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Well before he became one of the most prized defensive tackles to ever enter the NFL draft, Gerald McCoy was the kid who tackled three people at once in a little-league game.
He was the 238-pound 12-year-old behemoth who made kids tremble as they gawked at the child who looked more like a man.
Even though he was by far the biggest and strongest player already, McCoy was also the one who went to his high school weight room, sometimes alone, during summer mornings before work while his teammates slept in.
His isn't the story of a youngster who hit a growth spurt and blossomed into a hulking giant. He didn't have to work harder than everyone else to be big — that came naturally. He's been massive his whole life, but he supplemented his natural size with many hours in the weight room. It's that combination that has led him to where he is today.
As a student at Southeast High School in Oklahoma City, he often worked out with Chad Pape, who McCoy said is like family to him. They have been friends since they were "itty, bitty babies," as Pape said.
On sweltering summer mornings, the two of them would head to the weight room, get a workout in and then go home and get ready for work at a local furniture store, where they spent much of their time, including 13-hour Saturday shifts, loading up the cars of customers with couches, chairs and tables.
"The coaches would get to the school at 7 o'clock," Pape said. "Most kids in the summer don't get up until noon. We'd go to the gym at school, and it would be like a ghost town. It would be me and him lifting and running all morning.
"If I got there a little early and he wasn't there, I knew he'd be on his way, so I'd just go ahead and get started. We rarely ever missed, especially him."
A weight room that consisted of two bench presses, two squat racks, a pull-up bar and some dumbbells played host to McCoy's humble beginnings. McCoy, who also worked as a cook at a Schlotzsky's deli for a time, wasn't much for boasting, though, about where others, including Pape, thought he was headed.
"He would never really talk about it," said Pape, who is also a student at Oklahoma. "I'd say, 'Man, one day you're going to be making so much money.' He'd say, 'Man, I don't know. I have to work first. I haven't proven anything yet.'
"I was the one bragging for him. Everyone would talk about seeing him in the NFL one day, and he'd always say, 'We'll see.' He never would say, 'Yeah, of course you will,' or admit to it. He only just now is starting to talk about what it's going to be like playing in the NFL."
He didn't need to self-promote to get noticed by those outside Oklahoma City. McCoy earned a scholarship to Oklahoma University, and after a star career — which included becoming the first sophomore in school history to be elected as a defensive captain — he will likely be picked by the Lions at No. 2 or the Buccaneers at No. 3 on April 22 when the draft begins.
"I'm pretty sure this next level is going to be insane, but I've been through enough where I should be able to handle it," McCoy told PFW.
Other players have dealt with the difficulty of losing a parent they were close to at a young age. Some have a child — or children — of their own by the time they leave college.
McCoy has experienced both.
His daughter, Neveah — the name, "heaven" backward, was chosen by her mother, Ebony — was born two days before he announced he would be attending OU.
"It's kind of surreal," McCoy said. "You go into it as a 17-year-old kid still getting recruited by colleges, and you're worried about that, but at the same time you have to worry about when your baby is coming. Then, when your baby gets here, you have a child, and you're making the transition from high school to college, but you also have to make the transition from being a child to a father. You're a child taking care of a child, and you have so many responsibilities, and you have to grow up so fast."
McCoy relied on the advice and support of his mother throughout his life, but it was particularly valuable at that time — months after Neveah's birth, McCoy was upset about having to watch games from the sideline for the first time ever, as head coach Bob Stoops decided to redshirt him. When his parents, Gerald Sr. and Patricia, came to visit him at school the next summer, Patricia developed a severe headache, which turned out to be a brain aneurysm, McCoy later learned. She died three painful weeks after being rushed to the hospital. She never saw her son play in a game for the Sooners.
"It was a rough deal," McCoy said. "My mother was my best friend, and to this day I still can't really open up to anybody like I would with her. Any issues I had, I would call my mother."
Pape and his family spent time with the McCoys at the hospital during those three weeks.
"That was by far one of the hardest things he's ever gone through," Pape said.
McCoy said he's had his share of breakdowns after trying to hold the pain in, but he hasn't stopped trying to make her proud. McCoy decided to return to school for the 2009 season rather than enter the draft and is taking six credit hours this semester. He said he'll earn his degree in May.
Those who know him say he is an attentive father, and he recently celebrated Neveah's fourth birthday.
"I love my daughter to death," McCoy said. "She's so silly. She's one of the biggest 4-year-olds I've seen in my life. She's so gorgeous."
The pain that helped spur a maturation process may have hardened him a bit, but he doesn't often show it in public. McCoy is serious about football and his faith — he served as the president of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes at Oklahoma. He was all smiles at the Combine in February and spent his session with the media cracking up reporters.
"If you didn't know him, he would be intimidating, but anybody that knows him knows how nice and calm and relaxed of a person he is," Pape said.
McCoy has taken the same approach in his dealings with Nebraska DT Ndamukong Suh. They're considered the best tandem of D-tackles in the draft's recent history. The two prospects were pitted against each other in drills at the Combine as they battled to make their case for being the first one selected. They're likely to be plucked back-to-back as the second and third overall picks — the Rams are said to be leaning toward drafting McCoy's college teammate, QB Sam Bradford, with the first pick — but they've become friends during the process.
"I don't think it's a rivalry," Suh said. "We're definitely competitive with each other. But, no, we're definitely good friends off the field."
McCoy says he would like to be picked first, and there's no doubt he won't be available for long April 22 — he's PFW's highest-rated player in the draft. But if he has to wait a bit longer to hear his name called, don't expect him to hang his head.
"I've been dealing with different types of adversity my whole life," McCoy said. "So, it's prepared me well for what I'm about to face."
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