Demar Dotson had played six games of organized football in his life before the Tampa Bay Buccaneers signed him as a rookie free agent in 2009. If he makes it to the end of the contract he signed on Monday, Dotson will have spent more than a decade in the NFL.
That's an unusual combination of statistics, to say the least. Hundreds of young players try to gain a foothold in the NFL every year, many of them with far more illustrious gridiron backgrounds. A decade of football before the professional level, followed by a short stay in the NFL is a far more common path. Suffice it to say, Dotson's journey couldn't have happened without a lot of hard work and perseverance; he says a good dose of humility has helped quite a bit, too.
"Everything I've had in life I've worked for," said Dotson after putting his name to a multi-year extension that represents his first really substantial contract. "I came in as a rookie and didn't even have a pair of shoes, a pair of cleats to come out here. I had to work myself up, and I think that's just what God made me, a guy that's got to always stay humble. If I get things too easy, I get un-humble. I think just having things come hard, it keeps me humble every day, keeps me on my knees and keeps me grateful."
A Louisiana native, Dotson played two years of basketball at Southern Miss, continuing on with the sport he had excelled in during high school in Alexandria. Just prior to the football team's spring practices in 2008, Dotson visited the Golden Eagles' head coach and asked for a shot on the gridiron. He got it, and eventually appeared in those six games as a defensive tackle, making one start.
The Buccaneers obviously knew they were getting a very raw football player in the spring of '09 when they too gave Dotson a chance, but they also knew they would be working with a prospect who had amazingly quick feet for his 6-9, 315-pound frame. Those feet were clad in basketball shoes when he came to One Buccaneer Place for the first time, and the team didn't immediately have a pair of cleats on hand to fit his size-18s.
Still, Dotson made the team as a rookie and saw reserve action in nine games, but he landed on injured reserve for all of 2010. By this point, he hadn't actually played many more games than he did prior to his NFL career, but he had plenty of time to develop on the practice field. In 2011, Dotson was again a reserve linemen, getting two starts as an extra blocker in jumbo sets. And two games into 2012, he replaced Jeremy Trueblood as the Bucs' starting right tackle.
That began a very strong three-year period into which Dotson eventually emerged as one of the better right tackles in football. He began seeking a new contract heading into 2015, but a knee injury in the first preseason game put him on the shelf for more than half of the season and obviously stalled any talks with the team. After returning from short-term injured reserve, Dotson started three of the last five games and looked very much like himself in the last two weeks of the season.
Pictures from the Buccaneers' training camp practice on Monday.
Basically, Dotson had found himself back in the situation he had faced early in his career, when he had to prove that he was an NFL starter. Or at least that's how he chose to approach it, since that had worked for him every other step of the way.
"I know that everything you get you've got to prove," said Dotson. "If you want it, you've got to go out there and get it. I know this day didn't come easy. I'm determined. Even though I got [the new contract], there's no backing off. It makes me want to go harder, because I feel that if a team is willing to invest in you and show you some…I call it 'love,' then it's my job to go out there and give it back to them. With them wanting to invest in me like that, I know one thing: They're going to get my best."
Dotson had already begun to set his own personal bar higher during the two weeks of training camp that led up to his deal on Monday. He had been tabbed by Head Coach Dirk Koetter as the most dominant offensive lineman on the field and often seemed unbeatable in one-on-one drills with the defensive lineman. Dotson has now become the veteran anchor of that line, a 30-year-old on a unit that's starting a pair of 2015 draft picks (Donovan Smith and Ali Marpet) and, for now at least, 25-year-old Kevin Pamphile. In fact, Dotson is the longest-tenured player on the roster, having arrived one year earlier than defensive tackle Gerald McCoy.
Pictures of fans at the Buccaneers' training camp practice on Monday.
And in that regard, Dotson's nearly empty football background prior to Tampa may actually prove to be a good thing. He feels like he still has the legs of a much younger man.
"You know, I'm not getting younger but I don't feel old," said Dotson. "Even though I am getting older, I think it's about what you feel. I think I can move just as good as a 22-year-old, I can do what any young guy can come in here and do. It plays to the point that I didn't play a whole lot of football growing up. Even though I'm getting older in age, I don't think that my body is to that point where I wake up in the morning like, 'Man, I feel almost 31 years old.' Which I don't – I feel good. I feel almost like I'm 25 years old."
He's playing like a 25-year-old at the moment, and perhaps more importantly, he's still working as hard as he did when he first got to Tampa seven years ago. It was that reason, more than anything, that prompted General Manager Jason Licht and the Buccaneers to work out a contract that tabs Dotson as a cornerstone player. That deal falls in place after some recent extensions worked out with McCoy, linebacker Lavonte David and running back Doug Martin, all homegrown stars.
"Our extensions that we've done here recently with Gerald, Lavonte, Doug, you know there's one thing they all have in common: These guys work their butts off and are very consistent players, very good players in the league," said Licht. "You know what you're getting out of them every day, on the playing field, on the practice field. So it's an exciting day for us to know that Demar's going to be in the fold here for the foreseeable future."