Devante Averette laughs when he sees his Oklahoma State teammates complain and tweet about “the struggle.” They have no idea.
“I tell them all the time, ‘Y’all really don’t know what the struggle really is,’” Averette said. “They’re pretty boys, man.”
The struggle, as he knows it, is working double shifts at a UPS distribution center in Detroit. It’s trying to make enough to support an infant son. It’s putting your family ahead of your future. Five years ago, playing college football was the least of Averette’s concerns.
The Cowboys’ senior linebacker will take the field one more time Thursday night in the Valero Alamo Bowl against Colorado (9 p.m. ET, ESPN). This might be it for his playing days, the end of another chapter in his wild tale. He’s proud to say the struggles he faced to get this far defined him as a man and a father.
His high school mentor, Mike Dennis, says Averette is a success story in Detroit -- one tough and talented young man who got out and figured it all out. Nobody ever would have guessed that the kid with the 1.3 GPA would end up with two degrees.
“I was bad when I was younger,” Averette said. “I was all over the place. It just shocks people to see me today, to see me going to a big-time university, see me on TV, see me doing positive things. It’s a beautiful thing.”
For the Averettes, boxing is the family business, and Devante’s uncle put him through serious training at Detroit’s famed Kronk Gym. He was 10 when he started. By 17, Devante was purportedly 37-0 as an amateur fighter with 33 knockouts.
He learned to channel his aggression and his anger into something meaningful and successful. Outside the ring, of course, he did run into more than a few kids who wanted to test that undefeated record.
“Some guys with that ego feel like they’re Superman,” Averette said. “A lot of times I had to put them in check and remind them they’re just regular.”
He’d learn to regret that policy. During his freshman year at Detroit Northwestern High School, Averette got into a fight with a senior student that would get him expelled. Dennis entered his life soon after.
“A coach told me about this kid who’s a freshman who’d broke a senior’s jaw,” Dennis said, “and then he brought him flowers the next day.”
Dennis has helped more than 60 under-recruited high school players in the Detroit area earn scholarships in recent years. Averette was one of the first kids he guided. He helped get Averette enrolled at Melvindale High and mentored him throughout his promising high school football career.
But Averette was never going to get FBS offers with his poor grades.
He also became a father in February 2011 to a son, Jerrieon, who he says changed his whole world.
“Ever since he was born, I knew I had to make all the decisions count, all in the right direction,” Averette said. “Everything had to be in a positive direction.”
Around the holidays, he got the job working for UPS. He brags today that the strenuous 4 a.m. shifts absolutely helped him later on as a football player because “every day was leg day.” He got stronger, no doubt, and he worked with a purpose.
“My son would wake up in the middle of the night and I’d hold him until he fell asleep, and I knew that’s why I go to work,” Averette said. “He was my motivation every day to get up and go to work. Just knowing I’m gonna go see my little man and his big smile, he’s got no teeth but he’s laughing at everything ... it was always worth it.”
Football, at that point, wasn’t important to him. His son had to be his top priority.
“I didn’t want it to seem like as soon as he was born, I was taking off,” Averette said. “I stayed for a year with him to build that bond while working every day to provide food and clothes for him. I just wanted to do that and not be selfish.”
In the summer of 2012, Dennis presented him with an opportunity he couldn’t pass up: a partial scholarship to play football at Ellsworth Community College in Iowa. UPS provided a great job, Averette said, but he didn’t want to work there the rest of his life. He knew he could still play. He says he wanted to prove something to his son.
He proved plenty at Ellsworth, earning first-team NJCAA All-America honors in 2013 by racking up 29 tackles for loss in just seven games. He initially committed to West Virginia before deciding he was a better fit playing for defensive coordinator Glenn Spencer at Oklahoma State.
“The first thing that struck me was he plays the game like a real tough guy,” Spencer said. “He tries to be violent. You get to know him a little bit, find out about his situation, and you love it when they’re hungry and they don’t feel entitled, like so many kids do these days. It’s refreshing to have a kid who’s just hungry to make something of himself, and that’s what Devante was.”
He stepped up this season as Oklahoma State’s second-leading tackler and an AP second-team All-Big 12 standout. Throughout his successful stint in Stillwater, he has put his son first.
Jerrieon is 5 years old now and living with his mother in Detroit, but he gets a call or FaceTime from his father before and after school every day. Jerrieon made it to most of the Cowboys’ home games this season.
“He’s a big 5,” Averette said. “He gets smarter and smarter every day. We have long conversations now. It blows my mind when I talk to him.”
Averette, who turns 24 on Friday, has figured out his next profession for supporting Jerrieon. He wants to be an independent contractor. But first he wants to take a shot at the NFL.
“Sometimes guys like him make it if somebody gives them a chance,” Spencer said. “Boy, if somebody were to get him in camp, he’d be the locker room champ, I know that.”
He’ll be a long shot, sure, but Averette has already beaten the odds. He recently went home to Detroit for the holidays to see his family and the folks like Dennis who backed him so long ago. They can’t wait to see what’s next.
“I don’t like seeing him here in Detroit,” Dennis said. “I mean, I love seeing him. But I can’t wait until he leaves. He has to go back and continue flying. He’s out there living his dream.”