Oregon's Colvin pursues NFL dream despite tragedies

Cameron Colvin on his NFL prospects: "I'm hoping teams can see my character. [Recently] I was barely able to walk straight, but I know I have to make things happen. If I really want to be an NFL receiver, I can't sit around and pout about my situation." Tom Hauck for ESPN.com

Cameron Colvin felt and heard the gruesome crack in his right ankle in October 2007 and immediately knew his college career had ended.

He didn't need to see Oregon head coach Mike Bellotti wincing. He didn't need to hear the gasp of the Autzen Stadium crowd. Colvin knows pain too well. He lost both parents before he was old enough to drive. His best friend was murdered before they entered college. He and misfortune need no introduction.

So Colvin choked back tears as a team doctor inspected his broken ankle on the Ducks' sideline during that 53-7 win over Washington State. He peered into the stands once more to find his family before a cart rolled him into the empty Oregon locker room. And when his teammates returned following the game, they hovered around him without saying a word. His relatives wept nearby as Colvin sat quietly at his stall.

Considered the second-best receiver in the nation as a high school senior, Colvin just couldn't catch a break.

Before a Cougars defender rolled into his ankle on a tackle that afternoon, Colvin had been reminding people why he was considered one of California's best prep football players just four years before. The former star for national powerhouse De La Salle High School (Concord, Calif.) finally was living up to the hype as a collegian. He'd caught 15 passes in the previous two games. He'd become the favorite target of Ducks quarterback Dennis Dixon.

Colvin was enjoying that breakout season that could lead to a selection in this week's NFL draft. Then, in an instant, everything changed.

Colvin's season was over in the middle of October and tragedy was once again a big part of his life. "I just sat there thinking one thing," Colvin says. "What could happen next?"

Another aspect of Colvin's life that seems unshakable, though, is his optimism. He hopes his name is called during the draft, but if it isn't, he's determined to make a roster as a free agent.

It's hard to find a prospect better suited to take such an arduous path into pro football.

After all, Colvin's father, John, died of acute morphine intoxication when Colvin was 6. His mother, Veronica, died of a stroke when he was 15. Colvin's best friend, Terrance Kelly, was shot and killed in August 2004, two days before he and Colvin were to report to Oregon for football practice.

I've already lived through the hardest part of my life. I've sat in the front row for the funerals of both my parents, so a broken ankle isn't anything. I'd take that any day over what I've been through.

--Cameron Colvin

As Colvin says, "I've already lived through the hardest part of my life. I've sat in the front row for the funerals of both my parents, so a broken ankle isn't anything. I'd take that any day over what I've been through."

Sitting in Oregon's state-of-the-art Moshofsky Center, Colvin still manages a quick smile that friends and relatives marvel about. He refuses to complain about anything in his life. Colvin just doesn't see the point in making excuses.

He's always detached himself from pain, and he's not going to change now.

Colvin's older sister, Saimone, says Colvin is a walking example of what their parents always preached to them, that "when times get tough, you have to man up."

Says Colvin: "I'm hoping teams can see my character. Three months ago, I was barely able to walk straight, but I know I have to make things happen. If I really want to be an NFL receiver, I can't sit around and pout about my situation. I have to go out and do it."

At 6-foot-2 and 205 pounds, Colvin has pro receiver size. He has speed, too; he reportedly ran a 4.37 40-yard dash prior to his senior year at Oregon. Colvin also played well enough before his injury last season that Bellotti says, "Cameron was our best receiver by far at that point. He wasn't just coming into his own. He had come into his own."

Granted, Colvin's modest career numbers (74 receptions, 892 yards and six touchdowns) won't turn many heads,
but his potential is still intriguing.

"If you put a gun to my head, I'd say he doesn't get drafted," said an AFC scout, requesting anonymity. "But some team will give him a shot because he has ability. He has good size, decent speed and he can go up and get the football. The big question will be whether he can pass a physical when his opportunity comes."

Colvin's last opportunity to impress scouts came on April 18 at the San Francisco 49ers' workout for Bay Area prospects. With 49ers head coach Mike Nolan and offensive coordinator Mike Martz watching the action, Colvin displayed his quickness by routinely beating defenders in one-on-one passing drills. True, he wasn't roasting Champ Bailey or Asante Samuel on that sunny afternoon. But he was competing with confidence and doing it without being at full strength.

Colvin actually did so well that some 49ers officials approached him afterward and acknowledged that he'd caught their eyes. "They told me that they had six selections in this year's draft and that they'd like to use one on me," Colvin says. "I thought it couldn't have gone any better."

Colvin adds that his agent, Marvin Frazier, had called him earlier in the day to say the Chicago Bears had expressed interest in him as well.

Of course, the NFL is filled with all kinds of unfulfilled promises.
But Colvin will take any positive reinforcement he can get. It's reinforcement of his self-confidence months after the NFL sent 333 invitations to its February scouting combine -- none with his name on them.

Watching television coverage of the combine, "I just told myself that everything happens for a reason," he says. "And that would just be more motivation for me."

It's hard to imagine a prospect needing more motivation than Colvin.

Though he was relatively young when his father died, he learned plenty from how his mother handled her life. Veronica Colvin never griped about anything and she had a prodigious spirit.
Even when local prosecutors accused her of murdering John -- she was indicted in 1994 when they claimed she laced his cough medicine with morphine, but her case ended in a mistrial in 1997 due to a lack of evidence -- she refused to live with bitterness or rage.

Veronica was just as resilient when it came to her health. She battled chronic heart problems and an aneurysm, but never let her son see her pain. Saimone was old enough to help care for her, and Cameron needed to stay focused on school and sports.

"I always tell people that my mother only needed 15 years to teach me what I needed for the rest of my life," Colvin says. "If she had been alive when I broke my ankle, she would've just told me to get the operation and then get right back to work. That's just how she looked at things. No matter how hard things get, you can't feel sorry for yourself."

Colvin already had that attitude long before this injury.

When Veronica died in February 2002, Colvin actually attended a voluntary offseason workout with his De La Salle teammates the day after her passing.

He says his teammates "looked at him like they had seen a ghost," but Colvin adds that "the best way to deal with her death was to be with my teammates."

For Colvin, there was peace of mind in football and a brotherhood at De La Salle. If nothing else could go right in his world, Colvin always felt he could control what happened on the field.

It was clear from the start that Colvin would be a future star at De La Salle and Terrance Kelly -- his best friend and a Spartans linebacker -- was headed in the same direction. They might have come from different backgrounds -- Kelly grew up in the rugged city of Richmond, Calif., while Colvin was raised in a middle-class neighborhood in Pittsburg, Calif. -- but they could relate to each other in many ways. They were talented, charismatic and driven.

In fact, Saimone Colvin jokes that Cameron and Kelly behaved like little girls at times -- they were always chuckling and text-messaging each other.

"They really knew how to push each other," says Landrin Kelly, Terrance's father. "They were both striving to make it. I remember when they were in the 10th or 11th grade and they talked about making it to the NFL with their other friends [former De La Salle players Willie Glasper and Jackie Bates also received scholarships to Oregon].

"They were all excited to do big things. And then Terrance got murdered."

Colvin had been living with his godfather, Jay Lightner, in the two years following Veronica's death, so it was Lightner who delivered the bad news on the night of Aug. 12, 2004.

He found Colvin in his bedroom and didn't mince words: Police were looking for a teenaged boy who had shot and killed Kelly earlier that night. Colvin wanted to bolt out of the house immediately to find his slain friend, but Lightner convinced him to stay inside. Two days later, Colvin reported for his first practice with the Ducks.

Lightner had hoped Colvin would redshirt, but Colvin had no interest in that.

"Losing Terrance was like losing the brother I never had," Colvin says. "I was motivated to play for TK. The tough part was that everybody kept talking about him. It was always coming up. The atmosphere was changing, but the story wasn't. People just wouldn't let it go the whole year. Even now it still comes up."

Those who know Colvin best say that freshman year was when all his problems really started on the field. Even though his heart was in the right place, his head was another story. He dropped passes. He blew assignments. He fumbled too often for a player who had been such a big-time recruit that he had announced his college choice during a news conference broadcast live on SportsCenter."

Lightner says Colvin "couldn't focus all season" and "needed a break" after dealing with Kelly's murder, in addition to his own family's tragedies.

Colvin says Kelly's death had nothing to do with that problem.

"I've always been a kid who worked hard, but I really did think things would just happen for me when I got here," Colvin says. "It turned out to be a big transition. I was always pressing. I was never letting the game come to me."

Scouts Inc. Breakdown

Cam Colvin, WR, Oregon
(6-foot-2, 205 pounds, 4.58 40)
Concerns: Durability, Injuries
Grade: 30

Strengths: Strong for size, tall enough to add bulk to frame and capable of beating press coverage. Recognizes zone coverage and does an adequate job of settling into soft spots. Shields defenders from the ball, attacks the ball when it's in the air and can make the tough catch in traffic.

Weaknesses: Doesn't explode out of cuts and is going to have a harder time separating from man coverage at the NFL level. Rounds cuts off and is an inconsistent-at-best route runner.

• Read the entire report here.Insider

Unfortunately for Colvin, his career didn't improve much after that. He caught 22 passes as a sophomore in an offense that featured older receivers like Demetrius Williams and Tim Day. He pulled a hamstring in the second game of his junior year and once again balked at taking a redshirt. He wound up starting most of the season and barely finishing half the games because of an injury that limited him to 18 receptions. By his senior year, he had lost his starting job.

"Cameron did some good things, but there were other players who had grown in the system," Oregon receivers coach Robin Pflugrad said. "So he had to dig deep within himself. We talked a lot during that time, and he realized that the only way to get where he needed to be was through hard work."

Colvin eventually earned another chance.

When starter Brian Paysinger sustained a season-ending knee injury prior to the Stanford game Sept. 22, Colvin produced a career-high eight receptions for 136 yards and a touchdown in a 55-31 win over the Cardinal. Colvin also enjoyed a big day against Cal a week later -- he caught seven passes for 74 yards -- until his last-minute, goal-line fumble resulted in a 31-24 loss.

But then the Ducks played Washington State on Oct. 13, and Colvin's season ended with 20 receptions in six games.

Colvin knows most people wouldn't have been able to stay positive after such a gruesome injury. But when his family wept in the locker room that day, he implored them not to pity him.

"I told them I'm going to wear a uniform again someday," he says. Colvin thought the same thing when team doctors said he would need at least six to eight months of rehabilitation after surgically repairing his ankle. Instead of heeding that advice, he pushed his rehab process whenever possible.

Colvin had his doctors change his cast every two weeks so he could gauge his ankle's progress. He flew to see a specialist in Vancouver, British Columbia, who could help stimulate the blood flow through the joint. And when he wasn't healthy enough to travel with Oregon to the Sun Bowl, he cut his Christmas break short and returned to Eugene, Ore. Colvin spent that evening in the empty Moshofsky Center, where he rode a stationary bike simply to stay active.

Colvin was just as intense while training with former Olympic sprinter Dennis Mitchell in Orlando, Fla. Since Colvin's ankle remained gimpy -- "He couldn't run 30 meters without limping when I first got him," Mitchell says -- Colvin often performed basic exercises in a sandpit until he could train for two or three days at a time.

And when Colvin wasn't training with Mitchell over that six-week period, he was flying back to Oregon to finish classes that would help him graduate on time with a political science degree.

What Colvin understood was that nothing could change how his college career unfolded. All that mattered now was the opportunity ahead of him.

"When I got to college, I was like everybody else," he says. "I was thinking I'd be going to the draft in New York City and I'd be hearing my name called in the first round. After I got hurt, I realized that wasn't going to happen. But when I watched the NFL, I saw a lot of guys who didn't have big college careers and still made it. I think I can do the same thing."

So far, Colvin's efforts have paid off. He reached his goal of competing in two Oregon pro days -- although he was disappointed by running the 40-yard dash in the 4.7- to 4.8-second range -- and he's shown improvement with each audition. He admits that the ankle still isn't as stable as he'd like it to be, but he's not complaining, either. If this is how he has to prove himself, then so be it.

The only downside is that Colvin can't share these moments with the loved ones he has lost.

He thinks he can just keep going because he's already been hurt more than anybody can be.

--Landrin Kelly, Terrance Kelly's father, on Cameron Colvin

"I think about them a lot," Colvin says. "Everybody wants their parents to be with them at those special times in their lives. But I know that I still have good people around me. And I also know people who have gone through similar things and they don't have the same attitude that I have."

That positive outlook was evident as Colvin hung out with some relatives at the Antioch, Calif. home of his aunt, Marilynn Westbrook, on the night before his workout with the 49ers. He glanced at old photos, chuckled about fond memories of his playing days and savored the time he had with them before heading to a massage in nearby Danville.

With so much riding on his performance the next day, it seemed likely Colvin might be tense. But the look on his face suggested that he was at ease with what was coming, that he'd done all he could to prepare for it.

That peace of mind might very well be what separates Colvin from all the other draft prospects who are trying to overcome mediocre careers and histories of injuries. Landrin Kelly says he can see the spirit of Veronica Colvin in Cameron.

"He thinks he can just keep going because he's already been hurt more than anybody can be," Kelly says.

Colvin agrees.

"I'm trying to stay positive and focused, but I also believe in karma," he says. "And I definitely think that there are a lot of good things ahead for me."

Jeffri Chadiha covers the NFL for ESPN.com.