Gators’ Loucheiz Purifoy driven by adversity
GAINESVILLE, Fla. — When her only son told her the news, Estella Floyd — everyone who knows her calls her Rená — didn’t think anything of it.
While the subject was popular with the media and fans, when Gators coach Will Muschamp announced in the spring that junior cornerback Loucheiz Purifoy was going to be a two-way player this fall, Floyd figured the UF coaching staff saw what she has seen for nearly 21 years.
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First, Purifoy has more vigor than probably anyone she has ever met, and second, he is willing to do whatever it takes to help out. If that means playing offense, defense and special team for the Gators, well, that is no surprise to Floyd.
Growing up in Cantonment, a suburb located a few miles north of downtown Pensacola in the Florida panhandle, Purifoy was a load for single-mother Rená from an early age.
When Loucheiz was 4, he needed surgery to repair a hernia that developed in his abdomen from when his umbilical cord was cut. The surgery went well and as he was released from the hospital, doctors told Floyd that it was important that Loucheiz’s activity be kept to a minimum for a couple of weeks while the wound healed.
Floyd was on the phone with doctors shortly she got home with Loucheiz.
“He was in the center of the bed jumping up and down and jumping onto the floor,” Floyd said. “I called the doctor back, ‘You’ve got to put him back in the hospital because I can’t keep him still.’ He was all over the house.”
As he got older and assumed more responsibility at home, Purifoy became a constant source of attention in the house he shared with his mom and older sisters Kamisha and Alexzandrea.
He also started to play peewee football and flash some of the athletic ability that has made him an All-American candidate entering his junior season at UF.
Purifoy was so fast few could keep up with him, including the family poodle he would race each day after school along the fence line. Purifoy would put the dog on the inside of the fence, and he would race up and down on the outside.
Inevitably, the poodle would stagger back to the front door with its tongue hanging out.
His sisters had no chance to catch little Loucheiz when Floyd told them to go get their brother for dinner.
“I would have those girls run and try to chase him down,” Floyd said. “They would come back so tired, out of breath, ‘we can’t catch him.’ It’s funny to look back.”
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Rená, Kamisha and Alexzandrea formed the epicenter of Purifoy’s life growing up.
They watched over him, kept him grounded and away from the influences that can sidetrack a young man’s life.
“They are his backbones,” Floyd said of her daughters.
Sports served as the outlet for all that energy that burned inside Purifoy.
His extended family included an array of cousins that helped him develop into the dynamic force Florida fans watched a year ago as Purifoy blossomed into one of the nation’s top defensive backs and special teams players.
Purifoy and cousin Shaq Purifoy, who signed with Grambling, formed a lethal duo for opponents at Pensacola’s Pine Forest High.
Purifoy, listed at 6-1, 189 pounds, was never the biggest player on the field. But he was usually the fastest and nearly always the feistiest.
“I really didn’t play football with the younger people because I was always faster than them,” he said. “So the older boys always ended up picking me up on their team and I ended up playing ball with them. That’s how I got tough. I don’t like to get hit and not hit back.”
A few hundred miles away from home at UF, Purifoy has gained a newfound celebrity around campus following his breakout season and the expectations that followed.
Purifoy started 12 games last season and finished with career highs for tackles (51), forced fumbles (3) and passes defended (5). He also made a huge impact on special teams with two blocked kicks and an average of 23.9 yards on seven kickoff returns.
He tries to keep it all in perspective amidst the growing attention.
He knows that is what Rená expects.
“We didn’t grow up with a lot of money,” Purifoy said. “This is my life. This is more than a game to me. For [success] to come to light, the whole picture is just being put in place.”
Floyd, 46, worked multiple jobs while Purifoy grew up. She taught special education students at Pine Forest, worked at a community center mentoring special-needs kids, attended junior college and later the University of West Florida to improve her salary, and was Purifoy’s chauffeur to and from many of those sporting events.
In high school Purifoy starred in football, basketball and track.
The life mileage began to take a toll on Floyd during Purifoy’s senior season of high school.
A turning point happened in the middle of the night three days before Pine Forest’s game against Pace for the district title.
Purifoy was asleep when Rená woke him up. His mom’s heart was dying.
“She had congestive heart failure,” Purifoy said.
Floyd actually flat-lined in the ambulance on the way to the hospital.
“They had to pull me out of the ambulance and work on me right on the side of the road,” Floyd said.
By the time Purifoy arrived at the hospital, a different one than he expected due to the scare in the ambulance, the scene was grim.
“It was tough because my mom and me are really close,” he said. “All I saw were a bunch of tubes.”
Fortunately, Floyd’s condition stabilized the next day and she held out hope of attending Friday night’s big showdown between Pine Forest and Pace.
The doctors delivered the news: she needed heart surgery to replace a defective valve.
Over the next couple of days Purifoy spent much of his time going back and forth between school and the hospital. He decided to play in the game.
“I wanted him to play and he played his heart out, too,” Floyd said. “I watched it on the computer in the hospital.”
Pine Forest won the district championship 34-17.
Purifoy, a quarterback/running back/receiver in the Eagles’ split-back veer offense, accounted for 372 total yards and two touchdowns, including a 96-yard kickoff return.
“He is super competitive, just a fiery player,” said former Pensacola News-Journal sports writer D.C. Reeves, who now covers Florida State for the Rivals.com network. “I remember when we would pick against his team in the newspaper, he would always come over and say something before the game to let us hear about it.”
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If Purifoy had not chosen football, Brad Grant, his basketball coach at Pine Forest, believes Purifoy could play college basketball.
Purifoy was a standout guard/small forward for the Eagles in Grant’s first season in 2010. He averaged 17 points a game and led Pine Forest to its first district title in 28 years.
He carried the same mentality onto the basketball court as the football field.
“He brought his heart and lunch pale to work every day,” said Grant, who remains close to Purifoy. “He was part of a big deal. He would schedule [football] recruiting visits around when we had games. He only missed one game. That says a lot about a kid. He didn’t want to let his teammates down.
“Loucheiz is one of those guys that anything he sets his mind on he is going to do it.”
Bill Vilona followed Purifoy’s blossoming athletic career as a columnist for the Pensacola News-Journal. He said Purifoy has the talent to be an elite triple-jumper or sprinter if he had chosen that route.
“He was that good,” Vilona said. “The only issue with him was if he was going to qualify.”
Floyd had similar concerns when Purifoy started high school. As a freshman at crosstown Tate High, Purifoy’s grades were not meeting Floyd’s expectations.
She moved him to Pine Forest where she taught. Soon, his grades improved. It was a time in Purifoy’s life that he looks back on now with a more mature appreciation.
He was in danger of taking the wrong path but began to realize what was at stake for his future. Growing up without a steady father figure also played a role in his turnaround, as has the fact he is now a father.
“I kind of grew up trying to take a different path than him,” Purifoy said of his father, whom he has had an off-and-on relationship over the years. “I had to realize I had to make a change in schools if I wanted to go to a college.”
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Purifoy quickly developed into one of Muschamp’s favorites because of his toughness and blue-collar approach.
While Pensacola produced one of the best players in Florida football history — running back Emmitt Smith — the area has produced few Gators in recent years. Prior to Purifoy, the last top prospect Florida signed from Pensacola was linebacker Jon Demps in 2005.
Purifoy’s emergence and the success in recent years of Pine Forest alums such as Redskins running back Alfred Morris, Falcons offensive lineman Mike Johnson and former USF defensive end George Selvie has shined a spotlight on the program led by veteran coach Jerry Pollard.
Purifoy is symbolic of the type of player Pollard prefers.
“They don’t really leave here with these glowing reputations,” Vilona said. “They don’t get jaded in high school. We’re remote. We’re not in the mainstream of Florida, so a lot of the people don’t get noticed that well. I also think that it benefits these kids because they don’t get big heads. And Jerry Pollard, he’s not a flamboyant guy and his teams aren’t flamboyant. He is an old-school coach.”
Purifoy fit in perfectly.
In high school Purifoy would often spend the night in the school’s weight room, wake up and watch three hours of game film, and then finally go home.
He has taken the same approach this offseason trying to learn to play receiver.
“It’s very difficult for a guy that’s had tremendous success at a position when you’re trying to learn another position,” Muschamp said.
Last week as Purifoy strolled through the Gators’ locker room, he goaded back-up quarterback Tyler Murphy for not sending him a text at 6 that morning so he could join the quarterbacks in a passing drill.
Junior Jeff Driskel is confident that Purifoy has the ability to make an impact on offense in the passing game regardless if he misses a drill or two.
“He’s an athletic freak and a guy we want to get the ball,” Driskel said. “He’s really embraced the challenged and done a good job. He wants to learn. He’s a student of the game.”
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Purifoy’s drive to succeed is fueled by several factors.
The woman whose name he has tattooed on his arm is the guiding light. His mother’s health has improved — she had to stop teaching after suffering another heart attack, this one at school — and she is able to get to most home games.
Still, she needs dialysis treatments three times a week and is in need of a kidney transplant. Floyd is scheduled to take a trip to Birmingham, Ala., at the end of August to have tests to see if her sister is a compatible donor.
“I’m getting stronger,” she said. “I have my good days and bad days. It’s a process I’m going through right now.”
Purifoy checks in on his mom regularly. His sisters live in the same neighborhood and help her out as she tries to get healthy.
There is talk that if Purifoy has a strong junior season, he could be a first-round NFL Draft pick.
That dream sprouted in his head when he was in high school and saw his mother struggling to support the family.
Now that the dream seems close to reality, the fire inside burns hotter.
“I just watched her do so much to the point where I’m tired of her doing stuff,” he said. “I feel like it’s my turn to do something for my mom and two sisters. That’s who raised me. It’s time for me to give back.
“She needs a kidney. We are working on it. When the opportunity knocks, you’ve got to take advantage of it.”
In life, and football, that is the mission Purifoy seeks to complete.