Poe never lost focus en route to NFL

BY Peter Schrager • April 26, 2012

Dontari Poe’s life story has been compared to "The Blind Side."

But that comparison isn't quite accurate.

Poe, the Kansas City Chiefs’ first round pick and the 11th overall selection in Thursday night’s NFL Draft, is from a similar tough part of Memphis, Tenn., as the one Michael Oher grew up in.

But there was no Sandra Bullock character scooping Dontari Poe up on a rainy night, showing him a new life. There were no car rides with a spunky little brother, listening to "Bust a Move."

No, Poe’s journey from Bluff City to Radio City was one that required patience, persistence and incredible perseverance.

It required focus and determination.

Poe overcame a troubled childhood in Memphis’ Whitehaven section, where drugs and gangs were a part of his everyday life, to graduate from Wooddale High School, get the grades needed to play FBS college football and become the first member of his family to attend college.

When he was younger, he watched as his older brother, Robert Jr., was carted off to prison for drugs and guns charges. He saw his mother, Sandra, work multiple jobs to ensure that her youngest son, Dontari, would always be busy with after-school activities and out of trouble.

“This is our first trip to New York,” Dontari’s oldest brother, Pierre, said with a smile earlier this week at the EA Sports draft party. With Dontari and Pierre's brother Robert Jr. in prison and their father no longer part of their lives, Pierre, 29, plays an important role in Dontari's world.

“We’re just having a blast; enjoying the experience. We’re going down to Wall Street tomorrow. That’ll be cool. We’ve never been. We’ve only seen it on TV. Can’t wait.”

The smiles couldn’t be wiped off their faces.

But Poe wasn’t smiling the entire week. And he hadn’t been smiling much since emerging as the media darling of February’s NFL Scouting Combine.

After a jaw-dropping performance in which he ran a sub-5.0-second 40-yard dash and pumped out 44 repetitions of 225 pounds on the bench press in Indianapolis, the 346-pound Poe experienced the roller coaster that is being the combine’s "winner." First, he was the media’s golden child. There were glowing articles, Twitter praise and scouts buzzing from New England to Arizona.

As the weeks went by, though, Poe went from media dreamboat to media punching bag.

Poe didn’t dominate at Memphis. He doesn’t stand out whatsoever on film. Was he just another "Workout Warrior" — a Vernon Gholston or Mike Mamula — and nothing more? In a weak college football conference, he started 12 games and made just 33 tackles in 2011. He had only one sack. His team went just 2-10 on the year.

The NFL Network’s Mike Mayock last week called Poe "a very average football player right now." ESPN’s Todd McShay said, "I see the workout numbers, and I found myself wanting and waiting and wishing and hoping. Every single play I watched from Memphis, I was just hoping that he would make a big play. He will disrupt and be involved in some plays, but for a guy that you’re talking about potential top-10, top-12 pick, I just didn’t see the production and I didn’t see a guy who understands and has a great feel for the game.”

Poe tuned some of the heated criticism out.

Not all of it, though.

"As of right now, I have an unlimited amount of motivation because of what I've been hearing through the press," Poe said in an interview Wednesday. "It will motivate me more. But to say that it will be the ultimate factor in me trying to rip someone's head off because of the draft, you know, I was planning on doing that anyway."

When I asked him about that quote at Thursday’s draft, a smile crossed Poe’s face. “I’m just going to do my very best and compete.”

Kansas City general manager Scott Pioli and head coach Romeo Crennel must feel strongly that he will. Poe, a guy who wasn’t listed on any mock drafts or considered a Day One selection in January, was taken over consensus first-round locks Fletcher Cox and Michael Brockers. Both star defensive tackles from the SEC, Cox and Brockers watched in the Radio City green room as the draft’s most curious first-round prospect flew off the board before them.

Poe goes to Kansas City, where he’ll be expected to make an immediate impact. With longtime veteran nose tackle Kelly Gregg expected to retire, Romeo Crennel’s 3-4 defense has a giant hole in the middle of its defensive line looking to be filled. Poe’s 6-foot-3, 346-pound frame will do just that. He’ll compete with Amon Gordon, Allen Bailey and 2011 sixth-round pick Jerrell Powe for the gig in training camp. He’ll be expected to make an impact on Day 1.

More of an impact than he made in college.

“I’m ready to do whatever the coaches ask of me. I’m just ready to get started. I’m ready to play,” an exasperated Poe said on Thursday, donning a new red Chiefs hat and sounding drained from a whirlwind 72 hours.

“In college, I always did what I was told to do,” Poe said Thursday. “Whether that was filling up gaps, freeing up linebackers, whatever that may be … instead of me just being a selfish guy and going out and saying I'm going to get 50 tackles and 10 sacks, I just played my defense the best I could."

As the 11th overall pick in the draft, all eyes will be on Poe in 2011. And with recent top-10 question marks Tyson Jackson and Glenn Dorsey already in the Chiefs locker room, the local fanbase isn’t going to accept another project on the defensive line. Failure's really not an option.

Kansas City hasn’t won a playoff game since 1993. The Arrowhead faithful don't want "potential" and "long-term possibilities." They want results.

“I’ll do the best that I very can,” Poe nodded when reminded of this. “I’m excited, man. I’m excited to do help the Kansas City Chiefs get back there. Back to the playoffs.”

As he walked through Radio City Music Hall on Thursday night flanked by his big brother, Poe shook his head in amazement. He had a dazzling new watch on his wrist and a suit that belonged on the cover of GQ draped around his giant frame.

He was a great distance from Memphis, but with his closest friends and family by his side, the 901 area code was still very much a part of him.

There’s no movie, here. No Michael Lewis New York Times best seller.

Not yet, at least.

The book on Dontari Poe is just getting started.

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