Before he hears the roar of the crowd, before he feels the bright lights shining from above, USC safety Dion Bailey puts his headphones in.
Reminiscent of a Beats by Dre commercial, Bailey sits back and visualizes the moment. The music that emanates through his ears? Drake's Closer to my Dreams.
Bailey is an ambitious young man whose laser focus has helped navigate him through tough times. The USC safety spent his entire collegiate career constantly fighting an uphill battle. Amidst the turmoil that engulfed the USC program—starting with Pete Carroll's departure in 2010—Bailey's tenure in a Trojan uniform helped him grow not only as a man, but also as a teammate.
From Lane Kiffin to Ed Orgeron and Clay Helton, no matter who the head coach was, the one constant that fueled Bailey was the brotherhood he formed while in Southern California—to this day he remains close with most of his teammates, past and present.
Anointed by NFL.com's Bucky Brooks as one of the top five safety prospects in the 2014 draft, Bailey is now just a few short months away from realizing the dream he's been "striving" for since he was a kid.
Talking with Bailey, I got the chance to find out what drives him as a player and more importantly as a person.
It's been well-documented the organizational turmoil that took place during your tenure at USC. What did you take away from that experience?
Dion Bailey: First and foremost, I learned that you have to be a team player.
I sacrificed a lot at USC. I could have transferred and went anywhere and in my opinion been the No. 1 ranked safety in this class if I had focused on myself.
But I learned that the brotherhood you form is stronger than the individual. Because at the end of the day, if you're on a team that is successful, everybody gets to enjoy that success together.
You played linebacker at one point before making the transition to safety at USC. Does watching a guy like Kam Chancellor of the Seattle Seahawks who also played some linebacker in college influence your game?
DB: Definitely. Seeing a guy like that who has some of the same characteristics I have coming out of college gives me the confidence to know there's a place for me in the NFL.
That type of safety has proven to be successful. Guys like Troy (Polamalu) and Kenny (Vaccaro) are that type of safety.
Talking about the upcoming NFL combine for a second, I know you've been training nonstop for it. What kind of 40-yard-dash time are you looking at right now?
DB: I'm pretty sure no one is expecting me to run that fast (laughs). But I'm going to run a mid-to-low 4.5 for sure. I'm going to surprise a lot of people and show them all the things I can do at the combine.
Not getting the recognition you think you deserve has to motivate you. Can you elaborate on that?
DB: Definitely. Right now I'm working out with Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, so seeing him out there motivates me.
More than anything else, I love to compete. It's been a while since I've been around the cameras, and I think the combine is going to be a great experience for me to show everyone what I can do.
What kind of a player is Dion Bailey? If you were to describe your game to an NFL scout, what would you say?
DB: I would say I'm a very versatile player. I've played a lot of different positions and have played in a lot of different packages.
Like if our goal was to keep 11 players on the field, I would give our defense an advantage in trying to achieve that goal.
I can play nickel (defense), I can play strong safety and I can roll down in the box. If a guy was to go down, I can go out and play cornerback or outside linebacker.
In high school I played wide receiver. So I think that also gives me an advantage because I understand route tendencies and can get a jump on what a quarterback is doing out there.
What you get with me is a player who's always out there hustling to the ball. I've always been a guy who wants to be around the ball, because you never know what is going to happen if you put yourself in a good position.
Also, it's kind of funny how Malcolm (Smith) is getting all this attention (laughs). At USC, he was always a guy who put himself around the ball. So people think he's really lucky, but he did that in college and we all understood that if you do that, great things can happen.
Who are some players in the NFL who influence your game?
DB: I definitely model my game after Troy (Polamalu). He's a guy who's out there with his motor going 100 mph, throwing himself around. That's how I played in college and that's how I intend to play in the NFL.
I know you're close with a lot of the USC guys who have a chance to get drafted this May. Are you guys doing anything on draft weekend as a group to celebrate?
DB: We definitely all talked about it.
We understand that as of right now, Marqise (Lee) is the only guy projected to go in the first round. So some of the guys were planning on going where he's going to be.
Speaking of the draft, I know you reached out to Oklahoma cornerback Aaron Colvin on Twitter after he tore his ACL and said you would donate up to $10,000 to him and his family if he doesn't get drafted. Can you explain the story behind that?
On my moms if @AColvin14 doesn't get drafted.. I got 5-10k for you and your family depending on what round i go!!— Dion Bailey (@dbailey_18) January 22, 2014
DB: A lot of guys don't understand that they can't let their competitive nature get the best of them. We are all out here playing this game and we all come from backgrounds that are pretty similar.
We're all doing this so that we can take care of our families and so our mothers and fathers won't have to worry anymore.
Seeing a guy like Aaron (Colvin) who has so much potential and a guy I have so much respect for go down the way he did is tough. Everything is right in front of him and to see it almost get snatched away from him because of a freak accident, I mean, I feel for someone like that. I understand that an accident like that can take away from his ability to feed his family.
When I said that, I didn't try to go out and get attention or anything like that.
I talked to Aaron, and he told me to keep my money and that he would meet me at the top. I have no doubt in my mind that he's going to come back from his injury and fulfill his dream.
What was your best memory while playing at USC?
DB: My best memory would have to be beating Stanford this past year and seeing everybody rush the field. I was very excited that I got the chance to make a significant play in that game.
I don't remember the (Los Angeles Memorial) Coliseum ever being rushed like that by fans. That's one thing I will always remember being a part of.
Author's Final Thoughts
Over the time I spent with Bailey, I realized that this young man is focused on the bigger picture. Aside from achieving his dream of playing in the National Football League, Bailey's mantra has always been "family first."
You won't hear a ton of Richard Sherman-like bravado from the USC safety. Instead, Bailey comes off as a sophisticated 21-year-old, who's out to show the world just how great he can be.
When I asked him how he felt about finally fulfilling his childhood dream, Bailey didn't go into too much detail. Instead, beaming with pride, he said, "My sister is graduating from Howard University, so I am flying out to see her on draft weekend. I want to show her that the biggest moment in my life isn't bigger than the biggest moment in her life."
Jazmyne Bailey's graduation date is set for May 10, 2014. While most NFL prospects will be watching the draft unfold on TV, Dion Bailey will be watching his sister realize her own dreams in Washington, D.C.
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