Devine's long, hard journey brings him to West Virginia Print
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Tuesday, 25 September 2007 10:44
NCAAF Headline News

 MORGANTOWN, W.Va. (AP) -Before Noel Devine became a YouTube sensation, he lost both his parents to AIDS, witnessed a friend's murder, rejected Deion Sanders' attempts to adopt him and became a father of two.
His years of bouncing from home to home, which included a brief stop at Sanders' Texas ranch, eventually landed the former Florida prep star at West Virginia, where four games into his college career Devine has proved worthy of the hype that followed him out of high school.
In a way, Devine's journey comes full circle Friday night, 120 miles from where he grew up, when No. 5 West Virginia (4-0) will play at No. 18 South Florida (3-0) in a key Big East matchup.
``Look where he is now. It's a success, in my eyes,'' said James Iandoli, Devine's coach at North Fort Myers High. ``I don't wish the path that he had to take on my worst enemy.
``I guess the old saying is, what doesn't kill you only makes you better. And I believe he's becoming a wonderful young man.''
The attention of being a highly touted football recruit can be head-spinning to a 19-year-old, but it's not much compared to what Devine has been through outside of football. A past that the polite, shy Devine prefers not to talk about.
His father died when he was an infant and his mother was gone before he was 12. His maternal grandmother became his legal guardian, but he thought she was too strict and he moved in with the family of an ex-teammate.
As a teenager, Devine fathered two children with different mothers. He saw a 15-year-old classmate shot in December 2004 during a confrontation with a rival group. School officials brought the incident to the attention of Sanders, a 1985 graduate of North Fort Myers.
Sanders got to know Devine and brought him to training camp with the Baltimore Ravens in 2005. Devine then went to Sanders' ranch in Prosper, Texas, with the intent of starting over.
``We wanted to give him guidance and structure, something not afforded him at the time,'' Sanders said in a recent telephone interview. ``We just felt that at that point in his life he needed a tremendous amount of structure and discipline.''
With the approval of Devine's grandmother, Sanders intended to adopt Devine. But the teen quickly returned to Florida, leaving one of Sanders' sport utility vehicles at the curb at the Dallas-Fort Worth Airport, the engine still running.
``It devastated our family,'' said Sanders, who has remained in contact with Devine. ``To get your family on board isn't easy. We made concessions ... it was tough. You can't allow someone into your home without allowing them into your heart.''
Devine, whose ability to change directions with little loss of speed has drawn comparisons to another Sanders - Barry - finished out his career where it started.
Recruited since he was a high school freshman, Devine's video clips made him an Internet prodigy, and a must-see for football fans on YouTube. He compiled 2,148 rushing yards and 31 TDs as a senior at North Fort Myers.
He also found trouble. A school confrontation prompted a two-game suspension and a locker room incident forced Devine to miss a postseason all-star game.
``He's no different than any other high school football player I've ever had,'' Iandoli said. ``The only difference is he was in the limelight. He's national news and everyone wants to put it all over the paper. Everyone wants to pass judgment.''
West Virginia coach Rich Rodriguez said his only worry after getting to know Devine was about his grades.
``The school had a plan for him and he was very determined to make it. So we hung in there with him,'' he said.
Pushed by Iandoli and others, Devine avoided prep school by qualifying for NCAA eligibility on his third attempt at taking the ACT. He then set aside overtures from Bobby Bowden at Florida State and other schools and ended up in Morgantown, a decision Sanders let Devine make on his own.
``I didn't want to entice him. He would blame you for the rest of his life,'' Sanders said. ``If it doesn't go well, he can't fault anyone but himself.''
So far, it's been a great fit on the field.
The question over whether an offense with stars Steve Slaton and Pat White and bruising fullback Owen Schmitt had room for a 5-foot-8 freshman were quickly answered.
Fans gave Devine a standing ovation in the season opener and chanted his name a week later at Marshall.
``In West Virginia the people are a lot nicer,'' Devine said. ``They treat you well.''
In the third game, Devine's first two carries in the second half against Maryland went 31 and 76 yards, both ending on the 1-yard line. His third carry, an 18-yard gain, came despite being turned completely around by his face mask.
Devine finished with 136 yards on five carries and got a bear hug from Slaton.
Through four games, Devine has 267 yards and three touchdowns and has surpassed Slaton's accomplishments through the same time frame in his first season.
``This is more than expected,'' said Rodriguez, who prefers to bring his freshmen along slowly.
Devine also has seen a personal transformation. He's no longer withdrawn and shunning interviews as he did a year ago.
For football, his plan is simple: To stay humble.
``Nothing has changed. It's a team sport and I understand that,'' he said. ``As long as we get the scores, that's all that matters.
``Not too many people know who I am. They think I am a small back and can't do too much. With me being short, guys can't see me. I see holes and I take it.''
Bringing along Devine at the right pace will be tricky work for the Mountaineers, who've seen high-profile freshmen fizzle out before.
Prized recruit Jason Gwaltney played six games as a freshman two years ago before he hurt a knee, missed workouts and classes and was off the team by December 2005. Brandon Barrett, a two-time prep player of the year in West Virginia, left the team due to academic trouble in 2006.
Sanders still text messages Devine every weekday, usually something spiritual or instructional. Not about football.
``I'm 40. I've been 18 and 19. He's never been 40 yet,'' Sanders said. ``I made mistakes and I want to correct those mistakes through you.
``We thank God for how it turned out for him. He's exceptional.''
Rodriguez, who already has an all-American in Slaton, can't wait to see what Devine can do down the road.
``Usually you make your biggest improvement as a player at this level between your first and second year,'' Rodriguez said. ``Once you have an offseason in the weight room and a spring practice to go with it, I think he's going to continue to be tremendous.''
 

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