TAMPA — On the mid-November night when USF honored its 23 seniors with a pregame ceremony on the Raymond James Stadium field, only 22 participated.
Nose tackle Deadrin Senat, who had been without a parent more than two years, didn't want to engage in such a familial moment with a proxy. So on a night of pageantry, pomp and recognition, he chose to go unrecognized.
"I couldn't walk in with my parents, (and) I felt like nobody can replace them," Senat said.
He didn't remain absent for long. After the introductions, ovations and tearful embraces, Senat took the field with his peers and paid tribute to his folks with one of the best games of his career. By night's end, he had collected a career-best 13 tackles and registered half a sack in a 27-20 victory against Tulsa.
"It was very emotional," he said.
More than two hours to the south, in Senat's hometown of Immokalee, a legally-blind pastor welled up every time he heard ESPN's broadcasters mention a big play by No. 10. Homer Betancourt, a 49-year-old married father of six, loves Senat as if he were his seventh.
"I cry when I hear his name," Betancourt said. "I cry a lot."
Even with a Birmingham Bowl victory Saturday against Texas Tech, this outgoing Bulls senior class won't finish with the most victories in a four-year span in program history. At 32 wins, it remains two shy of the group that finished in 2009.
But just because it won't be the winningest class doesn't necessarily mean it won't be remembered as the most triumphant.
And few have triumphed like Deadrin Antonio Senat, who proved one can conquer tragedy, destitution and waywardness with friends, faith and fortitude.
"I cannot believe that the kid that I took care of, that I first met, became a man," said Tony Navarro, an Immokalee businessman whom Senat considers another of his mentors. "I'm amazed by the person he is."
'I saw him crossing the street'
In some ways, Senat's backstory parallels that of quarterback Quinton Flowers, who also was raised in a hardscrabble area (Miami's bleak inner city) and lost both parents at an early age.
The youngest of three kids, Senat was entering his freshman year at Immokalee High when his mom, Judy, died suddenly of complications from a spider bite. A robust woman who struggled with diabetes, Judy's leg was badly swollen by the time she finished her half-hour walk home from her job as a manager at Popeye's.
She collapsed shortly thereafter and died at the hospital that night, Deadrin said. She was 45.
"My sister was living with her," recalled Senat, whose parents weren't living together at the time. "So my sister called the cops and the ambulance came and they said they revived her, and then she passed out again. We went to the house, waited two or three hours, and they told us she was dead."
By that point, Senat already was spending an exorbitant amount of time on the streets of Immokalee, a farming community on the Everglades' north border that still produces a bulk of the nation's tomatoes.
He fought, created mischief and seemed destined for the same dead end as his older brother, who found himself in and out of jail. He lived with his dad, but Guy Senat sometimes had to travel to Haiti for long stretches to tend to his sick mother, leaving Deadrin to his sister, Manaika, or to his own devices.
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"When I was younger, I was just trying to fit in," Senat said. "And I wasn't around the guys who lived life right."
Then, more suddenly than gradually, an assortment of positive influences converged.
Around the same time Senat lost his mother, Betancourt, whose struggle with diabetes hadn't yet robbed him totally of his eyesight, spotted him crossing the street from Immokalee Middle School to the high school. Inexplicably drawn to this burly adolescent, he asked one of his children who he was.
"He just looked like a big, gentle giant, and I invited him to the house to come eat with us," said Betancourt, associate pastor at Family Prayer Center of Immokalee. "I invited him to go to church with us, and that's where it started. I saw him crossing the street."
It was during this time period that Senat also tried organized football for the first time, at the insistence of Immokalee High coach Israel "Izzy" Gallegos. During Senat's freshman season on the Indians varsity, Gallegos gave him a lift home every day after practice.
A year or so later, Senat was working out alone at a local gym when he spotted Navarro.
"He approached me and he asked me if it was okay for him to work out with me," said Navarro, who owns an Immokalee-based trucking business. "I would say it was something like God brought him towards me. … And let me tell you, ever since that first day, I could never get rid of him anymore."
Before you could say it-takes-a-village, Senat had a community nurturing him. Suddenly, he had structure (in the form of a football program), mentors, spiritual advisors, and places to eat or sleep when the need arose.
"They played a big impact on his life and a lot of other people's life, especially Homer," said USF senior tailback D'Ernest Johnson, one of four Immokalee High alumni on the current Bulls roster.
"Homer was the pastor at one of the churches down in Immokalee, and we always used to go there, hang out and have a church service, and after that he'd bring all the guys over and eat dinner with 'em and stuff like that. He'd be at all the football games. He never missed a high school football game.
"Him and Tony (were influential). Tony right now has a big impact on (Senat). He's like a father figure."
Over time, this sprawling surrogate family had helped mold a four-star football recruit with a 500-pound bench press. A two-way starter, Senat had 89 tackles, three sacks and five pancake blocks as a senior, earning Class 5A first-team all-state honors and helping lead Immokalee to the 5A state title game.
Miami, FSU, South Carolina, North Carolina State, Nebraska and many others courted him. But Willie Taggart, hired as USF coach only a week or so earlier, attended Immokalee's state title game and convinced Senat to join him in trying to resuscitate the Bulls.
"And once he told me that I was just like, yeah, that's an opportunity to go and create history instead of just being a part of something that was already established," Senat said. "And I took that and ran with it."
Grief vanquished on the gridiron
After two abysmal seasons, Taggart and the Bulls were on the verge of their breakthrough when Guy Senat died of cancer on Sept. 15, 2015. A forklift driver in a packing house before becoming too ill to work, Guy also was a heavy smoker, his son said.
Days before Guy's death, Deadrin missed practice and sped home to be at his father's side. His final words to Deadrin: Go play in the game.
"After he died that night, I took some time to myself and just let it process," said Senat, who keeps his dad's ashes in his bedroom. "The next morning I slept in my car, told my sister and them about it and what not, then I drove back up the next day … and practiced."
Four days after Guy's death, in a 35-17 loss at Maryland, Senat led the Bulls with nine tackles, including one for a loss.
"When his dad passed, I think he put all his frustration in training … to make himself a better football player," Navarro said.
Buoyed by his Immokalee support system, and bent on honoring the memory of his mom and dad, Senat evolved into a cornerstone of the USF defense and one of the team's strongest players (he has squatted 675 pounds). He even brought his sister — who then had two small girls — to briefly live with him.
In 2016, he earned the Bulls' defensive MVP award and second-team all-American Athletic Conference honors. Earlier this year, he graduated with a degree in interdisciplinary social science.
This past fall was his finest as a Bull.
Despite being ejected twice in USF's first three games for targeting, he still finished second on the team with 61 tackles. In a last-second loss to Houston, he had a career-best 12 tackles, four tackles for loss and 2.5 sacks. His monstrous effort against Tulsa followed less than two weeks later.
"Deadrin has what we call brute strength," USF defensive end Greg Reaves said. "I don't think really anybody in the conference can block him. Basically, you single-block him, just leave the center on him, I don't think they really have a chance."
Senat will play his final college game Saturday in the Birmingham Bowl, then begin preparing in earnest for a shot at the NFL. In between, he'll likely spend Christmas with Manaika, now a self-supporting mom of three. He'll probably also get in a workout or two with Tony, then pop in on Herman, who is sure to weep at the first embrace.
This is Senat's family — bound by blood, sweat and tears.
"To this day I give them thanks, because I'm a guy from Immokalee who made it out, and I want to see a lot of other people make it out," Senat said. "It's a small town, but there's a lot of guys who have got talent. There's a lot of guys who are brilliant. Just with a little guidance and a little help, anything's possible."
Contact Joey Knight at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @TBTimes_Bulls.
Texas Tech (6-6) vs No. 23 USF (9-2)
Legion Field, Birmingham, Ala.; Saturday, noon
TV/radio: ESPN; 820-AM