Leesha Devine did not want her son to be a statistic, though many stacked the odds against him from the moment Shamire Devine entered the world as a 10-pound infant.
Leesha was 16 when Devine was born and did not go to college. He grew up poor. His father is not in his life. However, with the support of his mother, grandmother and great grandmother and devoted coaches, teachers and friends along the way, he has overcome.
Devine earned a football scholarship to Georgia Tech, enrolling in 2013. He struggled through 4½ years at the school. He started 24 games at guard. Finally, this past Saturday, he graduated from Georgia Tech with a degree in literature, media and communication. Even before the day arrived, her son’s degree carried significant meaning to Leesha.
“I didn’t cry at the last game, but they’re going to have the waterworks this time,” she said a week before Tech’s commencement exercises.
Among Devine’s closest relatives, he’s the first to graduate from college.
“I’ve definitely come a long way,” Devine said. “Looking at it now, you look back at it and you’re thinking you’re just taking baby steps, but you look back, you’ve crossed three states and a bridge. I was like, I was there, and now I’m here. It looks good.”
Devine was about five when Leesha moved from Camden, New Jersey, to Atlanta. Leesha’s mother Maxine Kelley, a truck driver, was moving to Atlanta, and Leesha and Devine joined. From the time she arrived, she has worked the night shift as a cook at various Waffle Houses around the city. Leesha had two more children, Dakwon Devine and Taleesha Devine-Guy.
“You just do what you’ve got to do,” she said.
Early on in high school at Tri-Cities High, Devine said, he wanted to get a job as quickly as he could to help with the finances. His mother wasn’t having it.
“Maybe he thought that was the thing to do, but it was always in my brain that you’ve got to get a (college degree),” she said. “If not, you’ll be at the Waffle House with me. That was never an option in my eyes.”
Devine’s size and agility made a football scholarship a promising avenue for an education. About the time he was a sophomore, the reality clicked in.
“It was like, I can really go to college off of this?” Devine said. “My grandmom was like, you should definitely go to college off of this. We’ve been poor long enough that we can be poor some more. Another five, six years is not a problem for us.”
With a proclivity for computers – Devine helped start a computer club at Tri-Cities and used spare parts from old computers to fix teachers’ laptops – Tech became the school of choice.
Beyond Tech’s academic rigor, his college experience was a challenge. While his size (he was 6-foot-7 and 355 pounds as a senior at Tri-Cities) and nimble feet got him on the field as a redshirt freshman in 2014, he battled weight challenges throughout his career. The 2015 year was a particular challenge, as the team fell far short of expectations and finished 3-9. Further, he said his efforts to keep his weight down were failing. Members of his family were having their own challenges. He tried to bear all of it.
“I had my midlife crisis before I hit midlife,” Devine said.
But, he persevered in the same way that he has tried to live life without a father. Devine said he spoke to him on his 17th birthday and has tried reaching out to him recently without success.
“Life is like ‘Dark Souls,’” Devine said, referring to a popular role-playing video game. “I don’t know if you’ve heard of it – it is the most difficult game that has come out in recent decades. That’s what life is, but it’s not as grim. You have to make the best of the worst situations.”
Devine’s coach at Tri-Cities, Kenneth Miller, saw it first-hand.
“A lot of people may not understand that, but he is a very determined kid,” said Miller, now the school’s athletic director.
Devine has won admirers with such spirit, across the athletic department and with professors.
Professor Angela Dalle Vacche, who taught him in three classes in his major, called him “a good soul.” She said she can see him in education, possibly involving animation, a passion of Devine’s.
“He’s not at all, ‘I’m a football player, blah blah blah,’” Dalle Vacche said. “Not at all. Modest, quiet. He’s low profile. But he does the work.”
After starting eight games this season and playing an integral role in an offense that was fifth nationally in rushing yardage per game, Devine was named honorable All-ACC. He can be a devastating drive blocker and is quick enough to lead Tech’s backs on run plays. His size – he was listed this past season at 6-7 and 370 – and agility will almost certainly get him a look in the NFL. He has begun training for Tech’s pro day.
In 10 years, he said, he wants to start his own business, possibly still in the NFL. He wants to be the father that he never had. He would like to be an influence on young people that he has found Tech strength coach John Sisk to be.
“Some kids may think the grass is greener, and some kids may have never even seen grass,” Devine said. “I want to be there to let them know, my life was (expletive). There’s other people whose lives were (expletive). But it can always be better. You make it what you want to.”