Rick Scuteri/Associated Press
Among the hundreds of college quarterbacks in America, Donavan Tate might have the most intriguing and unusual backstory: After being drafted out of high school with the third pick in the 2009 MLB draft by the San Diego Padres, he struggled with injuries and substance addiction and never made it to the major leagues. Now he’s a 26-year-old freshman quarterback at the University of Arizona, seeking one last chance to make it as a pro athlete. He spoke to B/R’s Michael Weinreb about overcoming his troubles, and about his hopes for the future.
I can’t imagine I’ll ever forget the day I began to change my life, but in case I ever do, it’s literally tattooed on my right shoulder: January 27, 2013. I was in northern California, checking into a rehab facility thousands of miles from my hometown in Georgia, and I still wasn’t entirely sure what I was doing there. A couple of days to detox, I thought to myself, to get my mind straight and get the drugs out of my system, and then I’ll be out of here as fast I can.
I’d almost made it to rehab a few weeks earlier when my mom helped stage an intervention for me. I’d flown all the way to San Francisco Airport after telling her I wanted to do this alone, and I stood at the gate, knowing my counselor was waiting outside. And then I changed my mind, slept at the airport overnight, turned around and flew back to Georgia, and partied with my friends for a couple more weeks.
It was a struggle for me to admit to myself that I needed the help. I’d already been to a monthlong rehab in Tucson, Arizona, a couple of years earlier, after being suspended 50 games for a violation of Major League Baseball’s drug policy, but I wasn’t ready to confront my demons then either. I was an elite athlete, after all, a bonus baby center fielder with a fat bank account working my way up the minor league ladder. I assumed I could get to the big leagues whether I kept using or not. How bad could it be?
I’d been drinking heavily for a few years—I would have drunk all day long if I could—and I’d smoke weed sometimes, but I’d recently started hanging around with the some of the same friends I’d known since I was a star football and baseball player at Cartersville High School. I also got into harder drugs for the first time. I’d been drafted third overall by the Padres out of high school in 2009 and been given a club-record $ 6.25 million signing bonus, but injuries and my addictions caught up with me that winter. I don’t like to use the whole “rock-bottom” cliche, but you can call it whatever you want. So when my mom held a second intervention—this time she even brought in someone from my agent’s office, and the dude from the rehab place was there, too, to hold my hand every step of the way—I figured I’d at least give it a try for her sake.
I’m about 6’3″, and my ideal weight was around 215, and I had no idea how bad it had gotten until I stepped on a scale and realized I weighed 135 pounds. I spent five months at that center, examining my life, reading books about addiction, speaking to counselors, talking to my roommate and trying to determine what had led me to such a dark place. I’d been cutting off so many emotions for so long, and I was afraid to confront them. But when I look back with nearly five years of hindsight, it’s like I’m reflecting on a different Donavan Tate.
I’m back in Tucson now, chasing my childhood dream of becoming a professional athlete in ways I never could have imagined: I’m a soon-to-be 27-year-old father of three who also happens to be a freshman walk-on quarterback on the University of Arizona football team. I know this is my last chance to live up to the dual-sport athletic brilliance I displayed while in high school, when nearly every college in the country would have begged me to sign with them in either football or baseball. I have no idea how this will wind up, but I know where I’ve been, and if there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s that I’m not going to take the present moment for granted.
My father Lars was a hell of a football player himself. He was the Gatorade National Player of the Year coming out of high school, and after a few seasons as a running back at the University of Georgia, he was drafted in the second round and played three years in the NFL. But as far as my relationship with my father, I didn’t really have one. We’d talk every now and then, but he lived in a different city, and he wasn’t in the house.
I don’t mean to use that an excuse or as a way to blame someone else. My failings are my responsibility. I just bring it up because it’s one of those things that I’d never really dealt with. And at least up through high school, I didn’t think I had to. It was just me and my mom in Cartersville, and we got along fine—we weren’t exactly rich, but we got by. I figured I’d bring in the money someday.
Everything came easily to me in those days. I was a dual-threat quarterback and a star center fielder on the baseball team with pro potential in both sports. My high school football coach, Frank Barden, said I was a kid with no ego; my baseball coach, Stuart Chester, said I had the presence of a movie star and that he never had a single issue with me. But my senior season, I was exhausted from playing so many All-Star baseball games over the summer, and I decided to skip football and get ready for college and improve my stock in the MLB draft. But I couldn’t let down my teammates. I came back in the second week of the season, and in the state playoffs, I cracked a rib throwing a touchdown pass in frigid 20-degree weather and then threw three more touchdown passes after that in our 42-28 loss.
I was enough of a local hero that they even had a Donavan Tate Day in my hometown, and I’ll admit I didn’t mind being in the spotlight. I thought I could handle it. I addressed reporters as “Sir.” I was even conscious of the way I dressed.
Skip Butler/Associated Press
I’d signed a letter of intent to play baseball and football at North Carolina and was prepared to do both until the Padres picked me just behind Stephen Strasburg and Dustin Ackley in the draft. I owed it in large part to Ash Lawson, the scout for the Padres who’d first seen me play baseball as a sophomore when he was sizing up one of my teammates. I had a loose swing back then, and Ash saw me as a freakish natural talent—the best all-around athlete in the draft that year—and a potential five-tool star, even after I’d bulked up a bit by my senior year.
I was a hard worker, too. I’d hit 200 balls off a tee every day during the baseball season, and I’d watch film at night during football season. I could run like crazy and never be out of breath. Ash did all the research on me that he possibly could, so much so that Coach Chester joked that the guy must own real estate in Cartersville or something. Ash even followed me home from games to see what I would do, who I would hang out with and what kind of food I would eat. And we clicked right away. The first time we talked on the phone, for 45 minutes or so, it was like we’d known each other for 20 years.
After I got drafted, I thought long and hard about going to college. I even spent a couple of weeks up at UNC practicing with the team. But given how high I’d been picked, it was hard to pass up the money; I don’t have any regrets, but I will say it forced my hand a little bit.
Then I got to the minor leagues, and that’s when the problems began.
First there were the injuries, which started right away. When I showed up to work out in Arizona, I had a stress reaction in my pubic bone. Then I had surgery for a sports hernia. Before my first spring training, I broke my jaw in an ATV accident, and then I hurt my shoulder diving for a ball. I had knee problems, I had wrist problems, and amid all of that, I began to question a lot of things.
I don’t know if I can pinpoint a moment that began my downward spiral or whatever you want to call it. I don’t want to attribute it to the pressure I felt because I’d always put a lot of pressure on myself growing up. I think I just started to take it all for granted. I was 18 years old, I had all this money and I was on my own—I thought, Hey, I’m going to make it as a baseball player, but I’m going to have my fun at the same time. I didn’t really have many people to guide me, and I made some bad decisions: Within a month of being drafted, I’d failed a drug test.
That first positive test got kept secret. Maybe that made me think I could continue to get away with it. I didn’t want to talk to anybody or take anybody’s advice. I wanted to hold it all in and deal with it the way I thought I should. I thought I had the world figured out, and I didn’t trust anyone fully. I worried if I did confide in someone, that person might judge me.
I did start figuring it out on the field in 2011. I hit .288 and had a .410 on-base percentage in 39 games, but in June of that year I tested positive for drugs again and got a 50-game suspension. This time, it wasn’t kept secret. Everyone knew. I was playing in Class-A Eugene, Oregon, that year for Pat Murphy, who’s now the bench coach of the Milwaukee Brewers. He’s one of the best people I’ve ever been around in my life, and I opened up to him. He wasn’t stupid—it was pretty obvious when I drank all morning and then showed up at the field wasted.
Skip Butler/Associated Press/Associated Press
That’s when I went to rehab for the first time, in Tucson. I spent 30 days there—I turned 21 in that facility—and I think that time, I went to rehab to please my family and please the Padres, but I didn’t really want to be there for myself. I still felt like I needed to drink to have fun, and I wasn’t ready for that to end.
Things were OK for a while afterward, but then the offseason came in 2013. I wish I knew what I was thinking or how to explain it, but I got home to Georgia and was hanging out with some old friends and some random folks, and I made one bad decision after another. Things spiraled pretty fast. I knew I wasn’t taking care of my body, but I didn’t know how bad it had gotten until I stepped on that scale in northern California and saw all the weight I’d lost.
The world slowed down for me once I got into rehab that time. My mind slowed down. When one of the women working there told me after a couple of days that I had detoxed and I was free to go, I thought, I don’t want to go back to that environment. That was when it clicked. I started thinking about who I was, about what kind of life I wanted to lead. I didn’t really talk to anyone in the outside world on a regular basis, except for Kensey, who was then my girlfriend and is now my wife. I lost touch with Ash, and when he called my agent to try to get a contact for me, they told him they didn’t have a number for me either. I didn’t even really speak to my mom.
Kensey and I went to high school together, and we weren’t together the whole time, but something clicked with us then. We talked on the phone every couple of days, and we kept on talking the whole time I was in rehab. We got married in September of 2013 and had our first daughter, Nevaeh (it’s “heaven” spelled backward) the following March. We’ve had two more kids since, a girl named Ivory and a boy, Donavan Jr., who’s just a couple of months old. If that doesn’t change your outlook on life, nothing will. You can’t be selfish anymore.
But my sobriety is also a constant struggle, and in case I need a reminder of that, I think about Dillon, my roommate in California. We stayed in touch for a couple of months after we both got out of the facility, and we were doing well, and then he started struggling with his demons again. I was in Arizona trying to get back into baseball and told him to come visit me, and he was going to fly out that week from the East Coast, but then I got a call from his mom.
Dillon had overdosed, she told me, and he’d passed away.
I barely thought about baseball at all in rehab. Kensey sent me a couple of gloves, and I’d play catch sometimes—that was about the extent of it. But when I got out, I was still young, and I felt refreshed and happy. I called Ash, who was living in the little town of Athens, Tennessee, and he told me to come up. Kensey (who was a few months pregnant) and I could live in his basement, he said, and we’d train for a month that winter. Mostly, I just ate, slept and trained; I was really enjoying baseball again. The only semblance of my old life was the Porsche I drove around town.
One day I was working with a trainer, doing a speed and agility drill, and I felt something pop in my lower leg. I knew it was bad. It turned out I had ruptured my Achilles. We went out to Ash’s car and I broke down, and I’m pretty sure he broke down, too. I was finally doing everything right—it felt like I was at a turning point—and then this happens. It was like, “What am I supposed to do?”
Kensey Tate @KenseyTate
Then we tortoised all the way to the car 😄 @dtate20 http://t.co/LGcdXo7Y
Baseball wasn’t the same after that. I played one more year in the Padres system, got picked up by the Dodgers and pulled my oblique in spring training. First game back, I got hit in the hand with a pitch and broke it. I asked for my release in 2016, went home and started being dad. Then in January of this year, I started thinking, What am I going to do with my life? And one day I looked in the mirror and thought, I want to play football again. I went into the bedroom and told my wife, and she said, Let’s do it. I called Coach Barton, my high school football coach, and started working out with him the next day.
Most of the football coaches who recruited me—like Pete Carroll at USC and Butch Davis at North Carolina—were long gone. I was calling pretty much any number I had, and Ash helped connect me to a few folks, too. Coach Rich Rodriguez had recruited me when he was at Michigan all those years ago, so I got in touch with him. As a provision of my contract, the Padres would pay for my schooling, so he wouldn’t have to spend a scholarship on me. All he had to do was give me a chance to prove myself.
I got some interest from good schools, a lot of mid-majors, even some Division III programs. But as Ash says, I’m still the kind of person who thrives in the spotlight, so when he heard a Pac-12 program was interested, he figured that’d be where I’d land. I bought a plane ticket and met with Coach Rodriguez and his staff during spring practice, and I knew it was the right fit.
Coach did his homework, and after speaking to some people about me, he agreed to give me a shot. In his offensive system, the quarterback often takes a pounding, and he’d played five quarterbacks in 2016, so he needed depth. I still have my speed, and I’m a pretty good size now—6’3″, about 210 pounds—so it seemed like an ideal spot for me. I can provide that depth for now while I get up to speed, and hopefully step in and start eventually.
I’m not going to lie: It’s pretty strange being a 26-year-old freshman. I took an online course over the summer, and I got to know some of my teammates, but I was almost more nervous about the school stuff than I was about the football stuff. I’m taking English 101 and psychology this fall; my first in-person class was oceanography, and when I walked into that giant lecture hall, it was a little bit nerve-racking.
As for the football, it’s only been a few weeks, but it’s coming back to me piece by piece. (After the first full-contact practice, I was pretty sore.) I’m doing everything I can to learn the read-option system that Coach Rodriguez pioneered—I’m asking questions and studying the playbook and taking notes in every spare hour I’ve got. It’s like mastering a new language. And I’ve still got some old baseball habits to work through, especially in terms of throwing the ball, but I’m getting there. My quarterbacks coach, Rod Smith, says I’ve got a sturdy build like Dak Prescott—some schools even recruited me as a safety out of high school—but I also know I’ve got miles to go before I can even earn a spot on the field, let alone be in Dak’s orbit.
Still, I’m not the first quarterback to start his career late: Chris Weinke did it at Florida State, and Brandon Weeden at Oklahoma State, and Drew Henson went to the NFL after playing baseball, so there’s a path there for me.
I’m moving my wife and kids into a rented house near campus, but the first few weeks I was here, I hardly even had time to miss them—I was practicing and lifting weights and taking classes, and I was even busier than I imagined I’d be. Sometimes I get so caught up in the day-to-day grind that I forget there’s an age difference between me and my teammates; I almost start to feel like a kid again. (At least until they start calling me “Grandpops” or “G-Pops.”)
Coach Rodriguez says he’s going to coach me like everyone else, but he also knows it’s a unique situation. And I know that I’ve got a responsibility to share my wisdom with these six other guys in the quarterback room—or anyone else on the team—so they don’t make the same mistakes I did. Maybe I won’t tell them about the specifics of my life story, but I will tell them that they’ve been gifted with an opportunity, and that they’re going to regret it if they don’t make the most of that opportunity.
All three of my kids are too young to absorb those lessons now, but I plan on sharing those lessons with them as they get older. I know what it was like to grow up without the influence of a father, and I’m going to be a leader, and I’m going to be there for them, no matter what. They’re the most important thing in my life now. If I succeed in football, that’s just a bonus.
I’ve learned how to let people into my life. I have a small circle of folks who I trust, who I can confide in when things get hard, who know what I’ve been through. And when I see my teammates lose perspective, I can remind them how the outside world works. Because I’ve been through it, and I’ve suffered, and whether I make it or I don’t, I’m not going to squander this chance.