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Cobie Durant's underdog mentality carries him to the NFL
Rams rookie defensive back Cobie Durant has never let the odds or obstacles define his path. 
By Stu Jackson Jul 13, 2022
Photographs By Brevin Townsell/LA Rams, other photos courtesy of South Carolina State

AGOURA HILLS, Calif. – Tell Cobie Durant the odds, and there's a good chance he'll defy them.

Too small? No scholarship offers coming out of high school? Needing to go to prep school, then walking on to South Carolina State?

None of it would matter.

Fueled by an underdog mentality, the rookie defensive back has handled every obstacle thrown his way on his journey to the Rams and the NFL with unwavering confidence.

Durant stood no more than 5-foot-2 and 115 pounds, but spoke with the confidence of a defensive back one foot taller and 100 pounds heavier.

"Just a really small guy. He came up to me (and said), 'I'm gonna be starting, coach,'" former Lamar (South Carolina) High head coach Corey Fountain told "I'm starting wide receiver, I'm going to be starting DB coach, and I'm going to be the hardest worker out there.' He didn't lie.

"He was one of the hardest-working little kids that I remember."

While Durant's physical maturation did not reach 6-foot-2 and 215 pounds, he eventually did develop into a 5-8, 160-pound, well-rounded athlete.

At Lamar, Durant also played baseball and basketball, and even began competing in track, according to Pro Football Network. In football, he wasn't just a defensive back. He started his preps career at running back but also played quarterback and wide receiver – in addition to safety and cornerback, of course.

Fountain said Durant understood it was a process. Durant was a great teammate who always encouraged others and was always one of the hardest workers.

The most prominent example of that selflessness and work ethic displayed itself during Durant's senior year.

Fountain didn't have a player he could trust to play quarterback, and Durant had only been a wide receiver and a defensive back. Durant was hesitant at first.

"Coach, I can't play quarterback," Durant told Fountain.

"Yes, you can," Fountain replied. "You'll be fine. Just lead the team and just do everything I ask you to do, and we'll be fine.'"

Durant agree to play the position and went on to lead Lamar to its first state championship since 2004 – also Fountain's first state title as a head coach. In that Class A Division II state championship game, Durant had a one-yard touchdown run, a 15-yard touchdown pass and helped the Silver Foxes amass nearly 400 yards of total offense in their 28-0 shutout win over the C.E. Murray War Eagles. Overall, Durant threw for 621 yards, rushed for another 603, made 50 tackles and grabbed four interceptions to earn All-State honors that year.

Yet, that didn't translate to any scholarship offers since Durant was still small in stature. He told Pro Football Network in March that he also didn't have the ACT scores to qualify.

"Sometimes it's just frustrating, just being a high school coach, with the college recruiting process and the metrics that go along with it," Fountain said. "If you're not a certain height, your arms aren't this length and you don't run a certain time in the 40, then you don't get a shot. I knew if he just kept working, he'd make a way."

"It was kind of tough, but I fought through it," Durant told in May. "I knew I was a good athlete, but I had always seen the big picture, just staying humble and just realizing what I could put forth to come into a team."

For Durant, that meant going to prep school.

And working at FedEx.

Without any offers, Durant headed to Palmetto Prep in Columbia, South Carolina, about an hour west of Lamar.

According to an October 2016 article from the Columbia Star, the school was established in 2011 to provide a second chance to players who didn't initially qualify to play elite college football. Wes Dorton, head coach and athletic director of the post-grad program, told the weekly newspaper that "many of our students are just a point or two shy of a passing ACT score, and others are qualified but just got overlooked in the recruiting process." Their 2015 roster included 37 players, 31 of which earned scholarships from four-year colleges and universities.

It seemed to be the perfect fit for Durant, but that 2016 season was cut short. So he headed back home that fall and took a job with FedEx.

"I just always wanted my own money," Durant said. "It was just that time, where I was just feeling like I don't want to ask my mom and them for nothing. They always came through for me. It was just me making a grown-up decision wanting to work."

The work ethic that served him well on the football field also paid dividends in that job. Durant built good relationships with the contractors out there, and in turn they let him do seasonal work during the summertime before he reported to fall camp in college, as well as during Christmastime. By the time he turned 21, he was driving and making a little bit more money than what he made when he was loading the trucks.

"It was fun," Durant said.

Except for that one time when he and his cousin were delivering on a dirt road.

It was raining. They thought it was drivable. They were quickly proven wrong.

"We was like, 'We think we can make it,' and got bogged down," Durant said with a laugh. "We was stuck for like an hour."

Just like that delivery truck, though, Durant's college prospects would also get out of the mud.

Durant facilitated that process by reaching out to South Carolina State defensive tackles coach Gerald Harrison, who also serves as the program's director of operations and pro liaison and recruited Durant's area, the Pee Dee region.

Harrison, however, was already familiar with Durant.

Located in what Fountain described as a "one-stoplight town," Lamar High School has an enrollment of 249 students, according to U.S. News & World Report, but has still produced NFL talent with notable alumni such as Pro Bowl and All-Pro defensive end John Abraham, 2016 fourth-round pick and outside linebacker B.J. Goodson, and 1992 second-round pick Levon Kirkland, who played 11 years in the league.

The size of the school may have caused Durant to be overlooked and dissuaded other coaches from recruiting it, but not Harrison.

"Decobie comes from a school that has produced a bunch of college and NFL players," Harrison said. "It's a very small school, about 300 people, might have 110 boys in the whole school. When I first started coaching, I knew that talent in that school. And because it's such a small school, a lot of people didn't go in and recruit it. I recruited about four or five players out of there, so I was well aware of Decobie and his capabilities. He was just small, that was his only problem."

But it didn't necessarily matter to Harrison.

"The main thing is, being from Lamar, the size didn't really make any difference because those guys are so tough," Harrison said. "He was 150-something pounds, but that didn't bother me because I knew he'd gain some weight."

Ultimately, the only hurdle left was Durant coming to terms with not being a Division I FBS player, which he had continued to hold out hope for during his post-grad year. When that offer didn't come, he was ready to head to South Carolina State, where he would get the chance to prove the doubters wrong.

It would just take a little bit of patience to get to that point.

Upon arriving on campus, Durant sat out that first year as a "grayshirt" – an incoming freshman who delayed his enrollment until the spring semester. He would also have to earn his scholarship since he was given a preferred walk-on spot.

"It didn't matter," Durant said. "I just wanted to play ball and showcase my skills."

Durant got the opportunity to do so quickly in his first spring with the team in 2018, earning a scholarship and never looking back.

"He's a guy that, any opportunity that presents itself, he's gonna take full advantage of it," South Carolina State defensive coordinator Jonathan Saxon, who played with Durant's older cousins, told "When he came with us, that's what he did from Day 1. You know, I laugh and joke with him about (how) he earned the starting spot probably two weeks before we were done with spring ball his first year. But he's a high-character guy. If you tell him that this guy's better than him, he's gonna do everything to show you and work in a way to show you that he's not better than me."

Durant had a productive first season in 2018, tallying 38 total tackles two interceptions and three pass breakups. In 2019, he had 35 total tackles, three interceptions and 12 pass breakups.

Then came the Alabama A&M game in the 2021 spring season, when he snagged three interceptions in what Saxon considers Durant's breakout performance. He would finish with four overall picks overall that spring, plus five pass breakups.

"He's one of those guys (that) if he doesn't catch an interception, he's feeling like he didn't make any plays," Saxon said. "But you go look at the stat sheet, he'll have five tackles, two or three pass breakups, but he didn't get many targets. We knew he was a good player for us, but to go out and catch three interceptions in one game is still big, no matter the level."

Durant continued his strong play in the 2021 fall season, highlighted by grabbing a pair of interceptions against Clemson – a performance that caught the Rams' attention, according to general manager Les Snead. In 12 starts that season, Durant led the Bulldogs with three interceptions and 12 pass breakups while adding 38 total tackles, earning First-Team All-FCS recognition. He also won MEAC Defensive Player of the Year, becoming the fourth player in program history to do so, joining linebackers Darius Leonard and Joe Thomas and defensive tackle Javon Hargrave.

Harrison and Durant were on the golf course last week when that trademark confidence resurfaced.

"He came out there talking about, 'I'm an athlete, I can do this.' After about 30 minutes of hitting the ball, I said, 'Listen man, you gotta practice this too,'" Harrison said with a laugh.

Durant's sources of motivation come from different places, including having an older cousin who played in the NFL and two others who played safety for South Carolina State. Michael Hamlin, who played for Clemson, was a fifth-round pick by the Cowboys in 2009. Markee and Marquais Hamlin were safeties on South Carolina State's 2008 and 2009 conference championship teams.

"Growing up, I always wanted to be like them," Durant told ESPN's Andscape's Mia Berry in mid-December. "Especially when I started out in rec football. I used to change numbers every year to wear their football numbers. I'm just following in their footsteps as I go through middle school, high school and college. It's fun especially watching them play and sitting in the stands and getting a chance to go into the locker room and see different things at a young age."

Durant did one better than Michael, going to the Rams in the fourth round of the draft. By landing in Los Angeles, he also appropriately gets to team up with a defensive back he's long admired and who also never lacks confidence in Jalen Ramsey.

Durant said he had a feeling that partnership would happen and that he would be heading to a West Coast team, especially because of the interest shown by the Rams.

"The L.A. Rams actually had a scout fly out to me in Orangeburg, and we watched film and whatnot," Durant said. "So I kind of figured, I was like, 'They like me!' Because the other teams, they was doing mostly Zooms. (The Rams) actually flew out, and I was like, 'Man, I might get a chance to play with Jalen Ramsey!' And he's one of my favorite players. So it was big for me."

As Durant navigates his own NFL career, he – unsurprisingly – has big ambitions.

"Just pretty much being able to contribute to the team any way possible – whether it's special teams, starting on the defense," Durant said. "Just being able to be a playmaker and show that I can play in the league. Hopefully I can play as long as Charles Woodson did."

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