PULLMAN - Washington State sophomore Tyree Toomer may be the only starting defensive back in college football who began playing football as a center - and got cut by his first team.
"I was a little shorter and a little chubbier; I still had my baby fat," Toomer said with a sheepish grin.
The short, chubby, 11-year-old center who got cut from his neighborhood team has developed into a muscular, 5-foot-11, 194-pound free safety in the Pac-10. Not that it's been easy.
Toomer never played defensive back until college. He was a stand-up defensive end at a large high school in suburban Los Angeles (St. John Bosco) when the new coaching staff at WSU stumbled upon him while scrambling to find players after being hired two months prior to the 2008 signing date for recruits.
Toomer wasn't a hard sell. After all, WSU was the only school that offered him a scholarship besides "some Division II school in Minnesota," Toomer said.
"I just wanted to play college football and get a free education any way I could," said Toomer, who is majoring in sociology.
The Cougars' gamble on an undersized defensive end proved wise when Toomer played in every game as a true freshman and started the last four at safety. He tore a pectoral muscle in the preseason last year and had to redshirt, but he now leads the Cougars with 23 solo tackles and ranks second to linebacker Alex Hoffman-Ellis in total tackles with 30.
The Cougars have won just four games since Toomer arrived on campus, but he's not complaining.
"I'm very fortunate," he said. "I don't take a play for granted, because you never know if it could be your last play."
Toomer knows that better than most. His roommate and close friend, fellow safety LeAndre Daniels, was forced to give up football in fall camp due to a neck injury.
"He has his ups and downs," Toomer said. "It's really hard when you have something that you're so passionate about and something you love so much and it's take away from you in an instant - in the blink of an eye.
"He's still coping with it and trying to deal with it."
Toomer does what he can to help. That included changing his uniform number from "I felt he worked just as hard, if not harder, than anyone on the team," Toomer said. "I felt like he never got the opportunity to show off what he's been working on.
"I figured the best way I could honor him and his work is to wear the number 15."
Chris Ball, the assistant head coach, co-defensive coordinator and safeties coach at WSU, said the number change is just one example of Toomer's character.
"Great kid, great kid, great kid," Ball said. "Just a tremendous person."
Toomer agrees with Ball that he's yet to become a tremendous safety, but he's working on it.
"He's still learning the position," Ball points out.
"I'm a linebacker at heart (but) now I'm real comfortable at safety," Toomer said. "I love it."
Toomer, who grew up primarily in the crime-ridden Watts section of Los Angeles - "I didn't get into trouble; I was always busy" - dreams of playing in the NFL. Ball said Toomer's work ethic is similar to that of Erik Coleman, the former Cougars safety who now plays for the NFL's Atlanta Falcons.
"He's got a lot of good football ahead of him," Ball said. "He's getting better every day, and he really works at it."