Devon Still remembers how he thought it would be when he arrived at Penn State in the summer of 2007 as one of the Nittany Lions' more prized recruits following a standout career at Howard Technology High in Wilmington, Del.
He would play as a true freshman, start at defensive tackle as a sophomore, maybe even draw some All-Big Ten Conference notices. As a junior, he'd be on the All-America watch lists, and the NFL scouts would have him on their radar. He'd be stuffing the run, collapsing pass pockets, shrugging off double-team blocks and grabbing headlines.
It hasn't happened the way Still, a cousin of former NFL defensive standouts Art Still and Levon Kirkland, envisioned. Except, of course, the part about the headlines.
There was the small headline after he suffered a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee, which kept him sidelined as a redshirt throughout 2007. Then there was another small headline from the following preseason, when Penn State announced that Still had broken his ankle and likely would miss all or most of 2008. He did make it back onto the field, but for only 10 cameo snaps in the regular-season finale against Michigan State.
There also was that more blaring headline, from April 2008, when Still had told teammate Chris Bell he suspected that Bell had stolen a cell phone case from Still's locker. He was later confronted in Penn State's Pollock Dining Commons by an enraged Bell, who pulled a knife with an 8-inch fixed blade from his sleeve. In full view of players and staff members, Bell screamed, "I am going to stab you!" at Still before being subdued and disarmed by assistant coaches Mike McQueary, Kermit Buggs and Dick Anderson.
That made for quite a bit of unwanted attention for Still, who to that point had yet to be involved in a single play against an opposing team.
Still prefers not to publicly rehash the incident with Bell, who subsequently was dismissed from the squad before transferring to Norfolk State. But he does not mind speaking to the pain and self-doubt brought on by two lengthy, grueling rehabilitations. If he wasn't the forgotten man among Penn State defensive linemen, he at least shared that distinction with hybrid defensive end/linebacker Jerome Hayes, whose own extensive injury history included torn ACLs in both knees.
Hayes could have applied to the NCAA to grant him a sixth season on medical grounds, but, by the end of a 2009 season, in which he appeared in all 13 games and registered 18 tackles, including a sack, he figured the time was right to put his football dreams behind him and get on with the rest of his life.
"It was real frustrating, because I felt like I put in too much work for it to just end like that," Still said of any thoughts that might have drifted into his mind about walking away from the sport he loved, as had Hayes. "But everything happens for a reason. By me being injured, I was able to play behind the 28th overall draft pick [All-America defensive tackle Jared Odrick, now a rookie with the Miami Dolphins], so I know what it takes to get to the next level. Playing behind Jared was a blessing."
Not that the 6-5, 311-pound Still was strictly an observer a year ago as the Nits went 11-2, their second consecutive 11-win season. He spelled Odrick enough to appear in every game and be in on 19 tackles, 5 1/2 of which were behind the line of scrimmage. He also started his only game thus far, in the Capital One Bowl edging of LSU.
Barring injury, the redshirt junior will be starting many more games as Odrick's successor at left DT. The most experienced D-lineman is senior Ollie Ogbu, who has started 22 games the past two seasons, but the big man on the inside, figuratively as well as literally, could be Still.
"Devon played extremely well last year and got better and more comfortable as the season went on," Penn State defensive coordinator Tom Bradley noted. "He made a lot of plays and had a heck of a game against LSU. When he's healthy, he's an awfully good football player."
Junior defensive end Jack Crawford doesn't think Odrick's absence will be as keenly felt as some think.
"Devon is a tremendous force, and one of the biggest players I've ever seen," said Crawford, no smurf himself at 6-5, 271. "He's fast like Jared, he's strong like Jared. Jared left big shoes to fill, but I'm confident Devon can fill those shoes."
For Still, the father of a 3-month-old daughter with tiny shoes, Lehsari, it's time to reimagine what never was but could still be. Destiny delayed does not mean destiny denied.
"I'm a very intense competitor," he said. "I'm like Jared in that respect. Watching how he pass-rushed, how he played off different blocks, that helped me. I took what I saw and incorporated it into my own game."