Bucs’ Jamel Dean beat the odds with physical, mental strength

TAMPA — Jamel Dean strolled into the interview room, did a pageant wave to the assembled media and smiled so hard it looked as if his face might break.

The Bucs cornerback had much to be happy about after signing a four-year, $52 million contract upstairs at the AdventHealth Training Center.

“I felt like I beat the odds,” Dean said.

Dean chose the high point of his career Thursday to discuss his breaking point on a football journey spent mostly backpedaling due to an array of injuries.

He was an early-enrollee at Ohio State but the Buckeyes medically disqualified him for football less than a week into classes because of two serious knee injuries he sustained while at Cocoa High School; those included a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee as a junior.

Dean transferred to Auburn but was not allowed to play immediately because the NCAA denied a waiver. Dean sat out the 2015 season but was ready to compete for a starting job in 2016. Then, two weeks before the season opener against Clemson, he tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee.

“I hit like probably like one of my lowest points in life,” Dean said. “I’m just saying, like, ‘Man, is football really for me?’ But you know, I had a lot of people in my corner. ... I’m glad I didn’t quit. I proved Ohio State wrong when they told me I had a 3% chance of being successful in football. I took the gamble and it paid off.”

Even though Dean finished strong at Auburn, there still were questions about the stability of his knees when he arrived at the NFL scouting combine in Indianapolis in 2019.

Dean had produced for the Tigers. He recorded 73 tackles, one sack, two interceptions, 19 passes defensed and a fumble recovery in 26 games. At 6-foot-1, 206 pounds, he had the length and speed that NFL scouts covet. His press and man-to-man coverage skills stood out on film. When he ran a 4.30 40-yard dash, he believed all the questions about the health of his knees had been answered.

“Honestly, I don’t know why the knee was the issue,” Dean said. “Because I went like two seasons in college without my knee being a problem. And then when I ran a 4.30 at the combine, I was like, ‘They should eliminate the knee situation.’ ”

Even so, Dean lasted until the third round, the 94th pick overall. What was unbelievable to him is that he landed in Tampa Bay, where long-time Auburn teammate and cornerback Carlton Davis had been drafted a year earlier.

“It’s a great feeling for me because me and Carl, we’ve been following each other since high school,” Dean said. “It’s crazy. In the All-American game in California, he was actually my roommate. And then we separated in college. He was committed to Ohio State, too, I just early enrolled and then things didn’t work out and we both end up at Auburn together and he left early. I tried to get him to stay another year but he wouldn’t do it.

“And then once he got to the Bucs, I was excited for him and the next year I get a phone call from (general manager) Jason (Licht) and I was like, ‘Wow, I’m reunited with Carlton again?’ And then we got here and we’re like, ‘Well, we just can’t get away from each other, can we?’ So you know, I feel like me and him, we’ve just got that great bond together. We know how to work together with each other. It’s going to be exciting.”

As a rookie, Dean played mostly on special teams and was inactive three games until a Week 8 contest at Seattle when Davis was injured in pre-game warmups. Dean had a nightmarish first NFL start, allowing three touchdown passes in the 40-34 loss.

“I had my first humbling experience in the league,” Dean said. “I used to hear the saying, ‘Prepare, like you’re going to play because you never know when your name is going be called.’ I really didn’t believe that until it actually happened. ...

“Ever since that moment, that’s when I started going to (coach Todd) Bowles and saying, ‘Teach me the game of football.’ Whenever my next opportunity comes, I made the most of it and then it happened. It actually happened the next game, we played the Cardinals. I had my worst game to my best game in a two-game span.”

Against Arizona, Dean had an interception, four passes defensed and a tackle for loss in the 30-27 win.

“I’d seen my potential," Dean said.

Now Dean wants to provide the veteran leadership that the Bucs’ young group of defensive backs didn’t have when he arrived in 2019.

“I just feel like I want to take the next step in, like, being a vet and developing the younger guys because I see how much I’ve grown,” Dean said.

For Dean, that includes sharing the feelings of isolation and depression that followed his second major knee injury. He worried his career was over. At the time, Dean said he didn’t feel comfortable seeking therapy to address his mental condition. But he did receive help from family members and teammates.

Last season, Dean used the My Cause, My Cleats campaign to bring attention to the National Alliance on Mental Illness. Some of the worst pain he experienced was not physical. If left untreated, he said it could have ended his career more quickly than any torn ligament.

“I always tell people, ‘Hey look, man, it’s best to just speak to someone because you can’t hold it in and if you hold it in for so long, eventually you’re going to crack and no telling what you’re going to do,” Dean said. “You’re going to hurt someone or you’re going to hurt yourself, so it’s best to just get it out. And then, I promise, you may feel a little awkward but once ... you let all the emotions out, you’ll feel better.

“(Teammates) understand my story. They know that I can easily relate to what they’re going through and it gives them a little comfort zone to come and talk to me or anybody else. I tell people, ‘Just talk to a therapist, because it don’t make you crazy. It don’t.’ That just opened up the window for them if they’re willing to do it.”

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