Even though Marcell Dareus was bigger than his classmates growing up, he needed a little push on the playground before he gave football a try.
"I started playing when I was in the fifth grade. I was swinging on swings and people came up and said, 'You're a big guy, why don't you come play?" Dareus said. "So I started playing. I didn't have the money for it, but we played and we had a good time."
A decade later, Dareus is still playing football and still having fun with it.
And soon he should have plenty of money as well, funds that will help family members that helped him throughout his youth.
"It will be a big benefit, to help my brothers and sisters to the point where we can do something in life," said Dareus, an Alabama defensive lineman projected to be picked in the top 10 – possibly even the top spot – in the NFL draft.
"My mom, she struggled with all seven of us. She did the best she could. She was the head of my house. She brought up all six boys and one girl, and she had to be the mother and the father. She had to make us boys into men and teach us to take care of our family and be productive in our community."
Dareus' father died when he was 6 years old. His mother died last May after dealing with some serious health issues for years, but not before she successfully raised her children in Birmingham, Ala. Dareus also got invaluable help from his football coaches along the way, and he added a legal guardian to his network of support as a high school senior.
Now, he's grown into a gentle giant of sorts, a 319-pound force ready to try to take the NFL by storm.
"I describe myself as a nice guy, a real nice guy," Dareus said. "Everybody I tackle, I pretty much help 'em up, but I'm coming after you the next play."
Early on in his pursuit of football, Dareus patterned himself after Warren Sapp, a vicious but vivacious defensive tackle known in part for his intense but mostly good-natured battles with quarterback Brett Favre.
Sapp has called Dareus the best three-technique tackle (the tackle that lines up closest to the right guard) in this year's draft.
"I like that Warren Sapp thinks that highly of me," Dareus said. "But I'm going to go out and try my best, and the teams have got to decide."
Like Sapp, Dareus has dealt with his share of controversy. He was suspended for the first two games of the 2010 season for violations of NCAA preferential treatment and agent benefits rules stemming from two trips to Miami last May. His mother died while he was on one of the trips.
"Everything that sounds good, it ain't what it's all cracked up to be," Dareus said. "I apologized to the team, I apologized to my coaches, everybody. I'm just moving on from that. You can't look forward moving back."
Dareus' suspension was big news because of the name he had made for himself the previous season, when he helped power Alabama to its first national title since 1992. In the BCS National Championship, Dareus knocked out Texas quarterback Colt McCoy with a bone-jarring hit in the first quarter and then closed the half with a 28-yard interception return for a touchdown.
"I played pretty hard the whole year," said Dareus, named MVP of the game. "But that game really put me up there."
Dareus certainly has come a long way from his days on the playground.
"I'm good at what I do," he said. "I'm ready for the league."