Who aspires to be a father at 17? No one with a lick of sense, that’s for sure.
Certainly not Donnel Pumphrey. Having a kid three months into his senior year of high school wasn’t part of his grand plan.
A Division I scholarship was. A big-time college football career was. And if everything broke just right, maybe, just maybe, even a shot at the NFL.
But when he found out in February 2012 that his girlfriend was pregnant, he feared his grand plan might have just gone down in flames. Didn’t matter if it had, though. He wasn’t going to be a hit-and-run father. He had been raised better than that.
The true measure of a man isn’t his ability to procreate. It’s how he deals with the responsibility of raising the children he helped bring into the world.
Pumphrey was going to be there for his child. He was going to help support her. He was going to love and protect her. No matter what. If he had to scrap his football dreams, then so be it.
“Some things you think are bad deals really end up saving your life,’’ said Hunkie Cooper, who was Pumphrey’s coach at Canyon Springs High School in Las Vegas. “I think she came along at the right time.’’
Her name is Maliya. She’ll be turning 5 on Nov. 2, three days before the Eagles play the Denver Broncos at Lincoln Financial Field, and Donnel Pumphrey loves her more than life itself. She is his inspiration.
“Having a kid early turned out to be a huge motivation for me,’’ Pumphrey said. “She pushed me to get to this level and to keep grinding.
“Since the day she was born, I knew it wasn’t just about me anymore.’’
Before he flew back to Philadelphia for the start of his first training camp with the Eagles last month, he took Maliya on her first trip to Disneyland.
“She loved it,’’ the rookie running back said. “She kept wanting to leave early to go to the stores. I told her we’ll do that last.’’
Turns out Maliya isn’t the 22-year-old Pumphrey’s only child. A DNA test in January confirmed that he fathered another child in high school, a son, who was born just a month after Maliya, to another woman. The boy’s name is Malik.
“I was at the Senior Bowl when I found out,” he said. “I never knew [about Malik]. Four years and I never knew. My mom heard a rumor before I heard anything. But once I saw the pictures of him, I definitely could see me in him.
“It’s all a blessing at the end of the day. It’s disappointing that I wasn’t able to find out about Malik four years ago, because, at the end of the day, it wasn’t just me not knowing about him, but him not knowing about me. But I’m trying to make a positive out of that and just try to support him and be there for him like I’m trying to be for Maliya.”
Both of Pumphrey’s children live in Las Vegas with their mothers. They spent a lot of time together before Pumphrey left for training camp.
“They act like they’ve known each other their whole lives,” he said of his son and daughter.
“It would’ve been a whole different situation if I had known I had two [children] and not just one back then. It probably would’ve been a little difficult for me. But everything happens for a reason.”
As it turned out, Pumphrey didn’t have to sacrifice his football dreams for fatherhood. With a lot of advice and support from Cooper, a father figure who had known Pumphrey since he was a tyke, he managed to juggle both.
“I understood what he was dealing with,’’ Cooper said. “I was a father at 18. I went in and told my high school coach I was going to have to quit football and go get a job at the local grocery store and take care of my kid. I had lost my father at 14.
“He told me it would be the worst mistake I’d ever make in my life. He said, ‘You have enough character. You have a great work ethic. And you’ll be a great father.’ He said you do right by that kid. And that’s exactly what I did.’’
Pumphrey couldn’t bring himself to tell his mother about the baby until shortly before Maliya was born. But he confided in Cooper early on. And Cooper gave Pumphrey the same advice his high school coach had given him.
“I learned a lot of things from him,’’ Pumphrey said. “Not just about football, but life in general. He had a child in high school like me. He’s just been a blessing to me.’’
Maliya was born on senior night at Canyon Springs. Pumphrey found out right before the start of the game that the baby’s mother had gone into labor.
Pumphrey injured his ankle on the first play and spent the rest of the game on the sideline.
“He was standing there with tears running down his face,’’ Cooper said. “About the third quarter, he came over to me and said, ‘Coach, my daughter is being born tonight.’
“I said, ‘From now on, every decision you make will be based on that little girl.’ I wasn’t going to let him leave. I told him, ‘As soon as the game is over, we’ll go to the hospital and see her.’ After the game, we went over there, and there was Maliya.
“For him, she’s been a quiet factor in his life from that day forward. She was at every game he played at San Diego State. When he would score, the first thing he would do is point to Maliya. She’s a big part of his life.’’
Pumphrey still regrets not being at the hospital when Maliya was born. But he has been there for her ever since. And he has vowed to be there for Malik, as well.
“I’m really pleased with where he’s at, as a person, as a father, and definitely as a football player,’’ said Cooper, who was reunited with Pumphrey two years ago when he was hired as San Diego State’s wide receivers coach.
“A lot of people only see the final result. I’ve been fortunate enough to see the entire process. The young man has put in the work. Developing film time. IQ. Understanding the game and getting better at it even when you’re considered the best. His work ethic is like somebody who’s in the bottom echelon.
“When your best player also is your hardest worker, that kind of gives you what you’re looking for. That’s how he’s always been as long as I’ve known him.’’
Silencing the doubters
People have been telling Pumphrey he was too puny to play football since he was in Pop Warner.
He heard it all the time as a kid. He heard it at Canyon Springs, where he rushed for 4,152 yards and 49 touchdowns and was named Nevada’s Gatorade player of the year as a senior.
He heard it at San Diego State, where he started 42 straight games and shattered the FBS career rushing record.
And he heard it before the draft.
“He was one of the most difficult guys in the draft to evaluate because he was a complete outlier,’’ NFL Network analyst Brian Baldinger said. “He’s 176 pounds soaking wet and has no base at all. None.
“He has those feet and an unbelievable ability to get through cracks. But he’s just not a starting tailback. There’s never been a starting tailback in this league at that size. Never.
“I don’t know if he’s the next Darren Sproles or not. Because he’s not built like Sproles. Sproles is only 5-6, but he’s strong and has a big lower base. This guy isn’t built like that.’’
Despite the impressive numbers Pumphrey put up at Canyon Springs, Division I programs ignored Pumphrey.
“The Pac-12 and Big 12 schools would come through and they’d watch him and say, ‘Ah, he’s just too small,’ ’’ Cooper said. “They’d say, ‘We’d rather have a bigger guy.’ ’’
Frustrated, Cooper finally picked up the phone and called an old friend, San Diego State assistant head coach Jeff Horton, who had been the assistant head coach at UNLV in the early ’90s, when Cooper was an all-Big West Conference player there. He told Horton he would be making a serious mistake if he didn’t give Pumphrey a scholarship.
“I said, ‘Jeff, everything I stand for as a man – not as a football coach or player, but as a man – this is one of the best players I’ve ever coached,’ Cooper recalled. “I said, ‘If you take this guy, you’re going to have some job security. He’ll play well for you.’
“The rest is history.’’
Horton remembers the call well.
“Hunkie played for me and was like a son to me,’’ said Horton, who coached the San Diego State running backs back then, and has been the team’s offensive coordinator for the last two seasons. “He said, ‘Coach, I’ve got a guy who, if you look at him, you’re going to think he’s too small.’ But he said, ‘I put my word on him that he’ll be a guy who can really get it done for you.’
“Because of how well I knew Hunkie, I took that to heart and we offered him a scholarship.’’
Pumphrey played 54 games for San Diego State. He made 42 consecutive starts, had 934 rushing attempts his last three years there, and averaged 25 touches a game.
Those are workhorse numbers. Mention them to an NFL scout without putting a name next to them, and he’ll assume they belong to a 6-1, 235-pounder, not a scrawny, 5-foot-8 guy who could be DeSean Jackson’s stunt double.
He ran for 6,405 yards, breaking Ron Dayne’s Division I career rushing record in his final college game. But NFL scouts had the same reservations that college coaches had when Pumphrey was lighting it up at Canyon Springs.
“I told all of the NFL people that came through, you got to look past his size,’’ Horton said. “Just look at what he’s done on the field. Look at how productive he’s been. Look at all of the different things he’s done for us.
“You can look at all the measurables you want. But eventually, it has to come down to what you’re seeing on film and what you’re seeing in person. I didn’t think there was anybody in the country who did it better than he did.’’
Eleven running backs had been taken before the Eagles grabbed Pumphrey in the fourth round with the 132nd overall pick. Right after the draft, an excited Joe Douglas, the Eagles’ vice president of player personnel, mentioned Pumphrey’s “lightning feet’’ and his “great hands’’ and added, “Don’t let the size fool you. This guy, he’s a little dog that thinks he’s a big dog, and he plays that way. I love the way he plays, and I love how productive he is.’’
Pumphrey is one of the most personable players in the Eagles’ locker room. Approachable. Friendly. Always smiling.
“I feel comfortable answering any question you guys have for me,’’ he told a handful of reporters. “Whether it’s about my size or my game or whatever.’’
Pumphrey is an emotional player. Behind that smile is an intense competitor who hates to lose.
“If you thought DeSean Jackson beat his chest every time he caught a touchdown pass, this guy does the same thing,’’ Baldinger said. “He’s got unbelievable swag.’’
Said Horton: “He just has that edge to him on the field. He carries it with him every day. You watch him in workouts. You watch him in the weight room and in offseason workouts. There’s not a rep or a raise or just touching cones where he’s not trying to be the best at.
“He talks more smack about Madden than anybody I’ve ever known. He’s not going to lose in the Madden video games. It doesn’t matter what he’s doing. He wants to win at it. That’s what makes him special.
“He’s such a great competitor. You never had to coach effort with him. He was always first in line. Always wanted to be the guy to lead the way.’’
Horton has worked in the NFL. He spent four years as an assistant with the Rams and the Lions. He is convinced Pumphrey will be a successful NFL player.
He doesn’t expect the Eagles to give him the same kind of workload he had at San Diego State. But he doesn’t think his size will be a detriment.
“He weighed just 160-165 pounds here,’’ Horton said. “But he would explode into guys and run through them and over them. He wasn’t just a guy who was looking to outrun you. He had some physicality to him.
“He’s a weapon-explosive back. You can hand it to him eight or nine times from the ‘I’ back. You can run him on some fly sweeps. You can motion him out in the slot and throw the ball to him. He can return kicks.
“I’m sure they didn’t draft him with the idea of putting him back there and giving it to him 25-30 times a game. But nobody in the NFL does much of that anymore. They can use him in so many different ways. Knowing what I know of Philly’s offense, it’s a great fit for him.’’
Said Cooper: “He approaches the game as if he weighs 225 pounds. He’s never changed the way he’s played the game. He can create opportunities between the tackles. And outside in space, it’s almost impossible to tackle him.’’