In Derrick Tindal’s freshman year at Madison, 1,500 miles away from his Fort Lauderdale home, the defensive back played in 12 games and made two starts, one at safety and one at nickelback, and accumulated 10 tackles.
It wasn’t a bad start for a first-year Badger. A lot of freshmen don’t even come close to seeing the field as much as Tindal did in 2014. But what’s more impressive is that he compiled these numbers while going through a tragedy no teenager should have to endure.
On November 3, 2014, Tindal’s mother died of cancer, bringing a four-year battle to a devastating end.
“It was a mom, you know, you only get one of ‘em,” Tindal said. “Still to this day, it kinda hurts to know that I don’t have her here anymore.”
It was a tough blow to a kid who had been through a lot growing up in Fort Lauderdale. The city is one of the most dangerous in Florida according to a 2014 report done by the FBI, which stated that residents had a one-in-15 chance of becoming a crime victim.
But Tindal worked hard throughout high school, playing well enough on the gridiron to earn attention from UW.
Four years later, he is set to earn a degree in human development and family studies, a major that he believes has helped prepare him for his future.
But without football, the senior may not have even had the chance to leave Fort Lauderdale or earn the degree that he is about to complete.
“I mean, I always had NFL dreams growing up, but where I come from it’s a slim chance that I even make it out or get a chance to play. Fort Lauderdale is a big place, so there’s a lot of people who are playing, but the number of people who are in jail or dead, my friends who are still on the streets, it’s a high number,” Tindal said. “I look at Facebook and Instagram and I just see all the things that’s been going on down there, people getting shot, killed in my neighborhood, around my neighborhood. It’s always made me reminisce, like, ‘Man, that could’ve been me.’ So, I’m very proud of myself for this.”
He is now poised to be one of the defensive leaders on a unit that prides itself on being one of the best in the country, all while growing into a man that’s ready to take on the next chapter of his life.
Throughout his time at Madison, Tindal has realized that he wants to help people. Through his classwork, he came up with the idea of starting a program that helps underprivileged kids and provides them with mentors.
“I just want to get them a chance. I want to be able to go back, help the neighborhoods. Not just my neighborhood, all the neighborhoods around,” the senior said. “I just want to see younger kids get a better chance.”
Tindal’s inspiration came not only from his classes, but also from his rough childhood. His parents were divorced, but they were still there for him through difficult times. He spent most of his time during the week with his dad and stepmom, whom he considered a second mom, and most weekends with his mom.
“I guess I looked at it like, many people don’t have a dad in their life, especially where I’m from. And I was lucky enough to have one, so I stayed with him,” he said. “They were very great. But it wasn’t all great. I ain’t grow up rich, with a silver spoon or anything like that. I did some bad things I’m not proud of. But they stayed there for me and helped me as much as they can.”
That life experience, coupled with what he’s learned at UW, has given Tindal the skills he needs to achieve his goals of creating a program to help underprivileged children.
“Using the things they teach me and then the things I already know from being from that situation gives me a better view on things,” he said. “I see it from a professional standpoint and then from me actually living in the standpoint.”
And Tindal isn’t the only defensive back to emerge from a difficult childhood. Safety D’Cota Dixon, who burst into the spotlight after his game-clinching interception against LSU last year, grew up just south of Tindal in Dade County.
Dixon had an unstable home life, with a mother who struggled with substance abuse and violent boyfriends and a stepbrother who provided for the family through gang activity.
But like it did for Tindal, football provided an avenue out of trouble and an opportunity at an education.
“I not only get to experience playing Power-5, top-notch football, but I also get to get a world-class education, and I get to pursue a career and develop,” Dixon said. “This place not only develops you academically or as a football player, but it also helped me mature as a young man.”
That doesn’t mean there haven’t been speed bumps and roadblocks along this journey. Dixon came to Madison thinking he wanted to study zoology. That plan changed after he failed biology, and he quickly changed course and set out a new path for himself.
“I found out that I just like helping in general, helping and serving people. So I decided to do rehabilitation psychology,” Dixon said. “One, because of psychology. I love the way people think, the way people react, and I love trying to understand why people make the decisions they do and the rationality behind the thought process. It definitely was appealing to me, so that’s kinda why I really went with it.”
He now has his sights set on becoming a sports psychologist, combining his love of sports with his passion for helping people. This summer, he will intern with one of UW’s sports psychologists.
This is a career path that his mentor, Brian Smith, said fits his persona well. Throughout his college career, Dixon has become involved in several Christian organizations on campus, including Athletes in Action. There he found Smith, who has worked closely with Dixon over the last year, giving him advice and talking through his problems with him. He said the senior safety’s unique skillset will make him successful as a sports psychologist.
“He cares about people deeply and beyond surface-level conversations. So that’s right in his wheelhouse,” Smith said. “Coming from such a hard background, it can be really easy to minimize other people’s struggles, but he has a unique ability to recognize other people’s struggles. There’s not a sense of pride or ‘You haven’t been through what I’ve been through.’ He’s able to empathize with people no matter where they are at on the pain scale.”
But for now, Dixon’s main focus isn’t becoming a top sports psychologist. While he still has NFL aspirations, he is on track to graduate in Spring 2018, a milestone he’s ecstatic to achieve.
“I’m really looking forward to getting a college degree. I feel like kinda big-time or professional or something like that,” Dixon said, grinning ear-to-ear, swelling with pride at the fact that he had overcome substantial obstacles to earn a degree from one of the country’s top universities.