Deadrin Senat overcomes gang life, death of parents to reach NFL

Falcons rookie Deadrin Senat, a 6-foot, 314-pound defensive lineman, is pleased with his progress so far at his first training camp. "I feel like the coaches believe in me," he said. Dale Zanine/USA TODAY Sports

FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- Deadrin Senat can't hug his mother. He can't look into her eyes. But he speaks to her every single day.

The Atlanta Falcons rookie defensive tackle always was a "momma's boy" growing up in Immokalee, Florida. That's why he still regrets what happened June 1, 2008. His mother, Judy, asked him to take care of some responsibilities as she left for her manager's shift at Popeye's. A 13-year-old Senat ignored her wishes, opting to run the street with his friends instead.

Judy Senat, who battled diabetes, was bitten by a spider and experienced swelling in her leg. After she walked two miles home from work that night, Senat said his mother collapsed at home from complications related to the spider bite. He was sleeping at the time. His mother, later rushed to the hospital in an ambulance, was pronounced dead at age 45.

"Her coming home that night and me not being able to speak to her and to tell her my last words, knowing this would be her last time living ... that was the worst thing in my life." Falcons rookie Deadrin Senat on the death of his mother

"It was just a freak accident," Senat said. "Her coming home that night and me not being able to speak to her and to tell her my last words, knowing this would be her last time living ... that was the worst thing in my life. That's what hurts me the most."

Something else weighed on Senat heavily following his mother's death. His parents didn't live together, and he said his father, Guy Sr., was supposed to pick her up from work the night she passed.

"For a long time, I didn't forgive my dad for that," Senat said. "But I learned to forgive him. When he got sick, we got closer."

Guy Sr., who worked for a packing company, developed lung cancer from smoking, according to his son. The elder Senat died Sept. 15, 2015. Four days later, Deadrin, then a sophomore at the University of South Florida, recorded a career-high nine tackles in a loss at Maryland.

His father would have been proud. And Guy Sr. no doubt would be ecstatic to see his son walk on an NFL field for the first time at 7:30 p.m. ET on Friday, when Senat and the Falcons face the New York Jets in preseason action at MetLife Stadium.

"When nobody else believed in me, he believed in me," Senat said of his father. "Even though he wasn't there to support me because he was sick, he was the one who told me to keep going, keep playing. He might have been the only one who believed in me."

It took some nudging for Senat to develop more belief in himself.

Wild child

Although Senat continues to mourn the loss of his parents -- and has tattoos on his forearm and chest are tributes to both -- losing his mother was the first wake-up call regarding the dangerous lifestyle he was living.

As a youth, Senat affiliated himself with a street gang called the Village Boys, which later evolved into VBE. Their goal was simple: terrorize the neighborhood.

"I was bad," Senat said. "I was breaking into houses. My older brother, he was in jail for stuff like fighting and some crazy stuff, like killing an alligator. I didn't follow him, but I just hung out with the wrong kind of crowd. The gang, we thought we were something that we weren't."

Jean Rene Jean Jr. ran the streets right alongside Senat as one of his best friends and a fellow gang member.

"Growing up in the village, we had to do any type of thing to survive," said Jean, who plans to play basketball at New England College this season. "It was basically a jungle. The only way to survive was to fight."

Senat vowed to clean up his image to honor his mother, but still carried some anger. It came out during a fight in December 2014, and he and Jean both were arrested for battery. Accused of attacking a man, each had to post $2,000 bond.

Senat didn't go into the details of the incident, but he knew he could ill-afford to continue such behavior if he wanted to pursue an NFL career. He didn't want to end up like his older brother, who is currently in the Hendry County Jail for a probation violation.

Falcons coach Dan Quinn said the team was aware of Senat's arrest and had no reservations about drafting him based on their background research.

Though he remains affiliated with members of the gang, Senat contends their mission has changed dramatically.

"Now, we're changing the gang into a brotherhood and into guys who want to do positive things," Senat said. "Some guys rap. Some guys go to school. Some guys play basketball. Some guys play football. It's a whole bunch of guys who grew up in a small little village area, and we didn't know what was right. All it took was for someone to make it out. Edgerrin James made it out of Immokalee. I made it out.

"You want to have a group of guys that you see do good. You still have some guys doing bad stuff, but it's not just about being bad. It's about guys just trying to make a way for themselves and saying that Immokalee is not their last destination."

A couple of mentors guided Senat's conscious effort to change his overall approach. One is his pastor, Homer Betancourt, who is legally blind but offers Senat guidance over the phone daily. The other is Tony Navarro, the man who gave Senat's father a job.

"I have a small circle, but these people came into my life at the right time," Senat said. "After my mom passed, I didn't know who was for me or who was against me. It kind of still haunts me to this day, because I have major, major trust issues."

Playing for more

The Falcons went into this year's draft hoping to find more help for the interior of the defensive line. They found some in the third round with Senat, the 90th overall pick.

Listed at 6-foot-0, 314 pounds, Senat has a build similar to nose tackle Grady Jarrett, a budding superstar who is on the cusp of a lucrative contract extension. Senat has been the beneficiary of Jarrett's mentoring throughout training camp.

Although Senat might not be an immediate starter, with veteran Terrell McClain added next to Jarrett, he certainly has the opportunity to crack the defensive line rotation. He's been working at both interior spots.

"Every day I take the field, I try to improve from yesterday's practice," Senat said. "I hang my hat on that I'm good at stopping the run. Now, I just want to be able to be a true rusher. That's something I've been really hound[ing] myself on, is to be a true rusher; just being able to be that every-down kind of guy.

"I want to help this team wherever they need me. I'm just taking it one day at a time, just learning, just grasping everything that they teach me. It's not just something you learn one day. I'm learning every day."

Senat credited defensive line coach Bryant Young for helping him improve his technique.

"I feel like the coaches believe in me," Senat said. "I feel like B.Y. believes in me. In life, I've always been told that I couldn't do things. But here, I feel like I'm doing things pretty well."

Senat knows he's playing for much more than just himself. One of the last things his father told him was to make sure to take care of his older sister, Manika. She lives in Tampa and has three children.

"It's not just about me; I do everything for them," Senat said. "I always wanted to see my immediate family together. I always wanted to just, when I hang up football, I could spend time with my nieces and spend time with my sister and brother. Or I could help them make money. That's the ultimate goal."