By Dennis Waszak Jr.

The Associated Press

NEW YORK – Sharrod Neasman refused to give in to the doubts that crept into his head, the flashes of negativity that tried to threaten the dreams and goals he knew he would achieve.

Not when he was told he wasn’t good enough to play Division I football. Not when he had two jobs between high school and college, waiting to play again. Not when a knee injury and a change of coach clouded his footballing future.

“From the jump, I always had my back against the ropes,” Jets safety told The Associated Press in a telephone interview. “It’s always been like, ‘OK, it’s gonna be a fight.'”

Neasman, 30, has had an NFL run filled with twists and turns that could have derailed many. The fact that he’s in his sixth professional season – against all odds – is a study of resilience and persistence.

“I’m not going to lie, there were times when there were dark times,” Neasman said. “I was like, ‘Dude, am I going to be able to do this? Because growing up in my city I saw a lot of people chasing football for a long time and eventually they wasted their time, you know what I mean?

“And so I was like, ‘Am I becoming that guy?'”

Neasman grew up in South Florida, one of five children raised by his mother Latanya in a one-parent home. He became a star football player at Braden River High School in Bradenton, Fla., As a wide receiver who also returned kickoffs and punts. But his team was only lightly recruited by schools in Division I, and Neasman received no scholarship offers.

So he took the grainy, fuzzy video of his football highlights on YouTube and edited them using the skills he learned in one of his TV production classes. He scoured the internet for the email addresses of as many Division I head coaches and assistants as he could, and flooded their inboxes.

And then Neasman waited.

Knowing he would have big bills to pay when he got to college, he started working at FedEx, loading trucks from 3 a.m. to 8 a.m. . Neasman even fits into some community college courses.

It lasted about a year and a half.

“I was at a point in my life where I let noise get to me,” Neasman admitted. “People were like, ‘Yo, are you still trying to play ball? And I was like, I have to move on with my life, but, yeah, I’m still trying to play ball.

In June 2011, the NFL lockout caused players to scramble to find ways to stay in shape. At the nearby IMG Academy, players like Cam Newton, Randall Cobb and Chris Weinke were training and needed more receivers to throw. Neasman’s brother Marquel, who played quarterback at Central Florida and Grand Valley State, told him to pass.

“I was there training and training with them and that kind of gave me confidence,” Neasman said. “I was like, ‘You know what? It’s very achievable, very achievable.

And then, finally, Florida Atlantic called.

They didn’t have scholarships or favorite places, but Neasman could try for the soccer team once he was accepted to school.

He came in and was then one of five out of around 100 test players to make the squad. Neasman quickly went from wide receiver to cornerback and made a smooth transition.

“I just wanted to play ball,” he said.

But after his second season, he tore his ACL in one of his knees and coach Carl Pelini was fired. Charlie Partridge took over as coach and Neasman’s place in the squad was uncertain.

Neasman met Partridge and told him he got a scholarship to enter his first year. Partridge wanted to honor this, but told Neasman he had to get back to the field first.

He had surgery to repair his ACL in December 2012. Neasman was sort of back in the field five months later – and got his scholarship.

He played cornerback, nickelback and safety as a junior, then moved on to full-time safety as a senior. He caught the attention of NFL teams and although he was not drafted, Atlanta signed him as a free agent.

As a rookie, he played in the Super Bowl.

He made two stints with the Falcons over a five-year span, with a training camp in New Orleans in between. Neasman signed with the Jets in June and played primarily as a substitute in 11 games, including one start, with his first career interception.

He’s likely out this week against Tampa Bay as he recovers from a fight with COVID-19. Neasman is feeling better and is thankful for his trip.

“I am extremely blessed,” Neasman said. “By the grace of God, I have been placed in an extremely fortunate position to play the sport that I love. I am extremely grateful.

Through the Academy of Kings in Orlando, a prep school founded by his brother Marquel to help develop male leaders, Neasman has dedicated himself to inspiring young people.

He donated nearly $ 60,000 to the cause, which was matched by the Jets as part of the NFL’s “Inspire Change” initiative. Neasman shares his story to show others that they too can make their dreams come true.

“I had some weak spots where I doubted myself and never really shared, like ‘Yeah, I’ll go into the NFL and have a great career,'” said Neasman. “I knew this since high school, but I didn’t always express this opinion to people because I didn’t want my dream to be destroyed. And it didn’t really matter because I believed what I believed. … I just want to get that message out to people, to young children, and based on the situation I’m in, that will just keep them from quitting.

“It’ll make them work even harder and say, ‘Well, look at him.’ Because it happened to me, right?