Northeast Times

Glory bound

NEW YORK — It’s just past 4 p.m. on the first day of the NFL Draft, and in­side Room 410 of Midtown Man­hat­tan’s In­ter­Con­tin­ent­al Barclay Hotel, Shar­rif Floyd is re­ceiv­ing the roy­al treat­ment.

In a dizzying flurry, he is visited by a barber, tailor and jeweler, who have the combined task of making the 20-year-old Floyd look — and feel — ready for prime time. Hip-hop music bumps from a nearby speaker, all but drowning out the honking horns of the Park Avenue rush-hour drivers four stories below.

The windows offer a stunning view for a kid who, at 16, had moved out of his North Philadelphia home to get away from the drugs that danced like demons around his mother, as well as the physical and mental abuse that came from the man Floyd thought was his father. 

Now, nearly five years later, the 2010 graduate of George Washington High School is making his final preparations for the first round of this evening’s NFL Draft at Radio City Music Hall, where Floyd is a hopeful Top-3 pick.

This night, the biggest of Floyd’s Odysseus-like ascent through the high school and college football ranks, is expected to offer a satisfying high point to a story that has the feel of a “Blind Side” spinoff, regardless of where the larger-than-life defensive tackle ends up being selected.

More than a dozen of Floyd’s closest supporters, the ones who helped save him from the darkness enveloping him as a teen, have come from Philadelphia to see him off to the NFL. His adoptive father, Kevin Lahn, nervously taps away on his iPhone, making sure arrangements for a pre-draft dinner at Smith & Wollensky are still in order. Ron Cohen, Washington’s longtime head coach, stands nearby, beaming like a proud granddad. Others floating around the suite are Mike Edwards, Floyd’s middle school coach, and Tauheed Smith, his  mountain of a cousin who was a lineman at Frankford and sports a “Loyalty” tattoo on his arm, a perfect metaphor for the duo’s relationship.

Minutes later, Lucille Ryans, Floyd’s great-grandmother whom he’s called “my rock,” enters the room in a green dress that’s as enchanting as it is classy. Without hesitation, a shirtless Floyd, still in the midst of wardrobe modifications, emerges from his bedroom to share a long, touching embrace with the woman he refers to as “Ma.”

This journey has been anything but conventional for Floyd, and how he got here is not nearly as important as the people who have helped him climb to the highest rung of football’s ladder. 

What matters most is that they all arrived together.

***

“I’ve got a story for you,” said Smith, Floyd’s somehow more towering cousin as he rides aboard a bus that Lahn rented to reunite Floyd and his inner circle in New York. 

Born just two months apart, Floyd and Smith were always more like brothers than cousins, and have been inseparable for years. They played on the same eighth grade football and basketball teams at Harding Middle School, winning a championship in the latter sport. 

Smith was by Floyd’s side through the darkest times, and now, he was going to be on hand for the happiest night of his cousin’s life.

“Back in 2007, in Sharrif’s basement, we were laying around, just talking,” Smith continued. “The one thing we always said was, ‘If one or both of us ever gets to the NFL, we will always be there for each other and we’ll never change who we are.’ Now it’s 2013, he’s going to be drafted in a few hours, and he’s texting me saying, ‘I told you I was going to keep my promise.’ It’s just a dream come true … literally.”

To understand Floyd the football player — and Floyd the man — it’s important to listen to his loyal, impenetrable support network. They all tell tales of a soft-spoken, humble, ferociously driven young man who has always been mature beyond his years. As the hype around Floyd’s football career has grown — Cohen, who just finished his 28th year as Washington’s head coach, called Floyd his “highest-recruited player ever” — he’s stayed the same, even when a scholarship to the prestigious University of Florida made the fame and fortune of the NFL a very realistic possibility.

They were there to make sure he didn’t have to make this journey alone, and in return Floyd hasn’t forgotten them, not for one second.

Hours later, when Floyd stunningly slipped out of the expected top-three picks and fell all the way to the Minnesota Vikings as the 23rd overall selection, his legion of supporters were stationed close by, ready to dish out encouragement.

“It’s not like any of this has jaded him,” Edwards said of Floyd. “To hear his name called anywhere is a beautiful, special thing. He’s been dedicated and he’s put in the work. He hasn’t forgotten the people who have touched his hand to help him get to this point. He recognizes the help, and he keeps you close. He’s a special young man.”

While it certainly will cost him a good amount of money in the short-term, Floyd’s selection by Minnesota at 23 instead of Jacksonville at 2 or Oakland at 3 did nothing to diminish the way his family and friends view him. Floyd is many things, but a disappointment to his loved ones will never be one of them.

“He loves his family,” Smith said. “Everybody in his life has been there for him. He’s just very down-to-earth, real loving and caring. You’ll never see his bad side … unless you happen to be on the football field with him.”

***

When someone gets to such a lofty spot in a competitive sport the way Floyd has, it becomes fascinating to ask the question, “When did you know?”Even when greatness is so clearly evident, the answers always seem to vary.

Cohen spoke of a play during Floyd’s freshman season at Washington when he pressured an opposing quarterback, who hurriedly dumped off a pass to a nearby halfback. When Cohen watched the game film later, he realized Floyd, who had rushed the QB out of the pocket, was also the guy who chased the halfback and tackled him … 15 to 20 yards downfield. 

“In all my years, I’ve never seen anyone do that,” Cohen recalled. “That’s when I knew I had someone special.”

For Edwards, it was watching Floyd dominate as a junior in 2008, helping Washington beat La Salle and earn the City Title for the first time since 1979.

“We could kind of see that something special was happening,” Edwards said. “We just didn’t know how special.”  

At Washington, Floyd’s teams combined to go 38-12, including three consecutive Public League crowns from 2007-09. 

“He had to work real hard, and he did every single day,” Cohen said. “He was focused, and he always listened. He didn’t always express himself, but he was absorbent, like a sponge. 

“He had to become a man at 16 years old. Everything negative in his life, he helped turn that around on the football field. He’s a survivor.”

***

On Thursday, nobody wanted to talk much about the darker times in Floyd’s life, and it’s hard to blame them. For a young man who has overcome so much, those historical reminders can become painful. 

Floyd has always channeled the troubled past into his persona on the gridiron, and he has never run away from any of it. Not from an addict mother, an abusive pseudo-father or a birth father who was shot and killed before Floyd was born. 

It’s shaped him into the man he’s become, and speaks to his internal fortitude, which is much more powerful than the brutish external strength he displays on the field.

At 16 and feeling trapped by the toxic environment around him, Floyd made the knee-jerk choice to leave home, calling it the “quickest decision I’ve ever made.”

“I’m not sure he even packed his clothes,” Cohen said. “He just left.”

Floyd bounced around from house to house, crashing on the couches or basement floors of generous friends and family members. He’d show up for school at Washington, famished from having not eaten the night before. Up until that point, Floyd was in real danger of becoming yet another at-risk youth swallowed up by the unforgiving Philly streets. 

But he found unconditional support in Cohen and the coach’s trusted confidants. Andre Odom (who hails from the same area as Floyd and triumphed over drug-addicted parents to earn jobs with Temple University and the Chicago Bears), Mike Wallace (a current Washington assistant and former Floyd teammate) and Greg Garrett (Washington’s former strength coach), were all instrumental in Floyd’s development, and all were present on the bus, smiling and laughing as they recounted their favorite Sharrif stories. So, too, was Garrett’s wife, Faith, who served as the Beacon Director for at-risk youths at Washington from 2001-10, helping Floyd in every way possible, from clothes to lunch money to loading up on extra supplies at BJ’s to pass onto him.

“We’re both Gemini’s, so we’ve always been close,” she said. “He asks me advice about his girlfriends, so I try to offer the advice of a big sister, but the nurturing of a mom.”

Not present, but certainly not to be overlooked, was the angelic Dawn Reed-Seeger, a former Washington guidance counselor who temporarily took Floyd in when he had no home to call his own. And of course, there’s Steve Gordon, who on a weekend Mother’s Day getaway to Wildwood with his wife had a chance run-in with Tauheed Smith’s stepfather, Ali, who told Gordon of the two talented, but at-risk, cousins.

Gordon, a former high school teacher and football coach-turned financial adviser from Mt. Holly, N.J., ended up introducing Floyd to the Lahns, a wealthy couple from Kennett Square, Chester County. With no children of their own, the Lahns had a desire to help young student-athletes get to college. Gordon and Kevin Lahn, once roommates at the University of South Carolina, worked together with the Student Athlete Mentoring (S.A.M.) Foundation, a Delaware-based organization that provides athletic and academic support to high school student-athletes. 

While Lahn made sure everything was in order over at the InterContinental, Gordon joyously recounted Floyd stories in his Marriott hotel room across the street, mostly funny anecdotes from their long recruiting trips on the road. What struck Gordon, he said, was how Floyd always acted like a typical kid his age — cracking jokes and being interested in sports and girls — despite not having the normal upbringing to match it.

“I didn’t know he’d be here today, but I knew back in his junior year in high school that he’d be an NFL football player,” Gordon said. “No question.”

Sometimes, it takes a village to bring a success story to fruition; in this case, it was a village of loosely interconnected strangers who saw greatness in this 6-foot-3, 300-pound gentle giant.

“He’s always had good people in his life, and I thank God for that every day,” the spiritual Ryans said aboard the bus to the Big Apple, which started with a group prayer before departing.

“I thank God I lived to see it, to see him grow up like this. All his life I’ve loved him, and I always will; he has his own mind, and no matter what anyone said or did to him, he kept that. That’s why he is the way he is today.”

What Floyd is is appreciative. All it takes is one glance around his hotel suite to see that, as he bounces from person to person, dishing out hugs, handshakes and fist bumps to all of those on hand.

Despite being formally adopted only two years ago, Floyd affectionately calls Lahn “Pop,” a man who he has come to love and trust unconditionally after some initial trepidation. In addition to being Floyd’s parents, Lahn and his wife, Tiffany, also assisted 20-year-old Hendrix Emu, a Nigerian basketball player who Kevin Lahn helped get political asylum for in America.

“I appreciate that,” Ryans says of what the Lahns did for her great-grandson. “I told him if that’s [the adoption] what would make him happy, then he should follow his heart.”

**

Hours later, inside Radio City Music Hall, Floyd was once again presented with another obstacle to overcome.

Previously a foregone conclusion to be a Top-3 pick (at least according to most draft analysts), one of the biggest men in the room had to sweat it out as NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell shockingly called 22 names before finally getting to Floyd’s. Even more surprising was the fact that two other defensive tackles were chosen before him.

While he waited seemingly forever for his turn on the stage, television cameras captured an understandably exasperated Floyd. But he composed himself and, true to his style, took the high road when he finally met the media almost three hours later than experts thought he’d be picked.

Floyd, who’s worked tirelessly for everything he’s ever gotten, never assumed that being a top pick in the draft was his birthright; for that reason, everybody else seemed more surprised by his fall than the man himself. 

Instead, he now has the opportunity to become one of the draft’s biggest first-round steals. The fall from grace will probably end up costing him anywhere from $10 million to $12 million. (Floyd’s four-year rookie contract will earn him around $8 million at No. 23 instead of the roughly $20 million he would have fetched in the Top-3.) But if he plays well for the Vikings — a playoff team with a relentless defensive line a season ago — he could make the money back tenfold. 

“I’m ready to get started,” Floyd told NFL Network’s Deion Sanders from the stage. “Right now, there’s a chip on my shoulder. I feel like I have to still prove myself. The Minnesota Vikings did a great thing by taking a chance on me. I’m not going to let them down. At the end of the day, I made it. No matter what pick or what round it was, I’m here.”

The reason for the slip remains a mystery. Some scouts say Floyd’s arms are too short to penetrate NFL double teams at the line of scrimmage, while others blame his frequent shuffling around the D-line that resulted in just five sacks in three seasons at Florida. The speculation that seems to be most head-scratching came from a source of NFL Network analyst Mike Mayock, who happens to be a huge Floyd fan; the source speculated Floyd’s dropping stock could be due to “character concerns,” which Mayock read aloud on the air.

Good luck selling that one to Floyd’s support network.

“Just last week, my daughter had her soph-hop dance, and guess who was there to see her off?” asked Faith Armstrong-Garrett, the former Beacon Director at Washington as she displayed an Instagram photo on her cell phone of Floyd posing that night. “My husband (Greg) and Sharrif, they both gave her date ‘The Talk.’ He’s like my own son.”

“He’s the same kid I knew at Harding Middle School,” Edwards said. “Very nice, very personable, always listens, always smiling. We still follow up with each other.”

Floyd has also mentioned his desire to buy a house for Ryans, who wept when the boy she used to carry around as a baby had his name called about 11 p.m.

“He’s a humble young man who has never had a bad thing to say about anybody in his life,” she said. 

When the whirlwind night finally ended, it was time to part ways. Floyd had a red-eye to catch to his new home in the Twin Cities, while his well-wishers were bound for Philadelphia the next morning. 

While an already-excited Vikings organization boasted that there was a “New Sharrif in Town,” those aboard the bus would tell you he’s the same old Floyd they’ve always known, unchanged by success and forever thankful for those that got him here. ••

 

 

You can reach at emorrone@bsmphilly.com.

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