MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Finally, today, looking ahead to the Super Bowl is a familiar path to success in pro sports - high school standout, college star, top draft pick - but some peoples' journeys are very different. Delvin Breaux has become one of the NFL's top young defenders with the New Orleans Saints. At one point, he intercepted Super Bowl quarterback Cam Newton. Here's Joe Buck of Fox Sports.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
JOE BUCK: Play action - there's a fast ball picked off by Delvin Breaux. Down the sideline...
MARTIN: But just nine years earlier, Breaux was a high school senior when he faced a life-changing moment - he broke his neck. Here's Delvin Breaux.
DELVIN BREAUX: Oh man, I started playing when I was 4 year old. Every day I used to wake up, I used to be like, hey, man, I'm going to be in the NFL one day. In high school, the recruitment process was amazing, man. You know, they had coaches coming from UCLA, USC, Virginia Tech, Virginia, Ohio State, Michigan - you know, I had a whole bunch of teams. You know, I only visited LSU, you know, because that was the only school I wanted to go to, my hometown team. The day I got seriously injured was October 27, 2006. So I shot down the left side of the field, just went in there and made the tackle. And next thing you know, I was on the ground and, you know, everything just went dark. I couldn't move or nothing, and I hear my teammates was like, D. Breaux, get up, we need you. We need you, man, get up. And I'm like, man, I would, but I can't move. And then, like, two or three seconds after I said that then, like, a bright white light just - just appeared.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
BREAUX: You know, I opened my eyes and then my coaches came and was like, you all right? I said, yeah, I'm good. They gave me some smelling salts to wake up, so I got up off the ground and started walking back to the sideline. I took my own helmet off and, you know, I was getting ready to go back in, didn't think nothing was wrong. Then that's when a sharp pain came and shot up the back of my neck. And I went to the sideline, I told my dad, my neck hurting. Then he was like, take some Ibuprofen. And I couldn't swallow the pills because my disc slipped out my esophagus.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
BREAUX: I broke my C4, C5 and C6 vertebrae. They went in there, put some screws, some pins and rods in there to secure my neck. And in the front part of my esophagus - I have a scar in the front. They went in there and put a - like, a plate in the front to secure it to the back whenever they got to the back. And, man, that was it. I had a whole bunch of teams offering me - Florida, Tech - like, everybody just wanted me there. And then once I broke my neck, they stopped calling. And then after that, man, I was just so frustrated. You know, I was, like, man, my career's over with, can't play ball no more. Man, I can't pursue my dream. What am I going to do next? And that's all I kept thinking while I was in the hospital for that month. And I'm glad I committed to LSU early and was loyal to them. Man, I just thank Les Miles for continuing to keep me on that scholarship, even though, you know, I broke my neck. And I thought that was, you know, very generous and honest of him and the university to do that, giving me that opportunity to come there and get an education and, you know, just put football on the back-burner, even though I wanted to play but did not play for LSU, not one down. The recovery process was not hard. Man, I didn't even go to therapy for my neck. You know, once I got released from the hospital, I was on my own. You know, I had my dad, you know, there helping me start with the one-pound weights again. I had to relearn how to lift and get back up to my maximum strength. And like I said, I didn't really have rehab or therapy. It just healed up and, you know, I was training on my own. I ended up getting cleared.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
BREAUX: I went back home and told my wife, I said, baby, I'm cleared to play football again. And she said, no, you lying. (Laughter). And I'm like, no, baby, look at the paper, you know, everything was cleared and there was no restriction, man. And she was like, all right, well, get your butt back on out there. It's time to go play.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
BREAUX: It was May of 2012 with a semi-pro team in Hammond, La., with the Louisiana Bayou Vipers. And that's where I started my career back off. The next thing you know, it was game week. And, you know, going out there, I was like, man, I ain't played football in 6 years, man. I wonder how I'm going to be - am I going to be rusty? Am I going to be, you know, great? And it was one play - I think it was, like, the second play of the game. And they ran the ball, and they came my way. And I'm sitting up there like, man, I got to make this tackle. They're coming right to me. I've got to make this tackle, please. And I went in and I made the tackle. And I jumped up, I was like, man, I'm not dead. I was like, I'm not dead. And after that, man, I started balling out, man. I had an interception; I had, like, two more tackles and, man, I just started enjoying it. I was like, man, this is it, you know? I'm back playing football again. I'm doing what I love and now it's time to get to the NFL. Then I got on with the New Orleans Voodoo - the arena football team. Then I went from arena to - I signed with Hamilton Tiger Cats in the Canadian Football League. My big break came after my CFL season. Recruiting felt like college all over again. You know, I had a lot of teams wanting me. And I would say about 28 of the 32 NFL teams they had, I had workouts. Ended up signing with the Saints. I went through the physical process, and they were like, man, you're good to go. And, man, ever since then, man - I've been pumped ever since. Why didn't I quit football? You know, my motivation and dedication and determination just wouldn't let me quit. It just wouldn't let me say, hey, give up. It was just always - let's work out, let's do one more rep, let's do more set. You're going to make it, just continue to keep believing. And people saw me and was like, man, you should just give up, man. I'm not going to give up. It did nothing but add fuel to the fire. And it made me want to go hard and work out extra hard. I was trying to show people that - hey, I'm not out of it. I'm still in it.
MARTIN: That's New Orleans Saints cornerback Delvin Breaux for our ongoing series My Big Break.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.