DALLAS - As Penn State defensive tackle Devon Still traveled to Orlando and Charlotte as a finalist for three of college football's most prestigious awards, he probably thought back to his first two seasons, when it looked as if his career would never get off the ground.
Sidelined all of his first season by a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee and out for all but 10 plays of his second year with a broken left ankle, Still needed to overcome doubts about his durability and whether he could make an impact for a successful Big Ten program.
It looks as if he conquered those concerns during an outstanding senior year. The disruptive 6-foot-5, 310-pound defensive tackle was one of the last three players being considered for the Bednarik Award (given by the Maxwell Football Club of Philadelphia), the Outland Trophy, and the Bronko Nagurski Award.
Though he did not win any of the honors, Still could nevertheless be satisfied with what he achieved during a season that saw 10 organizations honor him as a first-team all-American and saw him climb the charts to become a virtually certain first-round pick in next year's NFL draft.
"I think I lived the good life," he said of his travels to Orlando and Charlotte. "I had fun. Unfortunately, I wasn't able to bring anything home, but it was a once-in-a-lifetime experience. I think just being a finalist, through the midst of everything that was going on, speaks volumes about what type of player I was and what type of accomplishments I've had this year."
The play of Still and his teammates was overshadowed during the final three weeks of the regular season by the child sexual-abuse scandal stemming from the indictment of former assistant coach Jerry Sandusky. Still said that while on the road, more people wanted to talk about those events than about football.
"That was just something I had to face on my own," he said. "But I'm mentally tough, so it didn't bother me as much as it would another person. I have to take other opportunities to show what type of player I am and try to make them talk about that."
That mental toughness propelled Still this season. Going into Monday's TicketCity Bowl matchup against Houston, the Big Ten's defensive player of the year ranks second in the conference in solo tackles for loss with 15 and is tied for third in overall TFLs with 17.
Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald said in October there were "probably about 40 to 50 plays in a game where [Still's] ability to get up the field has caused just complete and total chaos in the backfield."
Still set the stage for this season while preparing for the Outback Bowl at the end of 2010, a season he said "wasn't what I wanted it to be." He studied diligently with Nittany Lions defensive line coach Larry Johnson about reading offenses and then had 31/2 tackles for loss in the bowl against Florida.
"Up to that point, you didn't hear much from Devon," said Jordan Hill, Still's fellow defensive tackle. "But in pregame, he brought the team together, giving us a speech. You could tell right then the type of year he was going to have. He set a goal for himself, and he went and got it done this year."
Still said, "I was able to just understand football more before the bowl - offenses and different formations and different blocking schemes, and I took that into this year. It just took off."
There also was incentive from a tiny source, Still's 19-month-old daughter, Leah.
"That was my main motivation, just to know that I'm playing for her livelihood," he said. "I wasn't going to let nobody go out there and stop me from being able to provide for my daughter."
He may be able to provide quite well.
He is ranked No. 8 overall by NFLDraftScout.com. ESPN.com draft mavens Mel Kiper Jr. and Todd McShay have him ranked 11th and 19th, respectively.
Kiper described him as "a great penetrator [who] has overcome health issues and has been extremely disruptive, breaking through double-teams."
Still, who received his Penn State degree on Dec. 17, said becoming a first-round draft pick would be life-changing.
"It would be a blessing to become a first-rounder after everything that I went through," he said. "I couldn't ask for more. But I know I definitely worked for it."
First, however, he will have to wrap up his college career against Houston and its potent offense, led by quarterback Case Keenum, who met Still at the Orlando awards show televised by ESPN and posed for a photo with him.
"I can't wait to see him again," Still said of Keenum with a sly smile. "Hopefully it's a different pose, and I'm actually hitting him instead of standing next to him smiling. I can't wait."