Ravens’ Larry Donnell says Grambling got him to the NFL
The fifth-year tight end says school helped instill hunger and drive to succeed
The platform that comes with being a pro football player can be overwhelming.
The self-proclaimed “country boy” from Ozark, Alabama, still longs for his country roots.
“I’m a country fella,” Donnell said at the Ravens Under Armour Performance Center training camp in Owings Mills, Maryland. “I like my own space.” This makes sense, since he’s from a town with more land than people. Ozark is roughly 22,000 acres, with a population of just over 14,000 people.
When Donnell was 17, he left home and made “his space” in another rural town: Grambling, Louisiana. Through a coaching connection from Jackson State University, Donnell met Grambling State University legend Doug Williams, who urged him to become a member of the Tigers football team. Donnell listened and took his talents to the historic Southwestern Athletic Conference (SWAC) school in 2007. The fifth-year NFL veteran continues to rave about his decision to attend the historically black university.
“It’s one of the best decisions I ever could have made,” Donnell said. “If I had to do it again, I would do it again.”
Donnell’s last season at Grambling ended with a SWAC championship in 2011. Besides his success, Donnell said, Grambling’s influence on his life extends further than any football field.
“Beyond football, I met some of the best people in my life that I still call my brothers, “Donnell said. “Guys that I met, I’m in their weddings and I’m their best man. I met guys that I can call when I needed something, and they call me when they need something. Going there, I learned a lot.”
Donnell credits Grambling State for instilling in him a hunger and a drive that has helped lead to his success in the league. In 2013, Grambling’s football team boycotted a game against Jackson State for several reasons, including poor facilities. Although Donnell left Grambling’s football program two years before, he was never troubled by the school’s lack of resources. It actually increased his affection for the game of football.
“At Grambling, you fall in love with just playing the game,” Donnell said. “You come out here and see all this pretty grass here [at Ravens training camp]; at Grambling we have dirt on the field. So, when you come from things like this, you love it. … You can sleep on this grass.”
Donnell has grown from the quiet 17-year-old kid who asked his parents to stay in Grambling for the first two weeks of his freshman year at college. He is now 28, 6-foot-6 and 265 pounds, and averaging 8.8 yards a catch during his career. He was signed by the New York Giants in 2012 as an undrafted free agent. He played with them for four seasons and is now looking to make his mark with the Ravens. He joined the team in late July.
Wherever Donnell takes his career, it is clear that he will always take a part of Grambling with him. The tight end still reminisces about the feeling of community that pervades the campus and wishes to one day set foot on campus again.
“You just build a lot of bonds and connections and family just by going to an HBCU, things I never thought about growing up,” Donnell said. “It’s just fun, especially when the band gets to playing, so it’s cool, I love it, and I want to get back there. It kind of sucks that the season will be going on, but when it’s all over, I’ll be back.”