For a select few, Noel Devine can provide divine intervention.
Devine is the grossly undersized jitterbug running back from West Virginia looking forward to his NFL future, but the incredible hardships he has endured have given him an instant connection with kids who never want to share his circumstances but find comfort in his words.
“All that I’ve been through is good and God took me through it for a reason, for young ones to look at and let it be an example for them to push and strive for their best and live their daily life right,” Devine says, standing on a Senior Bowl practice field only months away from his NFL dream. “No matter what, they can make it.”
Devine is easily the smallest NFL prospect this year. He stands alongside future NFL giants, running behind them, around them and past them. Some are a foot taller and double his weight. But the bigger men aren’t always the bigger men. The behemoths have nothing over the 5-foot-7, 160-pounder when it comes to heart.
Devine’s story is one of so much tragedy and some triumph. The tragedy isn’t his own doing. The triumph is only counted in the victory column because of how he has chosen to approach the tragedy.
The pain started before he was even old enough to comprehend life and death. He was only months old when his father died of AIDS. He was 11 when the same cruel sentence was issued on his mother, who also died of AIDS. Those hardships help him form deep bonds with others who were unfortunate enough to be fed similar circumstances, one of them just recently.
“I met this young kid named Christian. I was his neighbor. He told me he lost his father and mom in jail,” Devine said. “We bonded really tight. He ended up testing me all night, saying he was about to give up, just on football and whatever he had going in school and things until (talking to) me. That’s basically what I live for and I know my purpose.”
Devine truly sounds like a man who has committed to using his overwhelming adversities to help others with their healing.
“Every time I see a young kid, I reach out to them and talk to them. Hopefully my words can reach out to them and strengthen them and talk to their soul and strive for them to get better,” he said.
“At the time, whatever God gives me to speak. Just encouragement to keep going no matter what,” he said.
Unfortunately, Devine’s destitution didn’t end with the death of his parents. He was witness to one of his friends, Rashard Patterson, being shot to death when they were sophomores in high school. Football provides one outlet to escape and try to continue the healing process.
“That’s why I do this – for my friend that I lost is my angel, and my mom is my angel. It shows on the field,” Devine said. “For someone to be 160 [pounds], they say, with a big heart and angels watching over him.”
He has embraced football as that outlet and excelled with it. He started playing after the death of his mother, and about 10 years later he is one of the most electric, elusive players coming out for the NFL draft.
Devine went from struggling to qualify for college to making the most of his opportunity. After four years at West Virginia, he rushed for more than 4,000 yards, had 40 touchdowns and entertained thousands in the stands, in front of TV sets and viewing the incredible highlight films he has been starring in since his high school days.
His size will certainly hurt him, but the comparisons to Barry Sanders have some credence. He can be slippery as they come as long as he finds the space to execute his spin moves to freedom.
As a sophomore, he rushed for 1,289 yards and four touchdowns, and he was well on his way after his junior season, when he improved to 1,465 yards rushing and 13 touchdowns. But toe and ankle injuries derailed a quick start to his senior season. A career that started with an 8.6-yard average per rush as a freshman and saw an average above six yards per carry in his sophomore and junior seasons was now relegated to just average – 4.5 yards per carry – because of his injuries.
“I just love to run. After I got put in football after my mom passed, I just knew I had a God-given ability,” he said.
He grew up a fan of Barry Sanders, but it was another Sanders, Deion, that mentored him late in his high school days. Devine and Deion Sanders are both from North Fort Myers (Fla.) High School, and Devine even moved in with Sanders in Texas for a few weeks, but eventually being that close didn’t work out and the man he calls his “godfather” and others call “Neon Deion” could only try to offer support from afar as Devine tried to qualify academically for college.
Eventually, he passed the required entrance tests and West Virginia accepted him. Devine said the best advice Sanders gave him was to stay in school. By the end of his junior year at West Virginia, Devine could have come out for the NFL draft early, but he was having too much fun in school, he says.
This week, it’s the beginning of the next phase in his incredible life. He now has three children of his own to support, and he doesn’t take that responsibility lightly.
Meanwhile, he isn’t afraid to offer advice to other kids who are on the brink of giving up. Devine has been there, but he keeps fighting through it and avoiding the despair.
“I think we all get to that point,” he said. “The devil is trying to reach out to you and wants you to give up, but you have to know that the Lord is the strength of all.”
Whether it’s divine intervention or Devine’s intervention, the hardships have given the undersized fighter a larger-than-life purpose and he’s not about to run away from those challenges.