This story originally appeared in Dallas Cowboys Star Magazine. For subscription information, please click here.
Justin Durant just wanted to go to college. Football was a way to get there.
According to his father, Justin was not even the most famous football-playing Durant to come out of their hometown of Florence, S.C.
"Justin's older brother, Darian, is a legendary athlete around here. Justin kind of grew up in his brother's shadow," said Israel Durant about his two sons.
Darian Durant is 3 years older than his little brother. A star quarterback at Wilson High School in Florence, Darian was flooded with college offers. He accepted a scholarship to the University of North Carolina, where he played for four years and set five Tar Heels school records: completion percentage, touchdowns, passing yards, completions and total offense. Before he left, Darian was the only player in school history to throw for more than 8,000 yards and post more than 9,000 yards of total offense.
Darian had a tryout with the Baltimore Ravens and spent time on the team's practice squad, but was later released. He eventually got a shot with the Saskatchewan Roughriders and has since become a star performer in the Canadian Football League. He has more than 21,000 career passing yards and has thrown 121 touchdown passes in his five seasons since taking over as the Roughriders starting quarterback.
While Justin may not be the legend in the Durant family, he has emerged from his big brother's shadow. Durant is coming off his seventh year in the NFL, his first with Dallas. The veteran linebacker, who has also played in Jacksonville and Detroit, signed with the Cowboys in March 2013 to help with the team's transition to the more traditional 4-3 alignment last season.
"When Justin became available, we looked at the tape and saw him as somebody we needed to go after," said Dallas linebackers coach Matt Eberflus. "He has the ability to move on his feet, is quick and good in space. He was exactly the type of linebacker we were looking for in our 4-3 scheme. He already had experience working in similar schemes. He's a hard worker and has done a good job learning the system. He's been a really good fit for us."
In reality, though, starting at linebacker for the Cowboys is not exactly where Durant envisioned he'd be at this stage of his life. Despite his brother's success and the fact that Justin was always an outstanding athlete, playing professionally was not something he saw as an eventual career option.
"The NFL wasn't even part of my plan," says Justin. "I was using football to go to school and get a degree. I didn't even know what I was going to do until my senior year in college, that's when I started to get noticed."
Durant actually quit football as a sophomore in high school when his Wilson team was struggling. But Justin eventually rejoined the squad before the end of the season, and then the next year, future Steelers linebacker and former first-round draft pick Lawrence Timmons, who is a year younger than Durant, joined the varsity at Wilson. Together, the two future NFLers turned around the Tigers. Before Durant finished, the team had made the playoffs twice, including a run that ended just one game short of the state championship.
Despite his success in high school, Durant did not get a substantial Division-I offer to play football. Still focused on his primary goal of getting a college education, he decided to accept a scholarship to play at Hampton University in Hampton, Va.
School always came first in the Durant household. His mother, Betty, made sure of that.
"Justin has been playing sports since he was 5 years old, and it was always known that if he couldn't keep his grades up, there would be no playing sports. I never had any discipline problems with him. We live in a pretty small town so there aren't too many things to get into."
Justin took his mother's directive seriously.
"Sports were always something to keep us active," he said. My mom always stayed on top of what I did. I had to make sure I had a certain grade or I couldn't play sports."
He excelled in the classroom just as he did on the field. He made the National Honor Society in high school and had no trouble qualifying academically for Hampton or any other college. He even flirted with an opportunity to attend Duke University before deciding to go to Hampton. It eventually worked out, although not getting any significant interest from Division-I schools remains a mystery.
"I still don't know why to this day, but it's fine with me," says Durant. "Going to Hampton ended up being the best situation for me. Not getting any Division-I offers coming out of high school made me realize that I might have to take a different path than sports. Like I said, playing in the NFL wasn't even part of my plan."
As the saying goes, life is what happens to you while you're busy making other plans. Durant stepped right into the lineup at Hampton, and ended up starting 39 of the 43 games he played, becoming the first in Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference history to earn Defensive Player of the Year honors three times. He finished his career with 353 tackles, which is good enough for second all time in school history.
Israel thought his son was good, but admits he shared Justin's view that professional football was a long shot.
"I never thought about the NFL when he first went to college," his father says. "As a parent, unless your kid is a real superstar, you never think about the NFL. Justin played as a freshman at Hampton, then his sophomore year he was the Player of the Year. That's when I started to think he might have a shot."
Durant's career took a significant jump in his second collegiate campaign when Hampton hired former NFL player Jerry Holmes to coach the linebackers.
"When Jerry Holmes came to Hampton, it turned everything around for me," says Durant. "I just had a different mentality because I respected him so much. I mean, I respected my other coaches, but Coach Holmes helped me realize that I needed to take it to the next level. He was the main influence on me."
Holmes played 11 years of professional football in the NFL and the United States Football League. After retiring, he served as a coach with Cleveland, Washington and San Diego. On the collegiate level, Holmes spent five seasons at Hampton, one as linebackers coach, three as defensive coordinator and one as head coach. He spent a year at Hartford and this season he is the defensive coordinator/linebackers coach at Morgan State University.
Right away, Holmes saw something in Durant.
"You could see that Justin was very athletic. He could move his feet and was very good at changing direction," says Holmes. "Sometimes you have linebackers that are good against the run and struggle with the pass. Justin had that spirit, was aggressive and had that good athletic ability to blow up the run, recognize stunts, stop the run and cover the middle of the field. He would be where you wanted him to be, whether it was taking on the fullback on a lead block, stepping in the run gap or just sitting in the proper position."
By his senior year in college, NFL scouts also noticed the same qualities that Holmes saw in Durant. Interest in him really peaked after an impressive showing at the NFL Scouting Combine before the 2007 NFL Draft.
"After my junior year, I looked up and saw that I was ranked in the country and I'm like 'what's going on here, I go to Hampton,'" jokes Durant. "The combine was probably the deciding factor, even though I'm one of those guys who thinks the combine shouldn't matter that much. In my case, I ranked high in everything that I did there. I came out with [San Francisco All-Pro linebacker] Patrick Willis and some other guys I saw on TV all the time. I took it as a challenge to be in the same building competing with guys who were known nationally."
After all the evaluations were done, the Jaguars decided Justin was worth a second-round pick (48th overall). It remains the highest a Hampton player has ever been drafted. Durant spent four years in Jacksonville, playing in 50 games with 42 starts.
Following the 2010 season, he signed with the Detroit Lions and started 26 of 29 games over the next two years. After the 2012 campaign, Durant was a free agent again. When the Cowboys showed interest, he evaluated his options and saw plenty of upside in Dallas.
"I knew the Cowboys were changing defenses. I have a lot of respect for Coach [Monte] Kiffin. I knew a lot about Coach Marinelli [defensive line coach Rod Marinelli] because he was in Chicago when I was in Detroit," says Durant. "I'm not sure how familiar they were with me, but I knew who they were. I mean, why wouldn't I want to play for one of the best coordinators ever in the game and have an opportunity to start fresh in a new environment? I just felt like it was a perfect situation for me. They wanted me to come, and I wanted to be here."
From the Cowboys perspective, Durant's speed and football intelligence were two of the most attractive parts of his game.
"A linebacker in this system has to be able to run and run fast. You have to be smart. You have to set the defense if you're the middle linebacker," says Eberflus. "Justin has done a good job because he's played a lot of positions for us. He can play Will [weak side], he can play Mike [middle], and he can play Sam [strong side]. He's a very intelligent player. When he came out of college, he ran a very fast time at the combine and he still has a lot of juice in his legs. We're excited to have him."
Holmes recognized some of those same qualities in Justin 10 years earlier while at Hampton.
"Justin is one of those ideal kinds of guys to coach. He does exactly what you ask him to do. He has athletic ability and is very coachable," says Holmes. "He is always in position to make plays. He was never any trouble off the field. I never had to worry about him. I always said that if I can trust you to go to class, then I can trust you on the football field. Some kids you have to chase down at 6 a.m. to make sure they go to class, but I never had to worry about that with Justin." [embedded_ad]
Recently, Durant has put some of that time in the classroom to good use. With an eye toward life after football and with help from his publicist, he turned his interest in music and writing into an assignment writing columns, mostly about music, for a Detroit newspaper and MTV. He also has close to 24,000 followers on his Twitter account, where he describes himself as a music connoisseur. Most of his Tweets are about music, not football.
His parents divorced when Justin was just 3 years old, but they made sure their children had both parents in their lives. His dad coached Justin's basketball teams. Mom kept him in line and took care of him. They are both very proud and not surprised their son is already thinking about a future without football … again.
"Justin has grown into a well-rounded young man. My baby is 28 years old and he has a family of his own now. He's thinking about his future and what he wants to do when he gets out of football," says Betty. "I guess I'm most proud that he's a well-rounded young man and father. If you didn't know who Justin Durant is and what he does for a living, he wouldn't tell you. He's very low profile."
Israel is happy that his son has not squandered his opportunities and that he's been self-motivated.
"I admire the fact that Justin didn't have to be pushed. He just went about his business and did everything right," says the proud father. "He took advantage of an opportunity that a lot of kids get and throw away. Justin has a good work ethic. He gets that from his mom and me. Our kids always knew that they'd have to work for it if they wanted anything in life."
Not bad for a kid that just wanted to go to college.