If persistence is the intersection of optimism and grit, Lake Wales (Fla.) High football coach Tavaris Johnson leaned heavily on those traits every time he crossed paths with Gervon Dexter in the hallways of the school.
Johnson, who is also a dean, was eager to see Dexter, a hulking freshman and talented AAU basketball player, on the football field. His initial efforts were met with the kind of box-out Dexter would use to corral rebounds easily.
“I knew Gervon and I knew his family well,” Johnson said. “I played with a few of his uncles. He comes from a very talented family. The first thing I said to Gervon was, ‘Hey, a guy your size should be on the football field. You are a dream waiting to happen.’ He looks at me and he says, ‘Coach, I’m not playing football.’ I’m like, ‘What?!? You’ve got to be kidding me.’”
Undeterred, Johnson kept a full-court press on Dexter into his sophomore year and he remained singularly devoted to basketball.
“I was pretty firm,” Dexter recalled.
With spring football approaching, Johnson worked to cajole Dexter into giving football a try during the 20 days allotted to spring football practice in the state.
“Gervon, listen, you have to play football. That’s your purpose,” Johnson said.
“Coach, nah, I’m not interested,” Dexter replied.
Johnson pushed forward, eventually convincing Dexter to try on a football uniform in the locker room and to see what he looked like in one of the Highlanders’ black jerseys with white lettering and orange numbers.
“I think that was just the catch,” Johnson said. “He felt that uniform.”
“All right, Coach, I’m going to try this,” Dexter said. “When do you think I’m going to get my first offer?”
“Gervon, nobody is going to offer you!” Johnson said. “You haven’t played a down of football. It doesn’t work that way. You’ve got to give me some time to work.”
“Well, I’m not going to play then,” Dexter replied. “I’m not going to waste my time. I’m not going to waste your time.”
“Gervon, listen, I am telling you, this is where you belong,” Johnson said.
‘Coach, who is that kid?’
Johnson’s dogged pursuit and Dexter’s eventual willingness to try a sport he had played only as a youth led to greater things sooner than the coach could have imagined. Johnson was in attendance at Dexter’s draft party when the Chicago Bears selected him with the 53rd pick with the hopes he can be a key piece in the middle of a defensive turnaround.
“Feeling the emotion and the energy in the room was just surreal,” Johnson said. “Of course it was predestined for him. He’d done the things he needed to do to make sure this became a reality.”
On the first day of spring ball, after Dexter was hooked by the idea of how he looked in the Highlanders uniform, then-South Florida assistant coach Eric Mathies was at practice. Johnson was showing him a list of prospects at the school. The Highlanders typically have about four kids move on to college football each year.
“(Mathies) turns around and Gervon is in the corner,” Johnson said. “ ’Coach, who is that kid?’
“I said, ‘That’s a project right now, that’s Gervon Dexter.’ ”
Mathies walked over to Dexter and saw him go through a few drills and told Johnson he was going to offer him a scholarship that day. Three days later coaches from across the Southeast were flocking to Lake Wales. The word was out.
“Moving through his junior year, he’s played one season, helicopters were landing on our baseball field,” Johnson said. “You would have thought we had the Pope here with how much traffic we had with people coming through to see Gervon. He handled that all well. He walked with humility. I told him success is proportional to effort. You’ve got to figure this out.”
In a short time — ridiculously short considering some recruiting tales — Dexter emerged as a five-star recruit and eventually settled on Florida.
Then-Gators defensive line coach David Turner burst into laughter when asked if Dexter was still relatively raw by the time he set foot on campus in Gainesville.
“What would you think?” Turner shot back. “He was raw with a lot of athletic ability. There are a lot of things you can coach, but you can’t coach 6-foot-6, 280 pounds. From that standpoint, he had all of the tools. He was a natural and aggressive kid. The good thing about football, you don’t get five fouls. So he can rough them up a little bit and he doesn’t have to worry about fouling out.
“He wasn’t a whole lot different from (Kansas City Chiefs defensive tackle) Chris Jones. I had him at Mississippi State. Chris didn’t play football until his junior year and thought he was a basketball player. … Gervon is a kid that wanted to be coached. He’s a great kid. ‘Yes, sir. No, sir.’ I was excited to have a chance to work with him. The good thing about it, there were not a whole lot of bad habits he had to break. You just had to coach him up. He wanted to be great and it was a natural progression.”
Dexter’s father, Gerald, died of a brain aneurysm during the spring of his senior year at Lake Wales in April 2020, making his transition to Florida more challenging.
“Got closer to the man above as well as just using my Dad as motivation,” Dexter said when asked how he channeled his grief.
Dexter saw regular playing time as a freshman, logging 254 snaps, and more than doubled that total in 2021. The Gators used him as a penetrating defensive tackle in the first two seasons — how the Bears envision using him — before a change in coaches last fall led to a new scheme. In logging 636 snaps (53 per game), Dexter was asked to read and react more and keep traffic off linebackers. While he proved to be durable, he wasn’t exactly playing to his strengths.
Still, in 36 games (23 starts), he finished with 125 tackles, five sacks, 10½ tackles for a loss, two interceptions and 51 quarterback pressures.
“The SEC is not a real entry-level position, so he had to get on-the-job training, and the only way he was going to get good was to see and understand that everyone is big and strong,” Turner said. “The biggest thing in his sophomore year was technique and pad level. He still wasn’t where I wanted him to be but he understood it having been tested and thrown in the fire. Everything his freshman year was the first time going through it so the second time was easier.”
‘I want to be one of the best’
Turner’s comparison to Jones, a four-time Pro Bowl selection who twice has had 15½ sacks, is interesting because the combine measurables, are similar in many respects.
Chris Jones | Gervon Dexter
- Height: 6-5¾ | 6-6
- Weight: 310 | 310
- Arms: 32¾ | 32¼
- Wingspan: 85 | 80⅞
- 40-yard dash: 5.03 | 4.88
- 10-yard split: 1.69 | 1.81
- 3-cone: 7.44 | 7.50
- Bench-press reps: 26 | 22
Turner said Jones had a faster first step and was a little more fluid. An NFL personnel man said Jones is quicker laterally with looser hips and the ability to bend like some elite edge rushers. Still, if Dexter is 75% of the player Jones, a Kansas City Chiefs second-round pick in 2016, the Bears will have a star.
“It’s hard when you’re gifted with size and strength to comprehend things are going to take time to be where you want to be,” Turner said. “That was the biggest thing having (Dexter) understand the process, being patient within development. You’re not going to be great now, but eventually you’re going to have a chance to be a really, really good player.”
Dexter is measured when discussing goals with the first steps this weekend at rookie minicamp. He wants to get the playbook down, which shouldn’t be too much trouble for a defensive tackle.
He’s thrilled the Bears are asking him to be a one-gapper, charged with getting upfield and wreaking havoc. He’s excited to learn alongside fellow rookie Zacch Pickens from South Carolina.
The NFL is an adjustment for all rookies, even more so for ones with limited experience. Dexter set a goal when he got to Florida to play for three seasons before making the leap to the NFL. The overarching goal, though, is one he made with his father before his death.
“Just trying to do it for him,” Dexter said. “I want to be one of the best.”