The Noel Devine That You Don’t Know

SAN ANTONIO, TX — He is just 18, way too young to have gone through the kind of heartaches and tragedies that crush hardy souls or turn survivors old long before their time. Noel Devine’s baby face doesn’t offer any hints that life has been oh so hard but when you look into those soulful eyes, there is no question that he’s seen far more pain that a kid should have to bear.

What we know about Noel Devine — among other things his parents died of AIDS before he was 12 and he has a couple of kids — pales in comparison to the rumors and innuendo that can spike internet message board traffic to record levels. We also know that he is the ultimate human highlight reel with a football in his hands but really, we know very little else except that the made-up stories about him would stretch from here to El Paso and back.

Because he is that once in a lifetime talent that defies description when he goes from human pinball to streaking missile in a matter of two steps, everybody wants a piece of Noel Devine and this is what is at the heart of all the tall tales. Too many people with too much time on their hands have taken a few known facts, added their own version, and transformed this 5-8, 170-pound kid that just wants to play football and someday take care of his kids into a myth of epic proportions. On the football field he is already a legend, sort of a combination of Gayle Sayers, Walter Payton and Reggie Bush all rolled into one.

If you believe even a tenth of the things you’ve read about his personal life on the message boards, then the off the field legend dwarfs the unbelievable accomplishments that have made him the number one rated running back in the nation by Now, this is not to say that Devine hasn’t fueled a good bit of the speculation with a few ill-timed and well-publicized mistakes along the way. He doesn’t duck the questions about the problems of the past. Instead, he looks you straight in the eye and without hesitation admits that he’s made his share of bad decisions. In the same breath he will also tell you that he’s trying to make amends and something in the way he says it makes you believe that somehow, someway, he’s going to do it.

“Everybody makes mistakes and nobody is perfect,” said Devine Monday night.

Shy and quiet by nature, he was a bit uncomfortable. He was tired from a long day that began with an early morning flight from Fort Myers to San Antonio. He was barely off the plane when he donned jersey number 62 and got in half a practice with the East team that is preparing for Saturday’s U.S. Army All-American Bowl. By 8:30, he had one interview on the agenda and then it was off to bed for some much needed sleep.

“No matter how many mistakes you make, you have to learn from them,” he said. “That’s important. I’ve made mistakes. I’m trying to learn from my mistakes and hoping people will give me some second chances. If they do, I’ll do my best to make the most of the second chances.”

It would be easy to blame bad circumstances for all the problems and the bad decisions. He’s had to grow up fast and without a lot of guidance. He bounced around from place to place for a number of years and that probably factors heavily in a borderline academic situation. Since he moved in with Liz Harlow and her family a few months ago, he’s gained stability in his home life and that has reflected in more focus on the academics and an outside shot that he’ll qualify for a Division I football scholarship.

He is way too young to have children but he has two. His dark eyes brighten and he flashes a smile when he talks about his kids. He’s just a kid himself but he’s got a man’s responsibility to raise two children and he desperately wants them to grow up without having to endure all that he’s had to go through in 18 very short years.

This is where football becomes important. It is his vehicle to a better life, not just for him but for the two little ones that he adores.

“My girl will be two in March and my boy will be turn one in September,” he said. “I love both of them so much and the best part is that I’m seeing them grow up. After this, I’ll probably be away at school or at college so I won’t see them so much so now I try to spend as much time with them as I can.”

He will be traveling next week to Milford, Connecticut to check out a prep school where he might spend next year improving his academic standing. His first choice is to keep working hard on his grades and getting a qualifying score for a Division I scholarship but prep school is a contingency that he has to plan for.

“If I can qualify for college, that’s what I want to do but I’ve got to check things out and do what’s best, whatever that is,” he said.

He loves football but he thinks of other things such as earning a college degree. He doesn’t know what he will major in once he gets to college but he does know that he likes math and he likes science.

“I like the challenge of math and I like science because it makes me think,” he said. “I want to get a college degree. It will help me take care of my kids.”

He has plenty of scholarship offers but he’s cautiously narrowed his choices to five schools with coaching staffs that make him feel comfortable. LSU, Nebraska, West Virginia, Florida State and Florida are the schools he likes but it may be awhile before he decides. He’s still got to make qualifying scores on standardized tests and earn a high enough GPA to make it into a Division I school. If he can’t he’ll spend the next year in prep school, not an easy thing to do but perhaps a necessity just the same.

Whatever he must do to earn the chance to play college football, he says he will do it. He is determined to rise above the circumstances that have dealt him a cruel hand in life.

“Life isn’t always easy but sometimes that’s just the way it is,” he said. “Some people have had it a lot worse than I have had it and they survived. They got through it. So will I. That’s how I have to look at it.”

As he makes his way through this very uncertain time in his life, he says his faith in God is unshaken and that helps him make it through each day.

“Even with all the things that happened, I know that I’m blessed with God watching over me,” he said. “My mom’s up in heaven with God and I know she’s watching me, too. It’s going to be all right. I know it will.”

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Franz Beard
Back in January of 1969, the late, great Jack Hairston, then the sports editor of the Jacksonville Journal, called me on the phone one night and asked me if I wanted to work for him. I said yes. The entire interview took 30 seconds. It's my experience that whenever the interview lasts 30 seconds or less, I get the job. In the 48 years that I've been writing and getting paid for it, I've covered Super Bowls, World Series, NCAA basketball championships, BCS championship games, heavyweight title fights and what seems like thousands of college football, baseball and basketball games. I'm a columnist and special assignments editor for Gator Country once again, writing about the only team that ever mattered to me, the Florida Gators.