Falcons fans remember Donte Rumph from his turn on Hard Knocks last season. Rumph, who's also known as Cupcake, the nickname bestowed upon him by Falcons defensive line coach Bryan Cox, was signed by the Falcons as a college free agent out of the University of Kentucky.
Rumph was waived by the Falcons as they trimmed the roster down to the final 53 for 2014, and since that time he's been working toward another chance to get back on the field, driven by a lifelong love of the game. Football wasn't just a game for Rumph during his childhood. It was a lifeline for a young man who had been abandoned at birth by his mother.
"Growing up, I was raised by my grandmother. I never knew my mother growing up, and I've always felt a vacant hole that I always had to deal with, and I didn't exactly know how to fill it," Rumph said. "And I had so many emotions, so many things I was confused about, so many questions about what was going on with my mom and what happened, so as a child and growing up and not really knowing how to channel those emotions, being in a family of athletes, specifically football players, I grew to love the sport at an early age."
The pain and anger and grief Rumph experienced because of his mother's abandonment found their release on the football field, and football helped him come to terms with his experience.
"It was an outlet for me; a way that I could just control my emotions and channel my anger in a more positive way," Rumph said. "It really helped me, because all that frustration that was built up from asking those recurring questions when I was younger. It just kind of helped me really deal with the whole situation — not really get over it, but just deal with the whole situation."
"I was able to accept it better as I grew older and I started playing football more and more. I started to accept the fact that I don't know my mom, but I have a great grandmother," Rumph said. "So football was an outlet. It was something that helped me build character, and I kind of feel like I found myself playing football, at a young age."
During Rumph's senior campaign at the University of Kentucky, he logged 47 tackles, six tackles for loss, and two sacks. Rumph went undrafted, but his performance had generated some NFL interest.
Draft day is a little different for players who go undrafted. Regardless of the fact that Rumph wasn't drafted, the experience of being signed by the Falcons following the 2014 NFL Draft remains a very fond memory.
"It's so many mixed emotions — happiness, just being nervous, not really knowing what to expect," Rumph said. "And through the process of watching the draft and finally being signed with Atlanta, I just felt the relief and joy. I was just so happy and so blessed that I could just share that moment with my family and my closest friends."
Like so many young players, it was Rumph's dream to make it to the NFL, and receiving that opportunity from the Falcons was an overwhelming experience.
"At that moment, I felt like I'd made one of the biggest accomplishments in my life, and it was — oh, my God. It was so much joy, and I was so happy," Rumph said. "I just remember getting that call and tears just rolling down my face, and I went in the house yelling, and everybody just started congratulating me, and it was just an awesome feeling. So it was — it's indescribable, really, because the amount of happiness and joy that I felt, it's unbearable."
The NFL is a tough business, physically, mentally and emotionally, and Rumph learned that early in OTAs.
Rumph got pinned up between two offensive linemen during a half-line drill during the rookies' first practice with the veterans and hyperextended his elbow, not knowing at the time that the experience would earn him an infamous nickname from defensive line coach Bryan Cox.
"I kind of took a knee, but I got right back up and I jogged to the sideline, and the trainers came over. They put a sleeve on me and they asked me could I go, and I continued practice," Rumph said. "I was out there with one arm...because I didn't want to miss one rep, because I know that's one opportunity missed of making the team. So I said, ‘Okay, I'm just going to have to tough it out. I'm just going to have to play with one arm.'"
The team had meetings that evening, and Coach Cox recounted a version of the story for Rumph's teammates and other coaches.
"Coach Cox made like a whole big joke out of it. He actually called another coach in our defensive line meeting room. He was like, ‘Let me tell you about Donte,'" Rumph said. "He's like, ‘Yeah, man, what happened to you earlier?' So he goes on explaining the story. ‘Yeah, he got a little boo boo on his elbow,' and then he went on over-exaggerating completely, that I was on my back, rolling around on the ground, yelling and crying. And then he came up with the famous name "Cupcake." He's like, "I'm going to call you Cupcake.'"
The timing of this exchange just happened to coincide with the timing of the announcement that the Falcons would be featured on Hard Knocks. Cox had no qualms about using Rumph's new nickname on television.
"The next day after that — that next morning, we just got the confirmation that Hard Knocks chose us for the 2014 season," Rumph said. "So I was like, oh, wow, and he's like, ‘Oh, don't worry. I'm still going to call you Cupcake on Hard Knocks, too.' I said, ‘Okay, great.'"
Fans will also remember that Cox gave Rumph an out for the unflattering nickname. Cox told Rumph that if he had three great practices, Cox would start calling him Donte.
Rumph had three great practices, and Cox kept his word.
"I had three great practices, and that's where I saw myself steadily getting better every day and just improving in areas that I was previously weak in or wasn't really necessarily my strength," Rumph said. "So just improving in those areas, and you actually could see it on tape, and Coach Cox actually noticed it, too, so that encouraged him more to release the name ‘Cupcake.'"
One of the more painful elements of this part of the season is seeing players who have worked so hard to seize their NFL opportunity released from the team. The deadline to cut the roster from 90 to 75 was this past Tuesday at 4 p.m., and teams will cut down from 75 to 53 by Saturday at 4 p.m.
Last season, Rumph was one of those players. Surprisingly, the fact that his experience was televised wasn't the most difficult part for him.
"After I got released, actually went to my room and packed up all my stuff and packed up everything, and I signed all my release forms, and then after that, I called my agent. I called my agent. He didn't pick up," Rumph said.
Assuming his agent was busy, Rumph tried to contact him a few more times with no response. Rumph tried calling, texting, leaving voicemails and even reached out to his now-former agent via social media. According to Rumph, the agent never responded. Rumph's former agent, Angelo Wright, disputes these claims.
It's a harrowing experience for a young athlete hoping for another shot in the NFL to lose his agent at such a crucial time.
"You don't know what's going on, you don't know what the next step is, what the next opportunity is, so you're just basically in neutral," Rumph said. "You're wondering, okay, what now? And you're just —it's like being in quicksand. The more you move, the faster you sink. And that's really what it felt like. It felt like I was in quicksand, because no matter how many times I called him, how many times I tried to reach out to him, I'm still not getting a response, and time is just going by and it was just all bad."
Rumph found out that several teams had reached out to his former agent but did not receive a response. By the time Rumph became aware of these opportunities, it was too late. The spots had been filled.
The most painful part for Rumph was experiencing that feeling of abandonment all over again.
"It just brought me back to my childhood and the whole situation with my mom abandoning me again," Rumph said. "It was just overwhelming. Just something that I thought I had gotten over as a child and at a younger age, those familiar feelings and that anxiety was brought back."
Rumph didn't give up on his NFL dreams, undertaking a Tent of Faith challenge during the 2015 offseason to get the Falcons' attention. Rumph literally camped out in a tent outside the team's facility in Flowery Branch, Georgia.
Rumph wanted to show the team that he's willing to put himself on the line, and he wanted to demonstrate how much he's grown since being released from the team.
"I actually had a chance to talk with the Director of Operations and tell him my reasoning for even being out there prior to me camping out, and he seemed supportive," Rumph said. "He was like, 'Okay, I'll reach out to some guys.' He called some names out — DeJuan Polk, which is the head of scouts. So I was like, okay, and from that point on, I thought I had a little bit of momentum heading into to the whole camping thing."
Rumph's Tent of Faith experience became much more difficult almost immediately.
"Come to find out ten minutes later, I have like five or six trooper cars pulling up, and it was just crazy," Rumph said.
Even though they could not allow Rumph to camp in that location, they were supportive of his efforts. As a matter of fact, everyone Rumph came into contact with on this journey, even those tasked with shutting down Rumph's Tent of Faith, were supportive of the intent behind it.
"It's just affecting people in a positive way," Rumph said. "Like, I'm getting stories from random people on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram saying, 'Hey, wow, you really inspired me to fulfill my dreams and to do what I've got to do and to change my life around so that I can be confident and I can be a better person.' And it's just a blessing to get messages like that and just know that I can have that positive influence on people."
Rumph's determination to fulfill his dream of playing in the NFL hasn't faded. He wants to make this happen for his wife and children, and he wants to be an inspiration for anybody who doubts themselves or feels like giving up.
More than anything, though, Rumph just wants the opportunity to take care of his grandmother, just like she cared for him from the time his mother abandoned him at the hospital after birth.
His grandmother is 77 years old and is financially unable to retire at present. Rumph believes the best way he could thank her for the sacrifices she made to provide for him and care for him would be to provide for her financially.
"I told my grandmother the other day, I just said, 'Thank you.' I called her and I just said, 'Thank you.' She said, 'For what?' I said, 'You saved my life. If you didn't rescue me from the hospital, there's no telling where I would end up or where I would be right now. I mean, I could be dead right now,'" Rumph said. "I tell her that all the time, just, 'Thank you,' because she really saved my life."
Rumph is currently training four hours a day at a high-performance athletic facility in John's Creek, Georgia, not far from the Falcons' facility. Even as teams whittle down their rosters and the opportunities become fewer, Rumph is undeterred.
"I'm doing this for all athletes, to show that they should never give up," Rumph said. "Just because they get one no or they don't really get the answer that they've been looking for, you can't just give up. You have to fight."