FRISCO, Texas – Catch sight of his smile, and it's hard to believe Charles Tapper has ever been unhappy about anything.
To this point in his star-crossed Cowboys career, his biggest legacy is unfortunate. The 25-year-old defensive end is oozing with talent, yet injuries have robbed him of two years to showcase it.
Frustrating though it may be, Tapper smiles through it. His slow chuckle is infectious. His smile, not to mention his positivity, have been his trademarks from Day 1.
"I just always knew coming to The Star, being with the Cowboys – being with any NFL team – is a blessing," he says.
It's a fair point, but it belies a journey that has featured no shortage of hardship. Because if you take a seat and chat with Charles Tapper for a few minutes, his smile becomes that much more impressive.
And if you have a chance to meet the Tapper Family, it becomes immediately clear that his most important work isn't going to happen in a football uniform.
It's not quite raining, more like misting outside, as Charles Tapper and his brothers take a seat next to each other. The weather doesn't quite match Tapper's amiable demeanor, but it's a fitting backdrop for the subject matter.
Charles is flanked by Shawn, who is about to turn 16, and their younger brother Jordan, 14. Shawn moved to Dallas from Baltimore, where the brothers are from, when Charles was drafted back in 2016. Jordan followed suit just last year.
The reasoning for that was simple, as it was the latest – and ultimately one of the final – sign of their mother's guidance in their lives.
"She was like 'You know what, we were always going to move down here so we could get him in school out here and get him situated, so you can start getting ready for life without me being here,'" Tapper said.
Rhonda Tapper had known she was sick for some time, going back as far as Charles's draft party in the spring of 2016. Right around the time he reported to his second professional training camp, in the summer of 2017, she dropped the diagnosis: multiple myeloma, a cancer that takes root in one's plasma cells.
"You never want to hear that line – your mom, like, 'I'm dying, there's nothing we can really do about it,'" Tapper said. "We're taught that there's always something you can do to make it better. There's always something you can do to make something better, but it was just God's plan at that time."
Rhonda was at peace with the situation, if no one else was. She saw to it her sons were accounted for, and she made the most of her remaining time. She stayed in Texas with her boys for the final few months of her life. She passed away in January.
Rhonda Tapper didn't want a fuss. And, much like her life before it, her death followed her exacting design.
"That's how she wanted it," Tapper said. "She wrote out her whole funeral, the way she wanted it, on a piece of paper. And I just read the paper."
Seven months later, Charles sits with his siblings – not just as an older brother, but a caretaker. Tapper's father died when he was just four years old. Shawn and Jordan, who were adopted into the Tapper family as toddlers, have never known a father figure other than their older brother.
In the wake of their mother's death, that role has crystalized. Already a father to his own daughter, Adriana, Tapper was granted full custody of his two younger brothers earlier this year.
Legally speaking, that puts Tapper in the role of guardian – but he chuckles at the phrase "father figure."
"When you say 'father figure,' sometimes it's hard for some people to talk to their father – but I'm not y'all's father, I'm your brother," he said. "You can tell me anything."
Spend some time with the Tapper brothers, and it's evident they aren't shy about talking. In the span of an hour, the trio joke about basketball – Charles's original sport, long before football – not to mention girls and video games.
It looks effortless. As they point out, even if the official nature of the relationship has changed, the bond has never wavered.
"It's just a simple brotherly love," Shawn said. "It's hard to explain it, because to see it – when you see it, you'll feel the same way. You're like 'Dang, that's my brother.' How lucky do you feel to have that as your brother?"
One simple anecdote can help cut straight to the core of the Tapper brothers' perseverance. Like so much else in their lives, it centers around their mother.
"When I was a little kid, five years old, we was playing basketball on the street and one of the little kids fouled me real hard, and I started crying," Charles said. "She was like 'You better not ever cry, you better not ever let nobody see your pain. If you feel anything, you always come tell me, because I'm the one. Don't let anybody see your pain, because it'll make you look weak.'"
Tapper took that to heart, and it shows. That helps explain his low key demeanor, and why he doesn't mention his mother's death – to the point that his college coach at Oklahoma, Bob Stoops, didn't hear about it until recently.
It also explains his strength through what has undoubtedly been a trying career. Tapper's rookie season was cut short before training camp even ended, as an X-Ray revealed that he had a stress fracture in his L5 vertebrae, also known as a pars defect.
The 2017 season wasn't much kinder. Tapper made the Cowboys' final roster, recording a sack in the season-opening win against the Giants. That success was short-lived, though, as he sustained a season-ending foot injury in practice just a few weeks later.
"You just get frustrated, because it feels like you do everything right, workout-wise, rehab-wise – but then it's two years, back-to-back," Tapper said. "First, it's the back, but then the foot has nothing to do with the back. So, why?"
Frustration seems like an undersell, given Tapper's pedigree. He was a basketball standout, before Oklahoma found him and offered him a scholarship off the strength of a high school camp workout. He racked up 13.5 career sacks for the Sooners, and he posted a head-turning 4.59-second 40-yard dash at the NFL Combine.
The NFL is a results-based business, though, and it's not a stretch to suggest this could be Tapper's last chance to catch on with the Cowboys. The front office used a first-round pick on Taco Charlton just last year, and it was just recently announced that former second-round pick Randy Gregory has been reinstated from suspension and will be allowed to join the team at training camp.
"You're already stressed, like, am I going to make the team?" Tapper said. "They draft guys, and you're like 'These guys are good at this, and I'm good at this – so now I've got to master this, because that guy is mastering this.'"
Heading into his third training camp with just two career games under his belt, it'll be on Tapper to prove he belongs on the Cowboys' final 53-man roster.
And yet, from his arrival in Dallas, Tapper hasn't let the setbacks show. Even in the midst of his lost seasons, he was still quick with that warm smile and friendly demeanor. It's a testament to his mom's teaching, and a character trait she would have been happy to hear about.
"She would've loved it, if she was in the room, to hear you say that. She'd be like 'Thank God, because he's not showing his pain to nobody. He's doing the little things in life that I told him to do,'" he said. "Because every mom always feels like 'My son's not listening,' but it's like I'm listening, but I'm listening in my own manner."
Part of that involves self growth. Without a father of his own, Tapper said he has often looked toward coaches as father figures – none more so than Cowboys defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli. The longtime coach is famous for building close bonds with players, and Tapper said his life lessons helped guide him through his mother's sickness.
"Marinelli gives us Man Building Saturdays, and I remember all last season, every Man Building Saturday it felt like he was speaking toward me," he said. "It was something pertaining to my life."
Couple that with the lasting bonds made among teammates, such as the friendship Tapper has formed with Maliek Collins, and growth is plain to see. Tapper might not want to show you his pain, but he can talk about it.
"For us to be having a conversation like this, it would have been way different," he said. "I wouldn't have been comfortable, I would've been shaking, I would have been jittery. But Marinelli, over the years, he gives you that hard love and teaching."
The goal might be to keep from showing it, but the Tappers' story is one about fighting through pain. It's something they were familiar with long before Rhonda Tapper fell ill.
Shawn, heading into his junior year of high school, lives with sickle cells, a blood disorder that can trigger painful episodes depending on temperature changes around him. Jordan, who is heading into ninth grade, has had his own battle with cancer.
When he was just five, Jordan was successfully treated and had surgery to remove lymphoma cancer. It was an arduous process, and one that required no small amount of support from both his brother Shawn, as well as his mother.
"I knew I had cancer. And I'm like, 'Why me?'" Jordan said. "And my mom said 'Don't worry about it, you'll be OK. You're a survivor.'"
If there's an overarching theme here, it's preparation and support. As Charles has said, Rhonda seemed to have an intricate plan for every step of her sons' lives. To hear it from Shawn, her role was another step up from that.
"I got Jordan and Charles, and my mom was just like the queen," he said.
That kind of loss never truly fades away, even if it gets easier to manage. On July Fourth, a family friend sent Charles an old video from years past -- a funny clip of Rhonda running from exploding fireworks.
However fond a memory it might be, it still serves as a reminder.
"I saw that and it set me back," he said. "She's really not here. I can't call her, I can't touch her, I can't do nothing to get her back."
Having lost the woman who was the guiding force behind so much of their lives, the Tapper brothers have to figure it out themselves from here.
It might sound like a daunting proposition, but Tapper disagrees. He smiles.
Always sure to see the bright side, he points out one key component: they won't have to do it alone.
"If I didn't have these two guys and I just lost my mom, and I'm going through this by myself? I feel like that'd be way tougher than having these two guys," he said. "When I lost her it was like 'Who are we going to lean on?' Well, we lean on each other."
In the coming weeks, roughly 3,000 NFL players are going to pursue their dreams on practice fields around the country. Only about half of them are going to succeed.
In August, NFL teams whittle their training camp rosters from 90 men down to 53. A select few will wind up on practice squads around the league, and some may earn opportunities with other teams. Many, many more will be on the outside looking in.
An even more sobering reality: of the thousands of players fighting for roster spots this summer, many of them have overcome similar adversity to what Tapper is going through. Regardless of the back story, nothing short of results will suffice.
Not surprisingly, that's another lesson Rhonda Tapper instilled in her son at an early age.
"She taught me from Day 1, when I was a little kid on the basketball court – your personal life is your personal life, but this is your job," he said. "Nothing affects your job. I'm sick, your brother's sick, you're sick – I don't care. Your job is never affected."
Fortunately, Tapper has a strong supporting cast to help him accomplish that goal.
Last year, his lifelong friends, Shaq Epps and Tyrone Strong, dropped everything to come down from Baltimore to look after Shawn and Jordan. They stayed in Texas for months, helping Tapper stay on top of things during football season, not to mention his mother's illness.
This year, it'll be his Aunt Jackie looking after things while he makes the long trek out to California for work.
"You don't leave your job until it's done, no matter what the means are," Tapper said. "Whenever football time comes around, you've got to lock in. They understand that."
It isn't going to be easy. The Cowboys' pass rush looks as deep as it has in quite some time, with DeMarcus Lawrence returning off the strength of a 14.5-sack season, joined by the likes of Tyrone Crawford, Charlton and Gregory – not to mention newcomers Kony Ealy and Dorance Armstrong.
Faced with that prospect, Tapper can't help but smile. Whatever highs and lows are waiting for him, he says, it can't be worse from where he was just a few short months ago.
"I just build off that every day," he said. "It can't get no worse than that. It's got to get better than that."
And even if Rhonda Tapper can't be here to see what's next for her boys, they'll be taking her teaching with them every step of the way.