Deven Eastern sat in P.J. Fleck's office, his mother and his mentor by his side.

"Where have you been in your life up to this point," the Gophers coach asked the 17-year-old, "and what do you need in your life right now?"

The Shakopee defensive end could have given a surface-level answer, anything to preserve a recruiting relationship for the unranked player 12 months before Wednesday's early signing day. Telling the true story, all of its uncomfortable and vulnerable parts, was a risk.

But Eastern opened his mouth, and his heart came spilling out.

"He teared up and started talking to the coach about his life and what means the most to him," said his mentor, Mike Morris. "And it was very, very, very real."

Eastern spoke about his struggle with emotional behavioral disorders, his mom, his devotion to football, his dream to play in the NFL but more important, to be a good man. By the end of his deliverance, everyone was crying.

"He gave me a chance," Eastern said of Fleck. "He knew everything about my past. And he knew I had the potential to grow and become a better person. And that I've been working so hard.

"And he was the first guy to tell me that 'We'll get through it, and I'll help you through this. And we're more than just football here. We're family.' "

Right then, Eastern pledged to play for Minnesota, a promise he will fulfill when he officially signs Wednesday. Since that pivotal moment, Eastern's risen from an unranked no-name to one of five four-star recruits in Fleck's 2021 class. The 6-6, 280-pound late bloomer could have fielded dozens of Power Five offers if he hadn't shut down his recruiting so fast.

But Eastern's commitment never wavered, nor did his desire to stay home.

"He wants to play for the state," said his mom, Tammy Burger. " … It kind of symbolizes all of the people and the men that swooped in and just helped him, guided him, supported him, encouraged him."

Finding focus

Burger moved herself and her young son back to her native Mankato from Illinois several years ago. But it wasn't the right place for them.

As Eastern grew, he grappled with attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder and oppositional defiant disorder, which made school a trial, especially when he stopped taking medication because he felt it affected his football.

"I was always bouncing around. It was hard for me to learn because I was so fidgety," Eastern explained. " … It was hard. I've been kicked out of a lot of schools."

After his middle school dismissed him, Eastern attended an alternative school to help him improve his behavior. But it had the opposite effect.

"I was always getting into petty mischief," Eastern said. " … It influenced me to go deeper and deeper into this hole because everybody around you doesn't want to succeed. They always try to push you and start petty fights and all of that, and it really took a toll on me.

"And I could feel myself losing focus."

His mother, meanwhile, was drowning, trying to correct her son's path. She worried and feared for his future and decided a move to the Twin Cities metro area might offer a better outlook.

They ultimately landed in Shakopee for Eastern's eighth-grade year, and he immediately took up football. But he didn't attend Shakopee schools, instead going to SouthWest Metro Intermediate District.

Eastern started in a class similar to one he had at his alternative school in Mankato, known as a level four special education program for kids with behavioral or emotional issues. It centered on teaching him coping mechanisms for his disorders but also worked on academics through an individual education program.

In Eastern's first years at the school, his teachers noted his immaturity, how easily peers influenced him, how fiery he was, how he made more wrong choices than right.

That was manifested on the football field, too. Eastern's size had always granted him attention and natural ability, and his Shakopee coach, Ray Betton, considered bringing the freshman to varsity at nose guard. But Eastern wasn't mentally ready, Betton said, and the player didn't even finish the season.

Betton pushed him in his sport, his teachers guided him through school, and Eastern slowly matured. By 10th grade, he had progressed behaviorally and academically beyond needing special education services, and the school began transitioning him to high school coursework. But an ankle injury from pickup basketball took Eastern out of his sophomore football season after just two games, and his focus strayed again. He decided football wasn't for him and planned to quit, much to his mom's dismay, since the sport had always been a steadying force in his life.

Eastern grudgingly went to summer workouts to please his mom and coach. There, he met Morris, a former Vikings long snapper and KFAN radio host who ran Shakopee's strength and conditioning program that summer.

He fell back in love with the sport he'd played since kindergarten. And he felt himself turning a page.

Making good

Eastern's junior year was his first full season, but it was a breakout, despite him having "no clue" what he was doing.

"I was just using my athleticism and strength to overpower people," Eastern said. "At the time, I couldn't even tell you what my job was."

Pass-rushing, gaps, all took a back seat to chasing down whoever had the ball.

That made Eastern realize how much he had to learn. He texted Morris and asked if he'd be willing to train him one-on-one. He made a highlight reel and connected with Robbinsdale Cooper coach Willie Howard, who saw Eastern's potential and offered to help train him, as well. Howard also connected him with DeVentri Jordan of Game Face Training.

As this team assembled, Eastern earned his first offer from Nebraska. The meeting with Fleck came shortly after that. And while he committed to the Gophers quickly, having a college scholarship locked down didn't sway him to ease up.

Instead, he became even more determined. He and his mother took a divide-and-conquer approach. Eastern focused on training and school. His mom worked with SouthWest Metro to navigate the arduous process of qualifying the school and all of Eastern's courses through the NCAA so he was eligible for his scholarship.

Through it all, Betton, Morris, Howard, Jordan and educators at SouthWest Metro were there.

"[They] came in and just helped our little family just get through this one step at a time, lots of love and support," Burger said, choking back tears. " … It just changed the course of our life."

Those coaches and teachers, though, will insist they played a small part. Eastern made the effort and put in the work.

Eastern's typical day involves 5 a.m. workouts with Morris, school, training with Howard and Game Face, coming home around 7 p.m. for homework, maybe an hour to spend with his girlfriend or talk with his mom before bed and a repeat performance the next day.

That paid off in a senior season shortened by the pandemic, when he bumped to a four-star rating. In school, he'd become a top student, set to earn his diploma early — with all A's and B's — as he enrolls at the University of Minnesota in January with hopes of playing as a freshman.

The usually quiet Eastern became fast friends with his 2021 classmates, hosting a couple of out-of-state Gophers recruits. He's considering studying sports management or something to help him become a coach. He has even reconnected with his father, whom he hadn't seen since he was 4 years old.

All from a painful past and second chances.

"Before, it felt like I was missing pieces to a puzzle," Eastern said. "Now it's like I'm writing my own book. And each chapter, it gets better. But the end of the book is blank. And it's up to me how I want to finish that book or that story.

"And I want that story to be great. So I'm going to keep pushing myself every day until I get to that end, and close the book."