Upshaw's life triumph trumps Super Bowl result
FEB 01, 2013 4:00p ET
Openly discussing your upbringing requires a certain level of stillness and introspection, traits that don't jive with the hard-charging, always-looking-forward attitudes that permeate most championship locker rooms.
But for Baltimore Ravens rookie linebacker Courtney Upshaw, there is another reason to avoid reflecting on his childhood. As he told the Baltimore Sun, "The way I grew up, the things I endured or encountered, I kind of have trust issues."
Upshaw grew up the way too many young black men in rural Alabama have for years — impoverished, fatherless, nomadic, angry and searching.
He was shuffled off to an aunt's house in Eufaula, Ala. as a child because his mother had neither the time nor money to raise him. There were plenty of days when Upshaw lived without electricity or proper clothing, when he slept on the couch — so that his younger sisters could have the bed — and when he brought french fries home after a coach-sponsored trip to McDonald's, so the girls would have a treat.
Dreams of playing in the Super Bowl were too far-fetched, too cruel to even ponder.
There was no way he could have imagined starting as a rookie on one of the world's biggest stages, and doing so with two BCS national championship rings at home.
Upshaw appreciates the irony of playing on the same team with Michael Oher, whose story was laid bare in Michael Lewis's bestselling book "The Blind Side," and the movie it inspired.
Their lockers are only a few feet apart. Even though they don't speak about it, they lived very similar lives, Oher surviving the mean streets of Memphis, and Upshaw shuffling between public housing and the shanty dwellings of various relatives in western Alabama, staying with whomever had power, water and food.
Like Oher, who was adopted by Sean and Leigh Anne Tuohy, Upshaw received support from some unlikely guardian angels in the form of Tom and Leigh McKenzie, locals whose son, Will, got into a kindergarten fight that Upshaw stepped in and broke up. Throughout his life, Upshaw received periodic help from the McKenzies — money to play various sports, an occasional shopping trip to buy new shoes or clothes, and coaching.
But more than anything, they were a lighthouse, a beacon of refuge in the otherwise dark harbors of hopelessness and despair. Tom McKenzie coached Upshaw in football and basketball at the youth level, and continued to be the go-to male figure in the young man's life during difficult times.
Upshaw wasn't a premier college prospect. In fact, he wasn't the best player at Eufaula High School. That honor went to Jerrel Jernigan, who went on to play college football for Troy and was selected in the third round of the 2011 NFL Draft (New York Giants).
However, Upshaw was fast, athletic and hungry enough to catch Nick Saban's eye. By his sophomore year at Alabama, Upshaw was one of the cornerstones of the best defense in college football, and a man Saban called, "The meanest player I've ever coached."
Upshaw had his problems at Alabama. Just as Oher struggled to adjust at Ole Miss, Upshaw was arrested after an altercation with a female student got out of hand. Charged with misdemeanor battery and harassment, the court gave him youthful-offender status and ordered him to complete anger management classes, which he did. At the time, Saban said of the incident, "I think (Upshaw) was put in a little bit of an uncompromising position and didn't handle it very well."
Upshaw graduated in less than four years with a degree in human development. He also worked diligently during relief efforts after tornadoes tore through Tuscaloosa, and his random acts of kindness became legendary around campus.
During his junior year, Upshaw reconciled with his mother, who explained as best she could how and why she had walked away from her babies. She wept when he and his teammates won their second national title in New Orleans, beating LSU, and she stood at his side, along with his brothers and sisters and the McKenzie family, when the Ravens took him in the second round.
That is not to imply everything in Upshaw's life is now rainbows and roses. He has trouble making small talk and still struggles with some basic human connections, classic symptoms of abandonment. But given his starting line, where he has finished is nothing short of a miracle.
No matter the outcome of the Super Bowl, Upshaw will walk away as one of the game's ultimate winners.
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