ALLEN PARK, Mich. -- The printed-out paper is there every morning when Jim McElwain goes to his desk at the University of Florida. It’s been there almost a year now, on a shelf just below a framed photograph of the coach’s family and a giant Florida Gators logo.
The words and picture on the page weren’t even necessarily intended for him to see when Teez Tabor tweeted it to the world on July 19, 2016. The result, though, meant so much.
Where this on my wrist everyday never take it off . Coach Mac taught me a life lesson. pic.twitter.com/bDZguUcHVN— Teez Tabor (@_31Flavorz) July 20, 2016
Below the message is a photo of Tabor’s wrist with two bracelets. One is blue, with the word “CHOICES” in bold white lettering. McElwain gave it to him midway through his sophomore year in 2015. It became a constant reminder to Tabor of decisions he made and passed on. This was how McElwain wanted Tabor to start to think.
Two years later, it’s more of a subconscious thing, Tabor said, but the bracelet remains to keep McElwain’s words and ideas of choices in his mind even though Tabor left Florida to become a Detroit Lions rookie cornerback.
“He always said you have the freedom to choose what you want to do, but ain’t no freedom of consequence,” Tabor said. “You choose to go out here and run sprints, you’re going to get faster, that’s the consequence. Good or bad.
“I just live with this every day. That’s why I don’t take it off. You get in those situations where you got to make A or B decision, you know, consequences. I never take it off. I’ve been wearing it since he gave it to me.”
Coaches never know what will resonate with their players, what might end up making the difference in their lives. They try to find different messages, different ways to connect.
When McElwain gave Tabor the bracelet, he didn’t know. Tabor was a special player and person who needed to mature. He didn’t know it would end up having the effect that it did.
“It’s kind of that, everybody has a different -- some guys put things up in their locker or some guys carry a lucky coin in their pocket or whatever, more than anything as kind of a reminder,” McElwain said. “I got to tell you, the one that I just loved about Teez, is his competitive nature was unbelievable, and he probably understood the choices piece. Some things resonate with guys in different ways, right?
“And the thing that I loved about Teez, is how driven he is to be successful. For him to recognize the piece of choice, which can help him, right, and ultimately help the people around you in a positive way, that was just something that was really good.”
Tabor didn’t always make the right choice. He was cited at Florida before his freshman year for marijuana possession and was suspended in September of his sophomore year after skipping a drug test. His junior year, he was suspended for the season opener after fighting with a teammate.
The fight suspension came after receiving the bracelet and sending the tweet, but to McElwain, there was overall progress -- something he saw on the field and off it. But that fight, Tabor admits, was a misstep. Something, he says, he learned from. He realizes now that he has "to be the bigger person sometimes and not let the pressure get the best of you."
"It was, it just goes back to that I really just got to pay attention. I can’t let the heat of the situation get the best of me," Tabor said. "So that situation taught me you never let the heat of your emotions get the best of you. It’s easy to make the right choice when there’s no pressure on you. But now, since I had that situation, I know that when the pressure is on, still follow your rules."
Tabor admitted his wrongdoing and knew he had to grow up. He knows the fight violated McElwain's rules, hence the suspension. It took time for him to learn that. In a world where social media rules and college-aged kids are as apt to express emotions in a public forum as in one-on-one conversations, McElwain knew his message resonated once he saw Tabor’s tweet. So McElwain printed it out and now sees it every day.
McElwain saw a highly competitive, resilient player who badly wanted to be successful on the field. He also saw a human who met a homeless man without shoes last August and came back later with a new pair and $22 for the man.
Tabor had no problem trying to give for the team. His knowledge was never in question, either. From the time McElwain and his staff arrived at Florida, they saw a smart player with an intense desire to make plays.
During a practice scrimmage early in McElwain’s tenure, a third-string defensive end got hurt. Before coaches realized, Tabor ran onto the field and lined up as a defensive end. Then-defensive coordinator Geoff Collins said he ran the play as a defensive end perfectly. It showed Collins -- and the rest of the staff -- how deeply Tabor understood the game. Never mind he was shorter and likely more than 100 pounds lighter than the offensive linemen.
“Luckily, they threw the ball, so he was blitzing, too,” Collins said. “I got him out right after that happened. I love that he did it, but we don’t need our All-American corner getting hurt playing defensive end.”
It was a choice by Tabor, one that made sense to him and ended up working out. On the field, that became common -- and in bigger ways.
Collins is convinced Tabor can become a coach after he’s done playing -- something he started learning in their first conversation. Five minutes in, Tabor told Collins if he was successful running the Gators defense, “You’re a head coach in two years.”
“Our first conversation ever,” Collins said. “Him being able to see those things and understand the business side of it, I just think it shows how intelligent the kid is, and he gets it.”
Tabor was also right. Two years after Collins arrived at Florida, Temple hired him.
By the middle of the 2015 season, Collins and Tabor had a high level of trust. Collins respected Tabor’s work. Tabor loved the coach who let him take chances and believed in him.
So against Missouri, Tabor looked at Collins before a play, telling him it’s there. It’s there. Tabor had an instinct and asked Collins to call a corner blitz. Collins agreed and for one of “10-to-20 times in my career,” he allowed a player to call a play.
“It takes a lot for a kid to suggest something or do that,” Collins said. “But I just trust Teez so much, and he was in his zone and I’m like, ‘He’s out there playing. He must know something.’ I trusted it, called it and it worked for us.”
Tabor smiled at the memory. It was another choice he made, a risk he took. A handful of times during his last two years at Florida, he’d look at Collins, suggest a call and it would be implemented.
“When coach knew that I seen something, you know, he’s coaching and I’m playing so it’s a little bit different for him,” Tabor said. “Like I’m seeing what’s going on, actually playing, and he’s calling it from a coaching perspective.”
He’s not ready for that in the NFL -- he’s still learning the playbook at this point -- but one day, he’s planning on being at that level. Because Tabor understands that, well, everything is a choice.
McElwain is a big believer in the power of choice and consequence. And it’s a choice both of them made two years ago that helped everything since. McElwain chose to give Tabor the bracelet. Tabor chose to believe in his coach and the message, keeping the bracelet on at all times.
And those were two choices made by an older man and a younger one that have seen the consequences come through since. Two SEC East titles at Florida for McElwain and Tabor. Tabor going in the second round of the draft after Lions general manager Bob Quinn did a bunch of personal scouting on him.
All were choices that led to consequences, started by a bracelet given, a message received and a tweet sent.
“I’ll be honest. It warmed my heart,” McElwain said. “It felt like, you know what, I’m making a difference, and that’s what my dad a long time ago told me. Kind of, one of the greatest joys in life is making a difference in other people’s lives.
“I can feel it. You just feel it, you know.”
In case he forgets, all he has to do is look behind his desk, below his family. That reminder of choice is there, on paper, for him to see.