For Mistral Raymond, the journey has never changed. It has always been about getting to the place no one thought he could go.
Unwanted out of Palmetto High, he went to junior college and later walked on at USF, where he turned himself into a sixth-round NFL draft pick last year by the Minnesota Vikings.
Heading into his second year with the Vikings, there is no book on Raymond because no one has ever done it his way.
He has been told to quit every step of the way, even at USF when the coaches there didn't know what to make of this kid who hung outside their offices hoping to get a chance.
They hoped he would go away, but Raymond never just goes away.
He could've gone in a different direction and killed a whole bunch of people for burning down his mother's house in Palmetto and his sister getting murdered in a case that has never been solved. The juries out on the street would've called it justifiable revenge.
Instead Raymond sought to live out his boyhood dream and become an NFL player.
Now he is climbing football's Mount Kilimanjaro.
He had to learn to run a different way because his way wasn't fast enough.
But he never had to learn persistence because it's in his DNA.
Raymond started in Minnesota's final five games last season.
The Viking secondary was one of the worst in the league and everyone seems to have an idea about fixing it. Rarely is Raymond mentioned in the cure-all. But that is when he is at his best.
The people with the Vikings who matter the most know all about him.
"I sat down with the
coaches after the season and they have a plan for me," Raymond says. "I am going to be more physical and stronger and quicker. I plan to be a solid contributor."
If you don't know Raymond you will underestimate him because it has been the intangibles that have enabled him to rise above everyone's expectations.
You don't evaluate Raymond with numbers and 40-yard times. You have to see inside his soul.
"The NFL lifestyle attracts a lot of people and you have to surround yourself with the right people," Raymond says. "I just try to be the same old me. We have a great fan base in Minnesota. They really accepted me and I am appreciative that I landed in such a great city where people really care."
Patience is one of his virtues, though standing on the sidelines last year when the Vikings listed him on the inactive list was tough.
"They told me my time would come and I would get a chance, but I've always been the kind of guy who wants to be on the front line and it was frustrating," Raymond says. "I learned as much as I could from watching. The talent level in the NFL is incredible. NFL players are warriors."
Raymond doesn't forget friends and is always in search of an edge.
He left Florida last week on his way to Minnesota for off-season workouts, embarking on a road trip every aspiring NFL player might want to study.
Raymond stopped at Tennessee State to help old friend and Philadelphia Eagles defensive back Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie (Lakewood Ranch) by playing in his celebrity all-star basketball game.
He was at Western Kentucky for the spring game to watch all those Manatee County players who dot the Hilltoppers roster along with head coach Willie Taggart and assistant Ray Woodie, his old coach at Palmetto.
They wanted him to address the team hoping some of Raymond's never-say-die attitude would rub off on the players.
After the game, he went to St. Louis to meet with two of his former teammates who are with the Rams, defensive backs Chris Smith from Palmetto and Jerome Murphy from USF.
"We pick each other's brain because there is so much you can learn about training and how to play," he says.
Raymond is not surprised Manatee County has so many defensive backs in the NFL (5 last year). He believes part of it is because from many of those players had to survive off the field; people like himself and Mike Jenkins and Fabian Washington.
"Some of us had to learn how to defend ourselves and I am a natural defender. I had to do it with my family. I am the last line of defense for my family," he says.
It's that protective nature that has Raymond yearning to play cornerback, though he knows right now his future is at safety.
"I miss cornerback because I miss being on that island all by yourself, but the Vikings have a plan for me and whatever they want is what I am going to do," Raymond says. "They want me to have more of a physical presence and I am working on that. I go in the weight room and attack the weights. My mindset is that I will never max out. You just keep going."
Alan Dell, Herald sports writer, can be reached at 941-745-7080, ext. 2112.