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Lavonte David’s bittersweet offseason marked by a graduation, grief

Shortly after earning his college diploma, the veteran Bucs linebacker lost his dad to cancer.
Lavonte David (54), pictured Monday alongside fellow linebackers Cam Gill (49) and Kevin Minter (51) and defensive tackle Vita Vea (50), lost his father to liver cancer earlier this summer.
Lavonte David (54), pictured Monday alongside fellow linebackers Cam Gill (49) and Kevin Minter (51) and defensive tackle Vita Vea (50), lost his father to liver cancer earlier this summer. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]
Published Jul. 26
Updated Jul. 27

TAMPA — Clouds and breezes were the two most glaring no-shows on Day Two of Bucs training camp. For the participants, purgatory disguised itself in a pewter helmet.

“(The heat’s) unreal,” said second-year right tackle Tristan Wirfs, who dropped five pounds during Monday’s workout (according to the AdventHealth Training Center scales). “Look at the flags, they’re not moving at all.”

Naturally, the triple-digit heat index elicited the normal rhetoric from players and coaches: It’s all mental. Just grind through it. Don’t let it defeat you. Lavonte David, who is from Miami, took such exhortations to heart long ago — before his was broken.

Humidity, in fact, is but a small ingredient of what David’s trying to endure these suffocating days. A few weeks back, the 31-year-old veteran’s surreal year was infiltrated by sadness.

Five months after winning Super Bowl 55, and two months after earning his degree and graduating from the University of Nebraska, David lost his father. Edward Nelson succumbed to liver cancer, he said Monday.

“Everything was so high,” David added. “And then all of the sudden, life just turned around.”

As training camp progresses, cramping will diminish, crispness will increase and a championship team that returns every single starter will develop even more on-field clairvoyance. David, however, might still be grinding through some things.

“He’s so big with family, he just talks about the family and what he’s done,” Bucs inside linebackers coach Mike Caldwell said. “He’s such a giving guy. It’s been just a bunch of stories of just relationships with his entire family.”

Nelson’s death came slightly more than five years after David lost his mother, Lynette David, at age 56. He completed his degree in criminal justice to fulfill a vow he had made to her, receiving his diploma at a May 8 ceremony — Mother’s Day weekend — at Lincoln’s Memorial Stadium.

His dad was able to attend.

“I made a promise to my mom, I made a promise to a lot of people around me that I was going to go back and get my degree,” David told reporters during the Bucs’ minicamp in June. “Not too many people from my neighborhood where I grew up were able to go to a university and do that. I was the first generation in my family to do that. I felt like it was a big weight lifted off my shoulders.”

Only weeks later, he lost the man he called a constant presence in his football career.

“You see a clip on the Super Bowl, the first thing I said was, ‘Where’s my daddy at?’ I wanted to enjoy that moment with him,” said David, who in March signed a new two-year, $25 million deal with the team that drafted him No. 58 overall in 2012.

“The good thing about it is, he loved watching me play football. He was there for me every step of the way since I was in little league — at every football game, every practice. So my joy is to come out here knowing that he helped me get to this point, and I know he’s still watching me while he’s up there.”

Buoyed by his dad’s memory and spirit, David, whose 82 tackles ranked second only to fellow inside linebacker Devin White (97) last season, again will anchor an inside unit projected to be deeper in 2021.

He and White again will be complemented by veteran backup Kevin Minter (229 career solo tackles, six sacks). Joe Jones, who evolved from undrafted rookie to steady role player (49 games in four seasons) in Denver, signed a one-year deal in May.

The Bucs also drafted Auburn’s K.J. Britt and Houston’s Grant Stuard in the fifth and seventh rounds, respectively.

“They’re willing to learn,” David said. “They ask us questions. Certain guys ask me how to play certain things, so they take coaching really well.”

Not that added depth will affect David’s workload. In four of the last six seasons, he has played at least 98 percent of the team’s regular season snaps on defense, including 99 percent each of the last two years.

“When you’ve got good ones, you don’t want to take them off the field, and he’s a good one,” Caldwell said. “So I guess we’ll let that motor keep running.”

David would have it no other way. During this sweltering period of transition, he’s coaching himself as hard as anyone — to persist, to grind, to push through his fresh grief. After all, Edward and Lynette are watching.

Only now, they have the best view in the house.

“Me and my family, it was hard on us for the most part, but at the same time we were able to get a little closure from it,” David said. “So we definitely had our good times while he was here. We definitely had our heart-to-hearts and stuff with him, so you definitely feel good about that.”

Contact Joey Knight at jknight@tampabay.com. Follow @TBTimes_Bulls.

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