The first tattoos, Sharrif Floyd says, came in 2007, when he was a sophomore at George Washington High School in Philadelphia. ¶ Teenage impulse as much as anything sent him to a classmate’s home, where the star defensive tackle had part of his name — “Rif” — inscribed down his left forearm and “Tonya,” his mother’s name, down the right. ¶ Once that canvas — now 6-feet-3 and 303 pounds — was splattered, Floyd couldn’t stop. With obvious pride, the Vikings rookie rolls through the 13 tattoos he has added since.
Up both arms, across his shoulders, sprawled across his torso.
They are enduring reminders that life is written in permanent ink with no eraser for the lessons, struggles or successes of the past.
Floyd nods at how cool the dagger on his left arm looks. And those words near his clavicle — “Life” on his right side, “Death” on the left — are a tribute to his Gemini roots. “Always two sides to everything,” he says.
Floyd stops longest at the scroll etched onto his right shoulder. This is his favorite.
“You may see the glory but you don’t know the story.”
Floyd’s current glory will come into focus when he reports to training camp in Mankato this week, eager to begin establishing himself as one of the NFL’s most disruptive defensive forces.
The explosive tackle was the Vikings’ top pick in April, drafted 23rd overall. He will soon finalize a four-year contract that should have a value north of $8 million.
Floyd recently bought a new Jaguar and is settling into a 6,500-square-foot home on a lake in St. Louis Park.
You see that glory.
But what about his story?
How many times should Floyd’s journey have detoured, seemingly always at risk of becoming a tragic tale of unfulfilled promise?
Floyd was 6 when his mother, Tonya Scott, lost custody, her life swallowed by the demons of drug addiction, depriving her of any consistent influence in his upbringing.
Throughout his childhood, Floyd lived in both Frankford, Pa., and in the rougher quarters of North Philadelphia, where poverty, violence and drugs reigned. Temptations loomed around every corner for kids left vulnerable by their anger and desperation.
“A hundred doors, a hundred traps,” Floyd says.
Adds Mike Wallace, a Floyd confidant: “Unfortunately that fast life envelops so many kids. Because they see that fast money. Nobody wants to take the time to go to school and develop as a person. Why would you want to do that when you see guys rolling around your neighborhood in BMWs and Benzes?”
All the while, despite the constant discipline, encouragement and unconditional love Sharrif received from his grandmother, Lucille Ryans, his upbringing also was overseen by Anthony Floyd, the man listed on his birth certificate as his father.
Who would have thought to question otherwise?
Anthony, Sharrif says, was a bully more than a dad. His punishments, Sharrif says, were startling for both their unfairness and their frequency.
If Sharrif didn’t get into the shower fast enough …
If too many dirty dishes piled up …
If he sat on the couch in the wrong place or at the wrong time …
Sharrif was belittled. Scolded. Beaten regularly, he says.
If his room wasn’t cleaned properly, he’d suddenly be absent from football practice.
Then in December 2008, Sharrif learned through his stepsister that Anthony Floyd was not his biological father. All those years of torment had come from a man who was never a blood relative.
And so the final time that Sharrif walked out from under Anthony’s roof, at age 17 with his grief and relief wrestling, he responded to one final request to do the dishes.
Hastily, he says, he packed all the belongings he could grab, then piled every plate, bowl, cup, fork and knife he saw into the sink.
He soused them in syrup and dusted them with hot chocolate powder.
Away he went, not certain where he was headed.
“I had to break it down to two choices,” Floyd says. “Because any more than that and I’m just killing myself. I was either going to go forward or I was going to go backwards. So what I put in front of me was what I wanted — to move out. And what I put behind me was staying and fighting through all that I was going through, all I’d been through.
“When I stepped back, it wasn’t for long. Because I knew I was going to go forward.”
• • •
Emblazoned down Floyd’s left forearm are the two words he uses most often to describe himself: “Humble” and “Hungry.”
Sure, he acknowledges the peril of his upbringing. But what he endured, he believes, is far less important than how he emerged.
“If I let the way I grew up control me or sit on my shoulders,” Floyd says, “I could be the angriest person on Earth.”
So how is it then that his charge to football stardom at Washington High School, at the University of Florida and now his entry into the NFL has been propelled by an incredible combination of focus and ambition?
Choices, Floyd says. And a concerted effort to surround himself with the sturdiest support network possible.
It’s no wonder that 28 people accompanied him to New York in April for the first night of the NFL draft. In the inner circle, at Floyd’s table in the Radio City Music Hall green room, sat his grandmother; his two agents; the couple who swept in to adopt him in 2011 (Kevin and Tiffany Lahn); and close friends Greg Garrett and Andre Odom.
The Lahns became Floyd’s legal guardians when he was a sophomore at Florida.
Garrett was Floyd’s strength coach at Washington High School.
Odom, six years Floyd’s senior, became his mentor, hand-selected by Washington coach Ron Cohen as a survivor who could relate to Floyd’s problems and offer direction.
If Floyd had ever felt the odds were stacked against him, he found both an empathetic listener and a tell-it-like-it-is role model in Odom.
With raw emotion, Odom broke the ice by telling Floyd about his own harrowing past. The drug addict parents who were never a consistent presence in his life. His roller coaster through foster care. The night his dad, a felon, came home drunk and high, didn’t like the way Andre had folded the clothes and began wailing away.
That violence escalated so quickly, Odom says, that his brother had to intervene, knife to neck, so both boys could escape.
Odom’s emptiness chewed at him like a famished hyena tearing at a gazelle.
“I was so misunderstood by people in school, misunderstood by older folks who didn’t understand where my anger and fury came from,” Odom says.
Then, through Cohen’s magnetic leadership in the Washington football program, Odom found structure and values and an emotional release that he says “saved my life.” He turned his passion for football into an opportunity to play in college. At Temple, he earned undergraduate and graduate degrees and spent two seasons as a graduate assistant coach.
“I always wanted to be a somebody,” says Odom, now a scouting assistant with the Chicago Bears. “I never knew exactly what that would be. But I always wanted to be a somebody. Because I see the way somebodies are treated. Somebodies are treated with respect. They’re treated with love. They’re embraced.
“I wanted to be like that.”
That’s exactly how Floyd felt, which explains why the duo’s bond strengthened so quickly.
Says Floyd: “Andre took his adversity and overcame, from a young man to a teenager to a grown up. He paved it the right way. He wasn’t going be a product of his environment. He knew what he wanted and how he was going to go about it.”
Floyd continues emulating his mentor, a loyal subscriber to Odom’s philosophy that all success “comes from the muscle.”
• • •
If Odom provided Floyd with compassion and inspiration, Garrett’s title as strength coach had double meaning. Yes, his guidance in the weight room helped mold the young lineman into a wrecking ball of power and agility. But Garrett also pushed Floyd to understand that his indefatigable work ethic and desire to get better could obliterate whatever anxieties bubbled within him.
On so many days, Floyd finished school and went straight to the Washington weight room, a windowless, dim and mirrored laboratory that he affectionately called “the dungeon.”
In that cavern Floyd grew maniacal about getting stronger, feeding off an environment that required fearlessness.
“We jump out the window without a parachute,” Garrett would often say.
It was the strength coach’s mission to challenge players’ limits. Or what they thought were their limits.
“You don’t know unless you try,” Garrett says. “If there’s something you can’t do, you get mad and start prepping yourself to make it happen. We jump out the window without a parachute. And on the way down, we figure out how to land.”
Which is why when Floyd came to work out for the first time as a freshman, the strength coach was undeterred when the young lineman announced his maximum bench press at 200 pounds.
“Then we’ll start today at 225,” Garrett told him.
End of discussion.
And somehow, within a blink, Floyd was benching 275 pounds, then 350, then 405.
He continued elevating his goals and accepting every challenge Garrett threw at him.
“There’s a difference between wanting to get better and getting better,” Floyd says. “Don’t talk about it. Show it.”
Excelling in high school, Garrett constantly told Floyd, wasn’t the end goal. A standout college career would only be a pit stop. The NFL was waiting.
During Floyd’s junior year, at a recruiting showcase event in New Jersey, Garrett saw Floyd “going through the motions.” In came an old-fashioned tongue lashing. The soft-spoken kid with the huge heart, Garrett sensed, needed to develop some nasty.
So right in front of the offensive linemen Floyd was battling, the strength coach declared his protégé the best player there and insisted Floyd flip a switch to start giving his quiet confidence way more volume.
As much as the trash-talking approach wasn’t in Floyd’s DNA, he understood Garrett’s goal.
“That’s not natural for me,” Floyd says. “But I can open up and get it. And it takes me to another level when I do. It’s one of those things, if I’m going to talk it, I know I have to back it up.”
Imagine Garrett’s delight when Floyd began barking at every lineman he faced. He would tell them not to clutch and pull his jersey so much, that he needed it neat to frame and hang on his wall.
And after one turbo-fueled blast past an offensive tackle, Floyd turned back and shouted at his overmatched foe, “You’re going to need a GPS system to track me today!”
“He hasn’t shut up since.”
• • •
Floyd stares into the tattoos up his left arm, near “Humble” and “Hungry,” and explains the significance of the dice, the flames and the brass knuckles.
“When you gamble, you don’t know which way the dice are going to roll,” he says. “The brass knuckles are a reminder that life is a fight. And the flames are because it’s going to get hot. But staying humble and hungry, grounded and focused takes care of all that.
“It doesn’t matter how my dice roll. It doesn’t matter how hard the fight is. And I don’t care how hot it gets. I’ll keep a bottle of water with me.”
So on that December 2008 day when Sharrif learned Anthony Floyd was not his biological father and immediately bolted, he knew the gamble, knew the fight ahead, knew the heat of that moment.
He quickly headed toward the home of Dawn Reed-Seeger, the guidance counselor for the Washington football team.
“Seegs,” as Sharrif calls her, knew Floyd’s home life wasn’t rosy. But she never knew the extent of Anthony’s intimidation. That’s why Reed-Seeger was shaken to find Sharrif sweaty and tearful and rambling so much that after he gushed out his entire story he quickly fell asleep.
Says Reed-Seeger: “This was a kid who clearly didn’t feel safe. I’ve rarely, in all my experience in education, seen a male adolescent reacting the way he was reacting.”
Seeger says she made the call to Philadelphia’s Department of Human Services that expedited Floyd’s escape.
As the massive football star searched for safety and stability, Seeger offered shelter at her home for several months. Floyd also bounced around between friends’ couches and during his senior year took up residence in the basement apartment of a house rented out by a teammate’s dad.
He was on his own. But uncertainty felt better than staying in an environment that had created so much disquiet.
“That was freedom for me,” Floyd says. “The day I left that house was the day I knew now I had to really grow up.”
Sharrif’s real father, he says he later learned, was Timothy Roberts, gunned down allegedly in a dispute over drug money. The Philadelphia Inquirer documented Roberts’ murder as occurring Nov. 5, 1993, when Sharrif was 2, the 353rd homicide in the city that year.
Meanwhile, while Sharrif has tried to permanently cut off all ties with Anthony, his presence loiters.
In late March, with the NFL draft nearing, Anthony posted a seven-minute YouTube video — title: “Sharriff [sic] Floyd’s Life Story” — in which he asserts that Sharrif “has been spreading tremendous lies about me” with accounts of his childhood falsified and exaggerated.
“He was never abused,” Anthony says. “That was never true. I never beat my son or whatever he might think is abuse.”
Sharrif points out that, in the video, Anthony gets Sharrif’s birthdate wrong and misspells his first name.
Most bewildering is Anthony’s proclamation that he still cares deeply for Sharrif.
“I love him with all my heart,” Anthony says in the YouTube clip, even as a banner below promotes a website called sharrifffloydthefraud.org.
Sharrif can only shake his head. “[He says] ‘I love my son but I want to show everybody he’s a fraud?’ OK. Shows you how people think, right.”
That website Anthony set up — “to expose the LIES of Sharrif Floyd” — is filled with photos from holidays, family gatherings and football banquets designed in Anthony’s words to “tell the whole truth because pictures are a thousand words.”
Any punishments he administered, he says, were in the regular course of parenting.
Still, Sharrif wonders why Anthony makes no mention of all his legal woes. Anthony’s lengthy rap sheet documented in Pennsylvania court records includes more than a dozen arrests on charges ranging from theft to arson to possession of controlled substances to weapons possession at the scene of a crime.
The Pennsylvania Department of Corrections confirms a conviction on felony drug charges, with Anthony sentenced in 1994 to a maximum of 10 years in prison. He twice violated parole, stuck back behind bars for large chunks of Sharrif’s childhood.
• • •
Without the context of Floyd’s back story, it’s easy to understand why so many outsiders ask him about his stress on draft night, an April evening that began with most experts pegging him as a top-five lock and a candidate to go No. 1. But then came a surprising slide out of the top 10, through the teens and down to No. 23.
Sharrif insists that freefall never ate him up, that his predominant NFL goals were never going to be accelerated or impeded by his draft position.
Those around him agree they felt the draft-night frustration far more.
Garrett, for example, plowed through eight bottles of water and a jar of M & M’s, his irritation elevating as phones rang and applause erupted at so many other tables across the green room.
It was only at night’s end that Garrett realized Floyd had yet another setback to convert into fuel.
“It was, ‘All right. We’re used to this. Everything has to be done the hard way.’ ”
A few days later, after finally returning to Philadelphia, Floyd headed straight to Garrett’s weight room, quickly unleashing all his pent-up energy.
“It was like a hurricane went through there,” Garrett says.
Floyd knew there was work to be done. He also appreciated his landing spot in Minnesota, where he is not only an ideal fit in the Vikings defense but also a match for what coach Leslie Frazier is trying to build character-wise.
“When things get tough, Sharrif isn’t going to be a guy pointing fingers,” Frazier says. “He’s going to be looking at himself asking, ‘What can I do to help our situation?’ ”
Floyd wants it known he has yet to exhale. In his world achieving one big goal only opens the door to the next one.
“I have no plans on being a guy who just comes in and passes through,” he says. “I want my name to be known. Longer than three years. Longer that six years. Hopefully 10, 12 years.”
With that comes a vow to be active in the community, both in the Twin Cities and in Philadelphia. Floyd wants to empower kids, hoping his odyssey provides proof that even the most daunting obstacles can be overcome.
Says Garrett: “Truth be told, if you tear down all of this football stuff and all of this fame and all of this money right now, Sharrif is a kid who just wants to be part of something. He wants to be loved. He wants to be embraced. He wants to do the right thing. And I think that’s the side of him that separates him from everybody else.”
Floyd has long wanted to be an NFL star. But he also longs to have a positive and lasting impact on those around him.
“Who do you trust when you trusted nobody?” he says. “I was a big believer in leading myself. I don’t follow. I never looked for a crowd. In high school, I walked the halls alone. If you were coming with me, then come on. I’m moving. I’ve got places to go. I’m not going to detour because you want me to.
“It all boils back to choices. What do you want to do with your life?”