As a first grader in Eufaula, Ala., Courtney Upshaw walked into a fight in the school bathroom and it changed his life. He stuck up for a kid named Will McKenzie, who was getting bullied. You knew then he'd have a promising future as a defender.
"I don't know why, but I did it and we've been friends ever since," the Alabama outside linebacker said in a phone interview last week with ESPNNewYork.com.
McKenzie and his family will be in New York this week to see Upshaw get drafted into the NFL. There's an outside chance he could go to the Jets with the 16th overall pick. No matter what happens, Upshaw will be happy and surrounded by the surrogate family that guided him through a tough upbringing.
This is another version of "The Blind Side," an African-American football player from the South growing up with a white family. Upshaw said he was raised by his aunt, but he said of the McKenzies, "It's like my second family, a support system throughout high school and college, making sure I got to and from practice and graduated high school."
Upshaw became a star linebacker at Alabama, where he capped his career by winning defensive MVP honors in the national championship game. He's 6-foot-2, 272 pounds, a strong run defender and a power rusher (15.5 sacks the last two years). His stock has slipped in recent weeks, with NFL types whispering that he lacks elite athleticism and that he's a DE/OLB 'tweener.
If he slips to the bottom half of the first round, some team will get a bargain.
"I'm very confident in myself," Upshaw said. "I don't like to call it being cocky, I like to say it's confidence. I'm ready to go out and prove to the world that I'm (a dominant player). I take the bad and make it motivation. I hear a lot of things and I'm so motivated right now to up my game to another level and go out and dominate. I feel like I'm a dominant player."
Rex Ryan is on record as saying he likes Upshaw, but enough to take him at 16? Hard to say; maybe not. Opinions are all over on Upshaw. I spoke to one 4-3 team that didn't have a first-round grade on him because they can't decide where to play him.
For now, he's planning to make the most of his first trip to New York City. And he's going to enjoy it with the McKenzies.
"They helped me get to where I am today," he said. "Without them doing what they did, who knows what my life would be life? I thank God for them. I want them with me for support. I wouldn't turn my back on them. They never turned their back on me."