Falcons’ defense should benefit from Poe’s long journey to NFL

Defensive tackle Dontari Poe played for Kansas City when the Chiefs rallied to defeat Matt Ryan and the Falcons last season. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

FLOWERY BRANCH – There is a story associated with Dontari Poe’s upbringing that is more Hollywood schtick than fact. It goes that this big kid from a tough upbringing in an open sore of a neighborhood in Memphis was walking down the hallway one day, carrying his snare drum from the high school marching band, when the football coach spotted him and with flames in his eyes and said, “You’re playing football!” And the rest was “Blindside” history.

That’s not completely true.

“I just wanted to play football, so I tried out for the team,” Poe said.

Well, that’s boring.

“It’s true that I was playing drums, but I wasn’t too into it. I wanted to try football because I enjoyed watching it. I got pretty good at it.”

There’s an ongoing debate as to whether the Falcons can get back to the Super Bowl. Poe is one of the biggest reasons, literally and figuratively, why that answer is yes. The team should be improved on defense, in part because of increased talent and depth on the line. They signed Poe, who will start inside with Grady Jarrett, and added free-agent tackle Jack Crawford and end Takk McKinley in the draft.

Dontari Poe (92) and Grady Jarrett (97) will be the Falcons’ starting defensive tackles this season. (Curtis Compton/ccompton@ajc.com)

Poe is about makeovers. Football enabled him to makeover his life. He grew up in a crime- and drug-infested Whitehaven neighborhood with a single mother of four. Many friends never made it out. It’s not an uncommon story.

“Growing up in Memphis wasn’t too different from anywhere else, and it didn’t seem difficult because it’s what I was used to,” he said. “But for the discipline and the structure that I needed, football helped. It kept me out of the streets. I loved it. Football changed my life. Football probably saved my life.”

He wasn’t highly recruited, but Memphis wanted him, so he signed near home. He wasn’t widely considered a coveted NFL prospect, but Kansas City liked him and took him in round one. The Chiefs’ general manager at time, Scott Pioli, was skewered by the media for that decision. But Pioli, who’s now in the Falcons’ front office, turned out to be right. Critics saw Poe as a heavy underclassmen with few sacks who played for a school that won five games in three seasons in the low-level Conference USA.

Pioli saw untapped talent. Poe has gone to two Pro Bowls. Pioli wins.

“I can’t say it enough: He won five games in his three years,” Pioli said. “But we saw the speed and the explosion. He played nose tackle, defensive tackle and defensive end. He played for two head coaches, three defensive coordinators and three line coaches. He was a 350-pound guy running sideline to sideline, and he was playing 60 snaps a game.”

The effort, enthusiasm and athletic ability has been ever-present in Poe’s career. In addition to 202 tackles and 13 sacks, he has scored three touchdowns: a 1-yard run when he got (sort of) airborne, another 1-yard run that actually was a lateral catch off a bubble screen, and a 2-yard Tim Tebow-like jump pass to Demetrius Harris.

He smiles when asked if brought his offensive playbook with him from Kansas City.

“Right now I’m focused on get this (defense) right. But when we the season starts, I’ll be asking.”

There will be plays for Poe in the offense, coach Dan Quinn somewhat confirmed: “You may see that package come alive,” he said.

But that’s not why Poe really here. It’s more about the player’s next makeover.

Poe probably played at close to 350 pounds last season. He said he has shed “about 15” to get under 340 and collect the first $125,000 incentive bonus, which can escalate to $500,000 in future weigh-ins.

Why the slim-down? It’s not just because the Falcons thought he ate too much barbecue. (Cut him some slack: It’s tough living in Memphis and Kansas City.) Poe was a classic nose tackle in the Chiefs’ 3-4 front. He mission was to take up space and plug a hole, left or right.

But Quinn saw Poe as somebody who had the speed and athleticism to penetrate. He wants him to play “north-south” and collapse the pocket, and he believed from watching tape of Poe in the Chiefs’ nickel defense that he has the required skill set. But that necessitated slimming down.

“He did a good job of getting lighter so he could play even faster,” Quinn said. “He’s always had great stamina. It wasn’t like, here’s a 350-pound man who doesn’t have the stamina to play. He’s played really high percentages” (of plays in Kansas City).

Poe sensed the Falcons’ plan for him even before his relative recruiting trip. He was excited when Quinn showed him cut-ups of his games and compared them with Falcons’ tape of a year ago.

“When he showed me the film and told me how he wanted me to play, I loved it, and I saw it in his eyes and there was no question where I wanted to be,” Poe said.

It’s a long way from Whitehaven. It actually was former Alabama coach and Tampa Bay defensive line assistant Mike DuBose who first told Poe he had the ability to play in the NFL. Poe was a freshman at Memphis, DuBose was the defensive line coach.

“He pulled me aside and said, ‘If you take this seriously, you can really do anything you want to on the field,'” Poe said. “It’s one of those things you dream of, but when you hear it from somebody who’s been there, it’s special.”

Poe’s thoughts turned to the obvious for a kid who grew up with so little.

“It’s a way to change you and your family’s life. It was big for me.”

He bought his mother a house and a car. His newfound wealth also led him to start the Poemansdream Foundation, which helps underserved youth in the Memphis area. His desire is to bring the program to Atlanta and other cities.

“I don’t forget where I came from,” he said. The foundation puts on “camps, fundraisers, activities, anything to have a positive impact.”

Pioli is not surprised. He was familiar with Poe’s section of town from his days as a college coach when he recruited the Memphis area. But he saw that Poe had steered clear of trouble.

“He was clean as a human being, a good person, a leader,” he said. “He was the total package, not just as a player but a person.”

Can he make a difference for the Falcons on the field?

“That’s why I’m here,” he said.

(See video of Poe’s touchdowns below)

Subscribe to the,We Never Played The Game” podcast with the AJC’s Jeff Schultz and WSB’s Zach Klein on iTunes. Episodes also can be downloaded from on-demand link on WSBRadio.com.

Poe’s first touchdown

Poe’s second touchdown

Tebow’s touchdown pass

Some recent ramblings

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.Aniyah

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Falcaints
Falcaints

Watching today's game and we see the Birds have no depth, 2nd and 3rd stringers suck.

DawgNole
DawgNole

Good story. Hope it translates to success on the field for the Falcons.

samhouston
samhouston

What am I paying for on myajc when days and sometimes weeks go by before I see a article from the featured sports writers?

DawgNole
DawgNole

@samhouston

You'll be waiting much longer than "days and sometimes weeks" for an answer from AJC on that one.