Dontari Poe was a good player for some lousy football teams at the University of Memphis. Over his three seasons (2009-11), the Tigers went 5-31, bad enough for two coaches — Tommy West and Larry Porter — to be sent packing. A gap-plugging nose tackle, Poe was good enough to earn second-team all-conference honors in 2011 and attracted enough attention from NFL scouts to declare for the draft with a year of college eligibility remaining. (Five wins in three seasons. Wouldn’t you?!
Then at the 2012 NFL combine, Poe became a star. Tipping the scales near 350 pounds, Poe bench-pressed 225 pounds an astonishing 44 reps, a number topped by only five men in the history of the scouting extravaganza. But when he ran the 40-yard dash in 4.98 seconds — at 346 pounds — Poe climbed into the first-round mix, a combination of size, strength, and speed rarely seen without green skin and an Avengers affiliation. That April, the Kansas City Chiefs chose the pride of Wooddale High School with the 11th selection, the highest any Memphis Tiger had been drafted since defensive back Keith Simpson went ninth (to the Seattle Seahawks) in 1978.
And Poe hasn’t disappointed. He played in the Pro Bowl after both the 2013 and 2014 seasons, then last November became the largest man ever to rush for an NFL touchdown with a one-yard plunge in a win over the San Diego Chargers. He turns 26 in August so hopes the prime of his career has just begun.
Poe travels frequently between Kansas City and Memphis, returning to his hometown for visits with his mom, Chrissandra Simmons, and to support the Tigers when the Chiefs’ bye week allows him to visit the Liberty Bowl on a fall Saturday. But the trip Poe is making this week will have extra meaning. He’s hosting a free football camp for kids at Wooddale High, the first event coordinated by Poe Man’s Dream, a nonprofit foundation with a mission to lift and support under-served youth in the Memphis region.
“This is for people who are like I was as a child,” says Poe. “As a kid, I would wish for someone to come along and, not so much give me anything, but just tell me how to get things done. There’s no better way to get somewhere than to listen to someone who’s already there, where you want to be. That’s the inspiration behind this. I was in a position that a lot of these Memphis kids are in today.”
Poe and his two older brothers grew up with their mom as the standard for hard work, perseverance, and optimism. Poe Man’s Dream is a way to share those standards with hundreds of kids. Says Poe, “For me to be able to accomplish what I have, and go back to lend a helping hand — anything I can to help them — is really big for me.” Poe has wanted to start the foundation for some time now, but took care in finding the right people to support the cause. Most of the staff at the football camp will be volunteers.
Soon enough, Poe will be in training camp for his fifth NFL season. Only three franchises — the Cleveland Browns, Detroit Lions, and New York Jets — have suffered longer Super Bowl droughts than the Chiefs, who last appeared in the sport’s showcase after the 1969 season (Super Bowl IV). “It’s been a long time,” says Poe. “I feel like every year is our year, but especially this year, because we have a lot of pieces together, and we’re all growing. Both as people and players.” The Chiefs have enjoyed three straight winning seasons and reached the playoffs in 2013 and 2015. They beat Houston in a wild-card game last January before losing to New England in the divisional round.
When asked about his leadership role with the Chiefs, Poe acknowledges and accepts his veteran status. Even in the NFL, a man of Poe’s size can send a message in ways few others can. This Saturday in Memphis, thanks to Poe Man’s Dream, dozens of kids will get a message (or two) that should inspire for years to come. “More than anything,” he says, “[I lead] by example, not talking. That’s just how it is.”
For more information, check out www.poemansdream.org.