Villanova's Livers has come a long way

Villanova wide receiver Poppy Livers. (David Swanson/Staff Photographer)

THE WAY Poppy Livers sees the world, everyone has their own story. His just happens to be a little more distinct. Or even a lot.

"Because I have a background," he said. Especially for someone who didn't know much about Villanova until the time he showed up there with almost no place else to go, despite the fact that his grandfather, an Olympic hurdler and namesake, is in the university's Varsity Club Hall of Fame.

"It's a lot to take in," Livers acknowledges.

The journey has been circuitous. But this season, the former walk-on from Northern California, who stands all of 5-7, is the top returning receiver and co-captain for a Wildcats team that's ranked 12th in FCS.

"Honestly, if you asked me 3 years ago, I wouldn't think I'd be here," the senior said. "I just would've thought I'd still be trying to earn that scholarship. Or I could easily be back home right now, just lost."

That would be Seaside, Calif., which lies a few miles northeast of Monterey. But that's about as close as he got to Pebble Beach. He lived there with his mother, Belinda Solis, the man in her life, his son and daughter and the daughter they had together.

"It's bad out there," Livers said. "I don't get home that much, but I still hear about it . . . I talk to some of my friends. They're working at Walmart and stuff. I feel bad. That could've been me. I don't know. I think about that a lot."

After his freshman year at the local public high school, opportunity beckoned. But it came with a price, literally and figuratively. Livers, whose given name is Lawrence IV, was given a chance to go to St. Francis Catholic, where he could get a better education and better competition/exposure as an athlete. The dilemma was, St. Francis was a little over an hour away, close to San Jose. His grandfather, who at the time lived in nearby Los Altos, was going to cover whatever costs an academic scholarship didn't.

"I had to make a big-man decision," said Livers, whose mom started calling him Poppy when he was a baby. "I didn't want to leave my mom. I'm her only son. She's everything to me. So I'm like, 'What am I going to do?' We both cried about it. But it was better for me."

At least for a year, until the grandparents he'd been staying with moved out of the area.

"I had to figure something out," Livers recalled. "Man, here I am again on my own. I can't keep going back and forth."

He ended up moving in with the team's quarterback, Kyle Miller, who lived with his mom and twin sisters. But someone still had to help take care of the financial obligations, since his mom could only do so much. So Livers got a job working in the school's cafeteria.

"It was very hard," he said. "That was part of the deal. They gave me free lunch, though. That was good. But it's tough, being away from your family. Once I finally got my license, I drove home whenever I got the chance."

On the field, his goal was to play at the highest level he could in college. While some FBS programs showed interest, nobody offered to sign him. His uncles, Johnnie and Chad Morton, had played at Southern Cal and in the NFL. Chad had been on the New York Jets with Aaron Beasley, who's from Pottstown and went to Valley Forge Military Academy, where he funds a scholarship. That's how Livers, whose father was living in Pottstown, ended up heading east for a year of prep school.

"It's ironic, the way it worked out," Livers said.

The team went unbeaten for the first time since Larry Fitzgerald played there a decade earlier. Coach Glenn Foley, a South Jersey native and one-time NFL quarterback, had connections. Still, the only scholarship offers Livers got were from Division II Bloomsburg and Shippensburg. Then his dad, whom he'd never really known, suggested Villanova because of the family ties. Even though . . .

"There were no promises," explained Livers, who was also a pretty good basketball player. "It was discouraging. I guess it was still my size that stopped me. That's how it's always been. I felt like I'd done everything for, like, no reason."

In his first season on the Main Line, he played only briefly and thought about leaving. While financial aid covered a decent amount of his tuition, he once again had to account for much of the difference.

"My grandfather, who's in Georgia now, sent me money here and there," Livers said. "I didn't want people to know about him. I wanted to start my own legacy here."

This time, he got a job working with the facilities department. But he couldn't afford to take summer classes with the rest of the players. And he roomed with then-teammate Rakim Cox, who had a spare bed available.

"I was willing to do anything, just to have some extra money in my pocket," Livers said. "I ate when I could. I'd use Rakim's card but sometimes they'd kick me out of the dining room. I had to pay off $2,000. I talked to Father Rob Coach Flinn, he doesn't care who you are as long as you're giving 100 percent. I had to win his respect and trust. He tells me I'm 5-3 every day. He says I wake up with leverage. All I ever did was whatever he asked."

Livers isn't sure yet what he wants to do with his life, although the criminal justice field "interests" him. He chuckles when you ask him if there's any height requirements. For someone who's been through more than many, he's survived better than most. That should serve him well, wherever the highway takes him.

"When there's hardships, and nothing's going right, you have to keep believing it's going to work out," Livers insisted. "You learn it's every man for himself sometimes. But none of us do it by ourselves. I've been lucky enough to meet a lot of good people. I wasn't a believer at first. But I've been there. You just have to stay on the path. Whenever times get hard, whether it's at practice or the fourth quarter or in class, you have to tell yourself that this is what I love to do. This is what I chose to do. I treat every game like it's my last. Once this is over, it's gone. And I'm going to miss it more than anything.

"Not a lot of people know my story. I don't want them to feel sorry for me. I'm just like everybody else. I never wanted to put my stuff on anyone else's back."

On Oct. 25 the Wildcats will host Morgan State for Homecoming. Livers knows he'll have a whole bunch of support in the stands.

"It'll be emotional," he said. "I think about it all the time, how fast it goes by. My mom's never seen me play here, only on TV. I'm actually working on saving for a surprise ticket. It's going to be crazy. I wasn't sure I'd ever get to experience a moment like that."

It's a long, long way from Monterey.


On Twitter: @mikekerndn