Darius Philon sat on stage in front of his friends and peers at Vigor High School in Mobile, Ala., with a crimson Alabama baseball cap sitting in front of him.
This moment, on national signing day in 2012, is supposed to be one of the happiest for a high school football star such as Philon. It’s when he’ll tell everyone in the community that he’ll be going to his dream school — his hometown school.
It’s when he’ll tell everyone he’s accepted a scholarship to attend Alabama.
But things don’t always go as planned. And that moment, it was one of the hardest days of Philon’s life.
“At the time, that day was horrible for me,” the defensive tackle said this week as he and the Chargers prepared for Sunday’s home game against the Buffalo Bills.
A week before signing day, Philon had been told his scholarship offer at Alabama needed to be postponed a semester. The school and coach Nick Saban wanted him to “grayshirt” — attend the school for one semester on his own dime before starting on scholarship in the spring.
But Philon’s family couldn’t afford it.
Alabama, it turned out, had secured commitments from players it valued more highly, and because the rules only allow for so many scholarships per season, Philon’s dreams were going to be a necessary casualty.
“That was crazy,” tight end Hunter Henry said. “They kind of did him dirty.”
After the scholarship snafu, Philon signed to play at Arkansas with Henry, and he quickly impressed his new teammates with his combination of size, strength and athleticism.
“He’s always had this quickness, this explosion for his size,” Henry said. “He was just different.”
With two seasons of eligibility remaining and his first son about to be born, Philon left college for the NFL. The Chargers snatched him up in the sixth round, playing him sparingly in his first year.
He started twice in 2016, and this season he’s become a regular contributor who already has 3.0 sacks — the most on the team for an interior lineman.
In his third NFL season, Philon is firmly in the defensive-line rotation and improving each week despite only being 23 years old. His role figures to grow even more Sunday against the Bills.
“I love the way he goes about his job and how he goes about his business,” Chargers defensive coordinator Gus Bradley said. “I don’t know if he was immature before or not, but he’s playing like a true professional. Very mature in the way he goes about it.”
Philon admitted that his early time in the NFL could’ve been spent better. He entered the league with a misconception — the idea that the Chargers veterans wouldn’t want to school him on how to best become a professional.
“The biggest strides I’ve made came from learning to just keep my mouth closed and listening, just stop taking everything and getting defensive,” he said. “I started realizing that the older guys around here like Brandon Mebane, Melvin Ingram and Damion Square — they’re really here to help you grow. That’s what I learned. Coming in, everyone says the game is a business. And I thought guys would try to keep everything to themselves. I didn’t think there would be this much support.”
It hasn’t been all smooth. Philon committed a big penalty in the Chargers’ loss to Philadelphia this season, a penalty that extended an Eagles touchdown drive.
But maybe it was his experience back at Vigor High School, when he had to figure out a new plan. Maybe it was the lessons from his father, a longtime city worker, and his mother, a cook. Maybe it was all the lessons he learned playing “footbawl” as he says it with his thick accent.
However it happened, Philon learned it’s best to just keep moving.
“To me, that’s history because I’m where I need to be,” he said. “I’m where I want to be and I’m where I always dreamt I would be.
“When stuff goes wrong, I learned that you can’t dwell on it — not in this game, not in this sport. If you lose focus, you can’t make the next play. You can’t correct it. My parents, they taught me not to be a quitter.”
Follow Dan Woike on Twitter @DanWoikeSports