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September 06, 2017

'Go ahead and doubt me' – Eagles' Pumphrey out to prove critics wrong (again)

Eagles NFL

Hunkie Cooper shook his head and leaned back in his office chair with a grin on his face. One of his players was caught using a cell phone in class again. This time, it was his star, Donnel Pumphrey. Cooper, then the football coach at Canyon Springs High School in North Las Vegas, Nevada, grew used to the inquiries over time about Pumphrey.

Other kids would get lost listening to music on their phones during open periods. But Pumphrey was different. He would lean down and pull his cell close to his face to watch game tape with his headset on. In a typical week, Pumphrey would average about 15 hours poring over tape on his cell and laptop, using any available chance he could — more than any player on the Canyon Springs team, more than some of the assistant coaches. 

Pumphrey had to know whether he was facing an odd-man, or even-man front. He had to know who the best opposing linebacker or defensive lineman was. He had to know who was and wasn’t physical at the point of attack. He had to know if a safety or a linebacker would be covering him when he lined up in the slot. He had to know if he could outrun a corner or a safety pinching up on a jet sweep.

The newly minted 5-foot-9, 176-pound Philadelphia Eagles running back is all about being meticulous, from how he wears his knee and thigh pads – because one can’t be higher than the other – to his wrist bands. From breaking down game film to the way he runs and darts through a defense. 

When Canyon Springs got new uniforms his senior year, Cooper fooled his team by laying out shabby practice scrubs, and Pumphrey let his coach have it about color coordination.

“I remember telling him, ‘Well, Mr. Pumphrey, while you’re in the locker room complaining about how nothing matches, I bet you these things match right here,’” Cooper recalled. “DJ didn’t know I got new uniforms. That night, I made them run 12 100-yard sprints before we boarded the bus to play a cross-town game his senior year.”

Pumphrey is also about selective hearing. 

As some in the Philadelphia media chimed in last week that Pumphrey didn’t deserve to make the 53-man roster following a disappointing preseason, the fourth-round pick out of San Diego, who broke all of Hall of Famer Marshall Faulk’s records and whom the Eagles traded up to get, tuned it out, because he’s heard it most of his football life: how he won’t be good enough for the next level. 

Each time, he’s succeeded in stomping on the naysayers. 

At Canyon Springs, positive refrains were frequently followed by some sort of conjunction, like “DJ is tearing it up at the high school, but he won’t be able to do this at a major college level.” 

At San Diego State, where he set an NCAA FBS record for most career rushing yards (6,405), it was more of the same, “Pumphrey makes this look easy, until he gets to the NFL.”

When Eagles’ executive vice president of football operations Howie Roseman explained why the Eagles decided to keep five running backs on Saturday, he brought into account everything Pumphrey did at the collegiate level and why the Eagles opted to keep him and fellow rookie Corey Clement, an undrafted free agent from local Glassboro High School, via Wisconsin. 

He just wanted to prove people wrong and the chip on the shoulder began to develop more so in college than in high school... Nothing was going to stop him from getting to the NFL.

“You know, it's funny, because as you go through the whole offseason with [Pumphrey],” Roseman said. “He’s a guy that was getting first-string reps and everyone was talking about how excited they were on him. We spent a lot of time scouting this running back class, scouting him in particular, and he's got a body of work. Not only is it the preseason games, but it's every day at practice. It's every day through the off-season program. And we also know that it comes for people quick sometimes, and sometimes it takes a while for rookies. 

“We're in a unique industry where there's really no patience. There's no other industry where you take a guy out of college and if they don't look exactly like you're hoping a month in, you just look to dump them. We want to develop our players. We trust our evaluations and our scouts, and we want to give guys time that we believe in. I think both Pump and Corey are along those lines.”

Cooper doesn’t find it surprising Pumphrey made the Eagles. He's always believed in him.

“It was never an issue of size with DJ, because people could think what they wanted to think. [But] DJ is a football player,” said Cooper, who is now entering his third year as the wide receivers’ coach at San Diego State. “DJ was physical, fast, durable, accountable, and he was always accountable. DJ knows the history of the game, and what great backs in history did.

“Other people always put limitations on DJ. He never put limitations on himself. The Eagles should be happy that they’re keeping him. Once he feels settled and gets okay with the new level he’s on, he’s going to explode. I always told him don’t go out there to prove everybody wrong, just prove yourself right. He’s earned the right to be where he is.” 

This preseason, Pumphrey did struggle. 

Behind the second- and third-team offensive lines, he carried the ball 26 times for 49 yards, averaging 1.88 yards per carry. But Pumphrey also led the team in kickoff returns, with three returns for 80 yards, averaging 26.67 yards a return, which included a 34-yard return in the Eagles’ last preseason game against the New York Jets. 

Pumphrey’s grit derives from his youth. He was the kid who always had a football tucked under his arm. His older cousins would kneel in the living room and Pumphrey would have to find a way through them. They had no trouble bouncing him off the furniture—and he would instinctively get up. 

There were never any tears. There was hardly a change of expression. 

“The size thing was something DJ heard every single day, and major schools were after him, but they wanted him to change positions,” said D.J. Pamaran, Pumphrey’s older cousin. “DJ dealt with it great. He just wanted to prove people wrong and the chip on the shoulder began to develop more so in college than in high school. There was no doubt he could play in high school.

“Nothing was going to stop him from getting to the NFL.”

Many of Pumphrey’s relatives are over 6-foot. Regina Padua, Donnel’s mom, jokingly blames herself for her son’s height. She’s 4-foot-10. Pumphrey actually bolted up fast. He was taller than most of his Pop Warner teammates, so much so that he had to cut weight to make the limit. He was around 5-foot-1 when he was 10. 

When I’m on the field, I feel I’m the best player on the field... I do run with anger and play with as much swag as possible. Go ahead and doubt me. I’ve been doubted before. I’ll keep getting back up.

Then something happened: Everyone kept growing, and he didn’t.

“I stopped growing, but it never changed my attitude,” Pumphrey said. “I didn’t realize the size thing until the latter stages of my high school career. They saw my numbers, my academics were good, and then they saw me and wondered whether or not I’d be able to take the blows at a major D-I level. It’s why I say I play with a chip-on-the-shoulder attitude. I want to prove everybody wrong. It’s the constant motivation to be the best.”

At San Diego State, it was “Who’s the little guy?”

But that ended quickly when Pumphrey broke numerous long runs against the Aztecs’ first-team defense in practice while a member of the scout team. “Who’s the little guy?” changed to “Who the hell is this kid?”

Aztecs’ head coach Rocky Long was also the team’s defensive coordinator. He didn’t have to be convinced much more. Pumphrey never ran with the scout offense again. 

“I know the questions have followed me here to the NFL,” Pumphrey said. “I don’t care. I don’t listen to it. I know I can produce at this level. People compare me to Darren Sproles, but I’m different than Sproles. My history is running between the tackles. I was always asked questions about my size playing at higher levels. I never hit rock bottom when it came to football. It’s a way out to be successful in life. If I’m the smallest guy, well, I’m going to play with the biggest heart.

“The NFL is a matter of a change of game speed. When I’m on the field, I feel I’m the best player on the field, and that goes back to when I was a five-year-old, playing with my older cousins. They used to hit me hard and I would bounce back up. It’s why I’ll never shy away from lowering my shoulder and delivering the shot. I do run with anger and play with as much swag as possible. Go ahead and doubt me. I’ve been doubted before. I’ll keep getting back up.” 

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