Tuzar Skipper came into the small area where team photographer Karl Roser was taking head shots of players during the Steelers rookie minicamp in May.
He extended his hand, and in his deep voice, introduced himself.
“Skipper, correct,” Roser repeated.
The rookie there on a tryout basis smiled and nodded his head.
“Yep, like the Skipper of the ship,” said Skipper with a smile, which made all of those in the room smile, myself included.
It was that day, that moment when Skipper spoke with confidence in his voice and a strong presence that you had a feeling this guy could be something special, despite the fact that the odds were fully stacked against him.
First, this is a guy who saw player after player selected in the NFL Draft while he never heard his name called. Then he saw the names of players who were signed as undrafted free agents. While all he could do was sit, wait and hope. It wasn’t easy not being drafted, and not having a team even sign you after the draft was even worse.
“I was very disappointed,” said Skipper. “What kid is not disappointed? I would be standing here telling you a fib if I said I wasn’t disappointed. I was really disappointed. I didn’t let that moment become my future. I said you have been down before, you have to continue to work. It’s all work. It’s your mindset. Are you willing to work? If Plan A isn’t going to work out are you still going to achieve your goals going to Plan B and C?”
With Plan B facing him, he knew he couldn’t fail.
He had a few days to compete for his football life, trying to catch the attention of Steelers coaches and scouts during the three-day minicamp, while they were also watching players who were either drafted or signed as rookie free agents after the draft.
And he was doing it without a lot of rest. Skipper had a tryout just days earlier with the Kansas City Chiefs, with barely a minute to recover.
“It was a big turnaround, instant,” said Skipper. “Kansas City Chiefs rookie minicamp was over Tuesday. I got a call coming out of practice and my agent said call me ASAP, I want to talk to you. Then I had a message from (Steelers scout) Dan Colbert. I left Kansas City on Tuesday and was here on Thursday. I didn’t have any time to rest. Coming to the Steelers was my third camp in a week. It was getting tiring, but I really wanted it. I didn’t care. I was like I am going to do what I can do.”
This is a guy who is driven. Driven to make it. Driven to not let this opportunity slip away. He knew failure wasn’t an option, despite life setting him up to do just that.
And he didn’t fail, instead quite the opposite. Skipper was signed right after rookie minicamp to the team’s 90-man roster. And that’s where the real work began. The outside linebacker had an uphill battle in his fight to make the 53-man roster. But he didn’t back down. He had a strong training camp, even stronger preseason, and quickly became that player everyone was predicting could beat the odds and make the team.
He, though, was cautious and nervous, especially in the days leading up to the roster cuts.
“It was crazy. Just praying that you make the team,” said Skipper. “Praying that you don’t get a phone call in that 48-hour period. How ironic is that? The time you don’t want to hear anything that is good news. When you do hear something it’s bad news.”
Skipper got a few calls, but they were from friends, not the dreaded call so many others got. And the silence meant he made the 53-man roster.
“I got a lot of calls,” said Skipper. “Especially because I turned my ringer on. And I have a duck ringer, so the duck went off and I was like oh man. And it was a friend calling. I told him you can’t call me.
“By not having a phone call I knew I made it. At 4 p.m. Saturday I saw my name on the roster, so I knew I made it.
“It’s a dream come true. Something you dream about since you are a young kid. In middle school I was saying I am going to play in the NFL. In high school I said I am going to play in the NFL. Not really knowing that it was going to happen. Now it’s happened so it’s a dream come true.”
If there is anyone deserving of that dream coming true, it’s Skipper.
His childhood was one filled with uncertainty and upheaval, a child constantly on the move, never having the ability to fully feel like he had a home until his senior year of high school.
“It was rough,” admitted Skipper. “Foster home to foster home. Group home to group home. It was rough.
“One of my memories that I remember to this day is coming back from two-a-days in high school, and we all know how hard two-a-days are, and it’s nine p.m. and I am going back to a group home to look for some dinner. And all we had was hot dogs and beans. I am grateful for something to eat. But after a long day of work I don’t think hot dogs and beans are giving me the recovery I need to get back out there and do the same thing over again tomorrow. It was hard.”
It was a life many would have just given up on, figuring the fight wasn’t worth it. He went to three different elementary schools, three middle schools, and three high schools. His parents, who are now deceased, were unable to retain custody of him. He remembers living with his grandmother. But foster homes and groups homes were more the norm.
“I just remember being three years old and being taken for the first time,” said Skipper. “Then I went back and lived with my grandmother until I was seven. They I got taken again. I was with one family from seven until 15. Then it was time to split ways. I went to South Carolina with my twin brother when I was 16. Then I went back up to Connecticut and Meriden at the end of July, early August and started paying football in 10th grade (at Maloney High School). I liked it and ended up moving to Norwich Free Academy later that year. I got the season done and then moved to Norwich the second semester.”
It was while he was at Norwich Free Academy that he met two people who helped change his life, Tim and Kathy Duggan. The Duggans learned of his situation after watching him play high school football, learned he lived in a group home, and they wanted to help. It wasn’t easy, but they worked with the Dept. of Children and Families and with Skipper feeling comfortable with them, they became more than a place to live, they became a family for him his senior year of high school and beyond.
“The last six months of high school I was living with them,” said Skipper. “They helped me graduate high school. They have been with me on this journey ever since.”
They were with him during his college years as well, from Monroe Junior College to the University of Toledo, where they were regulars at his games. They were among the first people Skipper called when he found out he made the team.
“They deserved it,” said Skipper. “They were with me through the ups and downs. I remember going to the Dept. of Children and Families and they were telling me I couldn’t go to college. Now look, I graduated high school, college and am in the NFL.”
“It wasn’t easy, but we all say God gives his toughest battles to his toughest soldiers. I just think of myself as one of God’s toughest soldiers,” said Skipper. “It could have been easy. I could have given up. That is not the case. I kept going. I know what I wanted. I know how I want my future to go. I think we are on the right track.”
You would expect nothing less from the Skipper of his own ship.