• • •
He had college coaches telling him they loved him.
They loved his video.
They loved his stats: 101 tackles and 14 1/2 sacks.
"We're going to offer you," they would tell him, then they wouldn't, leaving Santana to wonder why not.
The recruiting process, difficult for many and for many different reasons, was an arduous one for the senior.
He had done everything he could, after transferring from Jefferson his sophomore season.
He got his grades in order. He wasn't so mouthy in the classroom. He was, well, a better person.
"I just wanted a chance," he said. "I just wanted to do better."
Santana thought those things, and the hard work he was putting in at football practice, and the big numbers he was posting, would pave a smoother path to this day.
It doesn't work that way, though.
"When I was younger, I always watched these guys signing, on ESPN, and it was something I wanted to do," he said. "But I didn't think I was going to get to have that dream."
He had failed to get into Albany and New Hampshire, two small schools that wanted him. South Dakota and UConn had sniffed around last week. And even Florida Atlantic couldn't seem to make up its mind, thinking Santana was a bit too slightly built at 6 feet 3, 220 pounds.
He had been to two Florida Atlantic camps, and the previous staff liked him before it was fired.
The new staff liked him, too, and coaches said they were going to get him in for a visit.
Then they said they were full.
Then they called again.
"A roller coaster," Santana said.
The friends he had grown up with, played alongside, such Josh Black and Ray Ray McCloud III and Alonso's Ish Witter, they were set. They had choices, options, certainty.
Santana had given up, he says, sometime two weeks ago. But a conversation with Plant quarterback Colby Brown, who was facing some of the same problems, convinced Santana to keep his head up, to keep working out, to stay hopeful.
"I was scared," he said.
Florida Atlantic called last week. Again. The Owls wanted a closer look and invited him on an official visit.
His mother, an assistant principal at Cannella Elementary, took him to Boca Raton. They met with coaches, toured the campus, got their hopes up.
It felt like their last chance.
On Super Bowl Sunday, they met with coach Charlie Partridge before they were to head back to Tampa.
"I cried, of course," Jackie said. "All that hard work, finally something coming through."
Santana pointed toward the folder that held his signing papers.
His eyes were red.
That was his fresh start. The false starts, the empty promises, the cloudy future, just a footnote.
"It was tough, it was really tough," Santana said. "But this washes all that away. I'm ready."
John C. Cotey can be reached at [email protected] Find him on Twitter @JohnnyHomeTeam.