Less than nine months after the Atlanta Falcons put Donte Rumph’s NFL career on hold, the 25-year-old was back at the team’s headquarters in Flowery Branch, Georgia. This time, however, he wasn’t there to report to work, nor did he have a ticket to get inside.
Instead, he was living in a tent. Waiting for his opportunity to be invited inside again.
A three-year starter at defensive tackle for the University of Kentucky, Rumph got the opportunity to realize his childhood dream when the Atlanta Falcons signed him as an undrafted free agent following the 2014 NFL draft. That opportunity lasted less than four months, however, as Rumph was cut by the Falcons in August, prior to the start of the regular season.
Nearly a year later, Rumph has yet to be signed to another NFL roster. Even still, as he has struggled to make ends meet financially, he has continued to fight for a another chance to keep his dream alive.
Rumph briefly achieved minor celebrity status last summer when he was among the Falcons players featured on the HBO series Hard Knocks, which documented Atlanta’s training camp in 2014. His time on Hard Knocks ended in humiliation, though, when his release from the team was broadcast on national television.
Once the cameras stopped rolling, Rumph became a forgotten man until this April, when he made headlines for camping out in front of the Falcons’ facility in what he and his fiancee, Jess Love, called a “Tent of Faith.”
Why, you might be wondering, did Rumph decide to do this? In part, it was because he wanted another chance to play for the Falcons.
“My whole statement was basically to say, ‘Hey, I’m camping out for another opportunity, as well as I’m showing others to never give up on their dreams,’” Rumph said. “People get cut every day, people get fired every day, but people just don’t lay down and quit. You can’t do that, because as soon as you lay down and quit, that’s when you quit on yourself.”
Living in a tent wasn’t simply a publicity stunt for Rumph; it was also reality.
Neither he nor Love—an Army veteran who was forced to medically retire after suffering brain injuries, a torn ACL and post-traumatic stress disorder in Afghanistan—currently has a steady stream of income. Unable to afford a home of their own, the couple resorted to camping out.
“We moved from house to house, living across the street from the people we were living with because of issues we had with the people, it was a struggle,” Love said. “I was like, ‘Baby, we might as well camp out,’ because I was talking about my days of camping out…the whole time he camped out, it was nothing new to me.”
Rumph’s stay on the actual grounds of the Falcons’ facility didn’t last long. Shortly after setting up his tent there, police arrived to shut down his new campsite, he said.
“Even though everybody was supportive, I just couldn’t be there,” Rumph said. “People didn’t mind, it’s just that I couldn’t be at the facility, so I understood, because I wanted to do it quietly. I didn’t want to cause any problems or any headaches on anybody.”
Despite being forced off the Falcons’ property, Rumph and Love didn’t leave the community altogether. Instead, they relocated their tent to a park across the street from the facility, enabling Rumph to keep his dream in sight even though he couldn’t quite reach it.
“It was awesome,” Rumph said of his new location. “It was like a recreational park where you had your football fields, your baseball fields and constantly everybody would drive by on the weekend, because their kids were practicing baseball, and people would look. You’d see people looking and wondering why there were tents set in the middle of the field in the parking lot.
“A few folks stopped and asked questions: what was going on, what we were doing, because there were people that drove by, they recognized the Atlanta Falcons sign that some of the kids drew on the poster boards. We actually had a couple people try to give us money. And I was like 'no, we don’t want your money, that’s not why we’re doing this. We just want your time, your support.'”
Living in a tent, of course, was not an ideal place of residence. No TV, no laptop, no bed—none of the comforts of home, just a blanket on the ground.
“Thank God the restrooms at the park were open,” Rumph said.
Rumph's diet during his days in the tent consisted mostly of bread and peanut butter, he said, except for occasions when people from the community stopped by to donate food.
"I will always remember one morning, I did wake up from the little sleep that I had to someone yelling, 'Donte, Donte, hello Donte?' I opened my tent to see someone, a lady, with Chick-fil-A breakfast sandwiches and coffee," Rumph said. "She had her daughter with her in school uniform. She mentioned that she saw my story on TV, and she wanted to stop by."
One of the biggest concerns Rumph had, longing for a call from an NFL team, was simply being able to keep his phone charged.
“People were constantly calling me and texting me just to check up on me so much, my phone was constantly blowing up, and it was so hard to keep a charge that I had to go back and forth to my car in order to charge the phone,” Rumph said.
Rumph admitted there were times living in the tent when he couldn’t help but have doubts about his future.
“Sometimes I would just lay down in the grass outside and look up at the stars and just try to find peace. And I’m not going to lie, I was a little worried. I was like, ‘Is it over?’” Rumph said. “I was questioning myself, but I still didn’t lose my faith. But I mean that’s normal, to question yourself in situations like that. Just have to ground yourself and just keep your faith and everything will be OK.”
Looking back on his time in the tent now, Rumph considers it to have been “a test of [his] faith and [his] dedication to this game.”
“That was like the mile marker on my life,” Rumph said. “I will never forget those moments in that tent, ever. And embracing those moments made me appreciate my blessings that I have today even more, so I’m just excited and I can’t wait until I find a home.”
“Why am I not good enough?”
That was the question Rumph couldn’t help but ask himself after he was released by the Falcons, but also a question Rumph couldn’t help but ponder as a child growing up.
Abandoned by his mother at birth, Rumph was raised by his father and his father’s parents. While he said he called his grandmother Mom and his grandfather Dad, it hurt him to learn the truth about why his actual mother was not a part of his life.
“When I was younger, all I know is my mom was gone. But as I got older, I gained more curiosity and I started to ask questions and I was like, ‘What happened to my mom?’” Rumph said. “And one day my grandmother told me, ‘She left you in the hospital.’ And it broke me. I didn’t even know how to take that.
“I just sat and paused for a minute and that’s when all those questions just started popping in like, ‘Why wasn’t I good enough? What happened, why was not I good enough?’ And then later on, to find out that I had other siblings by my mother, that’s older and younger…it’s just one of those battles. It taught me how to deal with a lot of things in life.”
Since then, Rumph said he has developed close relationships with all of his siblings, but he described his relationship with his mother—who he did not meet until his senior year of high school and has still only seen a handful of times—as “civil.”
“With me and my mom, it’s just civil,” Rumph said. “I think it’s a little awkwardness for both of us.”
Dealing with his parental void as a child left Rumph to deal with “many mixed emotions all at once,” he said. He credits his love for football with keeping him on the right track and enabling him to overcome those emotions.
“I can really say that football basically saved my life, because if I didn’t have football, I really don’t know what kind of mental state I would be in right now, because I wouldn’t have had a distraction, I wouldn’t have something that can help me cope with the situation,” Rumph said.
Rumph went on to star at Calhoun County High School in St. Matthews, South Carolina, where he earned first-team all-state honors as a senior, then at Kentucky, where he recorded 126 total tackles, including 15 tackles for loss and seven sacks.
All of that led him to Atlanta and his first opportunity to play in the NFL, but the success he had at lower levels of the sport has not yet followed him to the professional ranks. Since being cut by the Falcons, Rumph's only time under contract with a professional football team has been two weeks in March with the Jacksonville Sharks of the Arena Football League.
“It was hard and it was embarrassing,” Rumph admits, to have his release from the Falcons—which he described as “a childhood dream being crushed”—televised for the world to see.
“As soon as that happened, as soon as it got aired, I was receiving text messages, calls, messages on social media: ‘Hey man, I saw that, what happened?’ and I didn’t even know that it was aired on TV,” Rumph said. “I didn’t even know it was going to be aired until people actually approached me about it so it just really caught me off guard. I wasn’t expecting it at all.”
Going through that experience with the Falcons and Hard Knocks, however, has only increased Rumph’s motivation.
“I can sit here and tell you that it wasn’t nothing, but I would be lying. It was hard,” Rumph said. “It was definitely hard to swallow, but I got through it, I was able to use it as motivation and move on and build on myself.”
Despite the disappointment and embarrassment that the situation caused, Rumph emphasized that he holds no ill will toward the Falcons or Hard Knocks.
“I developed a mindset that everything that happened with Hard Knocks, that’s in the past,” Rumph said. “All I’m focused on is the present and the future.”
A free agent once again after being cut by Atlanta, Rumph believed he would get a chance to land on another team’s roster or practice squad. That never happened, however, because the agent who had represented Rumph at the time stopped returning his calls.
“I got released from the Falcons, I called him, he didn’t pick up,” Rumph said. “I called him on Monday, still couldn’t get in contact with him, and after periods of time, it was becoming so bad where I couldn’t get in touch with him through texts, calls, emails or social media.”
Jobless and agentless, Rumph began to feel the same sense of abandonment that he had felt from his mother as a child.
“I went to this whole depression stage where I just kind of blew off the world,” Rumph said. “I didn’t talk to my fiancee, my kids, my grandmother, my friends, anybody. I just blew it off.
“Through the grace of God, I got out of it, I snapped back to reality and I got motivated and I found my drive again. I said, ‘Hey, you know what, I’m not giving up.’ And my fiancee, she’s been wonderful, she’s been there by my side the whole way, she’s one of my biggest supporters right now and she is definitely a rider, and I know that she would ride for me until the end.”
It was during Rumph’s time with the Falcons that he met Love. The two were paired together during the annual “Fishing with the Falcons” event, a coordinated effort between the Atlanta Falcons and Wounded Warrior Project that connects Falcons players with veterans for a day of fishing.
At the time she met Rumph last summer, dealing with many hardships of her own after her military retirement, Love felt she was not ready for a new relationship. Even so, they instantly connected and “fell in love,” she said.
“I was a soldier who didn’t catch any fish, but I felt like I caught Donte and he caught me,” Love said. “We were the best fishes we could ever catch.”
Rumph said that he and Love make “an awesome team.”
“Just personally seeing that woman go through everything that she’s been through, that’s one strong woman and it makes me want to be even a stronger man,” Rumph said. “It just makes the whole process a lot easier, having someone like that by your side. And I know, if it wasn’t for her, I wouldn’t be in the position I’m in right now.”
Keeping the dream alive
Four days after he began camping out at the park, Rumph finally got the call he had been waiting to receive for nine months. On the other end of the line: the New York Jets, who invited him to try out at their predraft voluntary minicamp.
One week later, Rumph was back in New Jersey, this time after receiving an invitation to the New York Giants’ rookie minicamp.
While Rumph was not offered a contract after either tryout, and has not yet been added to any team's roster for training camp, he remains on the “short list” for both teams—along with those of the Chicago Bears and the Denver Broncos—according to Scott Bergman, Rumph’s current agent.
“He has a lot of knowledge already built into his training now in 2015 that he wouldn’t have had but for going through that process with the Atlanta Falcons,” Bergman said. “There’s interest in that experience that he has already.”
Upon his return to Georgia, Rumph and Love began camping out in the front yard of a home owned by a woman who ultimately allowed the couple to begin living in her house until they can get back on their feet.
“She’s been helping out with everything: food, giving us shelter, her utilities, everything, so she’s definitely been a blessing,” Rumph said. “We’ve been selling things for money just to get by, so it’s hard right now, but through the grace of God I’m going to get there, and that’s why I’m fighting so hard for a second opportunity.”
Knowing that he could receive a call at any time, and that he needs to be prepared if that call comes, Rumph said he is working hard on a daily basis to keep himself in the best shape possible.
“As soon as you take a day off, that could be the day you get a call,” Rumph said. “And that could be a day that someone else is working harder than you and gets ahead of you, so you as an athlete, as a man, you can’t allow that.
“It takes a lot of self-discipline to even though you’re doing another job, you don’t necessarily have a team, you have to be disciplined within yourself to stay working out, to stay motivated, to keep moving, improving on your weaknesses, your technique. The main thing that I’ve learned from last year was keeping that devotion and the mindset and to keep building on your weaknesses, because your weaknesses could become a reason why you’re not there anymore or why you’re not getting a call.”
One might question why Rumph, with all he and his fiancee have been through, has not moved on and pursued another career path. Rumph, however, says his “love of the game” continues to drive him forward.
“This is not only a job, it’s passion,” Rumph explained. “I’m passionate about football. I feel like not enough players actually play football because they love the game, they do it for the money or the fame. I don’t care about all that. Yes, I do need to make a living, but I love the game.”
Describing himself as “versatile, coachable, dependable,” Rumph believes he can be a fit for any organization not only for what he can do on the field, but also for his ability to contribute off the field.
“I want to lead and inspire people in the community,” Rumph said. “With everything that’s going on right now, there’s too many off-the-field issues…way too many, and it’s really looking bad on the NFL right now because people are going to think there’s nothing but bad people in the NFL, every NFL player is a bad guy, and that’s not true.”
Keeping himself in position to play professional football has come with challenges, and there remains no guarantee that Rumph will get the opportunity he covets. Should he receive that chance and make a roster, however, both Rumph and Love agree that the struggles will be worthwhile.
“It would mean so much more spiritually to me than anything,” Love said. “It just would mean a lot for the kids, and both him and I, to be able to live in a home together…just to be able to live and be able to obtain something that we know we deserve and that we know we fought for, and show that our perseverance actually paid off.”
All quotes were obtained firsthand, unless otherwise noted.
Dan Hope is an NFL/NFL Draft Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report.