Kenny Tate couldn't have known how fleeting it would be -- those heady weeks after his junior season of 2010 when the NFL beckoned and he made a fateful decision to postpone the career he long imagined and return to Maryland.
It didn't surprise anybody that the NFL was interested.
Not the scouts who projected the 6-foot-4, 218-pound safety as at least a second-round draft pick, one likening him to former NFL Defensive Player of the Year Troy Polamalu of the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Not his envious Maryland teammates, who called him a "freak" because he possessed a basketball player's height and hops in a football player's imposing frame.
And certainly not Tate himself.
When he was in elementary school, his mother, Michelle Fields, hung a painting of a little boy that reminded her of Kenny in his bedroom. Dressed in overalls, the boy naps in the grass clutching a football in his tiny hands. Above his head — in a thought bubble representing a dream — a football player in a red and white uniform strides powerfully down the field of a vast stadium.
Tate couldn't help but see himself in the picture.
"It was over my head the whole time I was growing up," he says. "The thing is, I actually wore those colors in college — red and white — and the same No. 6 as the player in the picture. The picture was like a dream."
But today, at 23, the little-boy dream has been overtaken by big-boy reality — by a troublesome right knee that required syringes to periodically drain it, and, later, a cartilage transplant from a cadaver to heal it. By the disorienting experience of having three defensive coordinators and two head coaches and switching positions three times while at Maryland.
College is supposed to be about beginnings, not endings. But in the multibillion-dollar business of college football, some prodigies get used up before ever making a dime.
Tate — back living with his mother in the family's modest brick rambler in District Heights — appears caught between loving the sport and being victimized by it. Looing back, he says he believes collegiate athletes deserve to be paid a stipend. But his challenge now is to keep looking forward and not allow his life to be defined by what he left on the table. (Excluding signing bonuses, the minimum base salary for players entering the NFL in the 2011 season was $375,000.)
Nearly a year after his fifth and final college season ended, Tate still gets up, dons workout clothes and heads to a college or high school field with a trainer for sprints, backpedaling and other drills intended to make his body NFL-ready.
He's preparing for an audition that might never come.
'A team player'
Before taking his position for the opening kickoff of his college career, Tate allowed himself to survey the scene. It was 2008 and Byrd Stadium was nearly filled. "It doesn't get any better than this," Tate recalls thinking to himself.
But college was not going quite as he imagined.
Tate had barely arrived on campus when he got his first clue that football careers don't necessarily follow predictable arcs. He had been heavily recruited from DeMatha as a wide receiver, choosing Maryland over Illinois, Ohio State and other big-time suitors. James Franklin, then a Maryland assistant and now Vanderbilt's head coach, hooked Tate by showing him a PowerPoint presentation on how the Terps could be expected to spread the ball around to Tate and the other receivers.
But as his first training camp was opening, Tate and his parents were summoned into then-head coach Ralph Friedgen's office and asked whether he was willing to switch to safety to bolster the secondary's depth.
Considering Division I games are akin to preliminary NFL tryouts for the best players, position switches — particularly from one side of the ball to the other — can make or break careers. But Tate readily agreed to the shift.
"I'm always going to be a team player and I'm always going to listen to my coaches," says Tate, who possesses a subdued, almost shy countenance off the field.
Tate was 18 at the time and seemed even younger. He didn't even own his own alarm clock before arriving at the dormitory suite he shared with five other Terps, including current Ravens wide receiver Torrey Smith. He had always relied on his mother to wake him up.
Tate was placed in a program — then called the Intensive Learning Program — designed to get athletes up to speed academically. Because of their special skills — in Tate's case, football — many in ILP were admitted to Maryland without the same academic credentials as other students.
Tate struggled at times with his studies, often falling asleep in his dorm with the light on and his schoolwork spread out in front of him.