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Imposing Florida defensive lineman projected as top 2 pick on Thursday

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GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Before he had heard of the NFL and long before it had heard of him, defensive tackle Sharrif Floyd dreamed of a way out.

Little did he know football would open the door he needed to escape his difficult past.

Until he found the game, Floyd was on his way to becoming a bad statistic. Years later, he is slated to be one of the top selections in this week's NFL draft -- and possibly the highest pick in the storied history of Florida football.

While triumph-over-tragedy is a common theme in professional sports, Floyd's life reached rare levels of despair and determination. These experiences are a big reason why he will be in New York City's Radio City Music Hall on Thursday night as one of the select players invited to attend this year's first round.

"My drive is remembering where I came from," Floyd said in a recent interview with the Orlando Sentinel. "That's enough to drive anyone who wants it."

Floyd, 20, left school early and quickly rose up draft boards for many reasons -- a 4.87-second 40-yard dash at the scouting combine, the ability to play three downs and the versatility to line up as a 4-3 tackle or a 3-4 end.

But nothing excites the men making multi-million dollar decisions more than the 6-3, 297-pounder's passion for the game.

"He plays the game like it should be played, down in and down out," Jacksonville Jaguars general manager Dave Caldwell marveled. "For a defensive lineman to play as hard as he does for as many plays as he does is pretty impressive."'

As the final seconds ticked away at Florida State's Doak Campbell Stadium in 2012, Floyd was in no mood to celebrate the Gators' upset of their bitter rival.

Not yet, at least. Floyd was too tired.

"At the end of the game everyone is celebrating, I'm on a knee," he recalled. "I'm trying to gather some air to get up on my feet.

"I'm giving you everything I got until the last second on that clock goes down to zero."

Football is important to Floyd, who did not take up the game until he was a high school freshman.

"To play the game," he said, "you have to love it."

But his devotion goes deeper than the competition, camaraderie and certain financial security as one of the NFL's top picks. That's because every snap for Floyd has been a step in a better direction.

Growing up in a rough north Philadelphia neighborhood, Floyd's mother battled drug addiction and his father was murdered when Floyd was 3.

Floyd lived in a basement and suffered physical and mental abuse at the hands of a man Floyd assumed for many years to be his father. When Floyd discovered the truth, he moved out on his own at age 16.

School offered little comfort. Floyd was teased in grade school because of his size and tattered clothes. Sometimes, he couldn't shower before going to school.

But football and the love and support of a handful of people would save Floyd.

His grandmother, Lucille Ryans, would tell Floyd to remain strong like she had done as a child working in fields picking cotton. Floyd found a friend and mentor in Andre Odom from north Philadelphia and eventually a family with businessman Kevin Lahn.

Lahn ran a mentoring program and helped Floyd financially, including paying for his recruiting visit to Florida. Lahn eventually would adopt Floyd after the NCAA stepped in and put an end to Lahn's financial assistance. The adoption allowed Lahn to keep providing financial support and gave Floyd more family support.

Floyd knows he will never be able to repay these people, but once his name is called on Thursday, he will begin by buying Ryans a home in Atlanta, where she has family.

"I know it's more exciting for her than it is for me, just to see the smile on her face is all I really need," he said.

A child who once had nothing is now a man able to give back.

The transformation still amazes Floyd, who reached the top spot of some mock drafts this spring and has a chance to become the highest drafted Gator. Gerard Warren (20010 and Wes Chandler (1978) both went No. 3, becoming the highest picks in UF history.

NFL Network draft analyst Mike Mayock projects Floyd going No. 2 to Jacksonville.

"At this point it still hasn't hit me yet because it's not in my hands," Floyd said. "I don't want to get myself wound up to be that No. 1 pick, and I'm not. I'm not saying I'm not saying I'm not happy that I'm considered the No. 1 player in the draft.

"I'm actually really proud of myself for that."

The NFL draft is relatively new to Floyd, who watched cartoons instead of sports growing up. The first NFL game he watched was Peyton Manning and the Indianapolis Colts' Super Bowl win over Chicago in 2007.

-- The Orlando Sentinel

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 21, 2013 B11

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