Bills Rookie DB, Don Unamba Interview
In the 2013 NFL Draft, DII All-American defensive back, Don Unamba went undrafted. Don Unamba attended Southern Arkansas University 2008 through 2012, and played during four of his five years there. At the end of the 2012 season, he was recognized as a DII All-American defensive back. He had great pre-draft measurables, but teams were skeptical of the transition from Southern Arkansas to the NFL. In our interview, Unamba talks about his days in college, his pre-draft experiences, and currently what he is up to with the Rams organization. Check out our exclusive interview.
Don Unamba : Hi. This is Don Unamba, ex-Southern Arkansas University cornerback, DII-All American, and current St. Louis Rams defensive back, and you’re listening to ProInterviews.org
Max Strauss : How do you connect with your fans?
Don Unamba : Pretty much through Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram. I like to keep people informed with what’s going on with every situation. If something significant goes on, I will upload a picture and just let them know, and give them a taste of what’s going on in my life.
Strauss : How did you start playing football? How old were you?
Unamba : I actually started playing in the seventh Grade. I went to Hurst Junior High and it was just part of our athletic program. I never played football before; I grew up watching my older brother play. It kind-of happened on accident, but I went on line, grabbed some pads, and said I guess I’m playing football. It took off from there. Once I got on the field, it was like I just knew what to do. I started off playing running back and Will Linebacker and as I got older, positions changed. In high school, I started playing receiver and corner and safety and went from there.
Strauss : Speaking of Hurst High School, what was that like? Is it a big Texas high school?
Unamba : We were 5-A, so it was big Texas football. Our rivals were actually the Trinity Trojans who won State Championships three out of the four years. It was a fun experience. I played against a lot of good athletes; actually some of whom are big-time players in the NFL now. I got to play against Von Miller, who actually put us out of the playoffs during my senior year. He played for DeSoto High School. Also, Cyrus Gray was also their running back. I played against Ron Brooks who went to Irving-MacArthur, who was the defensive back opposite Tyrann Mathieu at LSU, who now plays for the Buffalo Bills, but overall, it was a great experience.
Strauss : Besides you, were there any other key players at your school?
Unamba : Not really. Actually one of my good friends now, Andre Lampkin, he was a really big star at our school too. He was basically ‘the athlete’ at our school. He went to Cisco Junior College. I was waiting on him to break out because he was a great athlete. He was fast, and he actually came back home from spring break and caught meningitis and because of that, he lost both his legs and arms.
Strauss : Wow. That’s a scary story.
Unamba : Yeah. I played football with him since the 7th grade, and he was always a great athlete. He was always the fastest person in the school. He did everything on the field. We were the only two people who came out that year from our school, and I was always waiting for him to break out. Unfortunately, God had a different plan for him, but it was a crazy situation.
Strauss : Speaking of scary situations, that’s a good transition… What do you think was the biggest adversity you faced growing up?
Unamba : My mom actually is disabled. She suffers from bipolar disorder. With her sickness, I have had to go to the hospital for her several times, and no one wants to see your mother sick and going through difficult situations like that. I have been dealing with that since a young age, so growing up and having to understand about how things work and having to still focus on school and all the other things growing up was the adversity that I faced in life.
Strauss : How do you think that’s made you a better person and better athlete?
Unamba : You just look at life differently. I had to grow up and learn to do things on my own and learn how to take care of business. I had to grow up at a real young age. I had to take responsibilities for different things. I always looked out for myself and my sisters. It’s really the responsibility part of it. When you don’t have a mom there at the moment, you have to take care of mom, and make sure mom is good. You have to be strong and that makes you a better person.
Strauss : You got to play against some top talent in Texas. What was the whole recruiting experience like for you?
Unamba : It was fun. I had a couple of big time schools show interest in me: TCU [Texas Christian University], SMU [Southern Methodist University] and the Texas’ receiver coach came to my spring game because I actually played a lot of receiver. I thought I was going to be a big time receiver, but I ended up switching to corner in college.
I went on a couple visits, one at SMU, and I also went to the TCU workout. It wasn’t anything too vigorous. I had lot of different schools came to visit me at my high school, so the fun part to me was getting student workers to come get me out of class, so that was great. All kind of schools would do that. I took my ACTs kind of late so a lot of schools fell back. That’s actually how I ended up at Southern Arkansas. Through that process, there were some DI teams on me super hard, and I didn’t have an ACT score which hurt me. Southern Arkansas, their coach, Kendall Hill who isn’t there anymore, gave me a phone call, and he just kept being consistent with me. I got the score that I needed to go there, and we went from there.
Strauss : What was the transition like to Magnolia, Arkansas?
Unamba : It was a cool transition. Obviously, I played receiver and I played safety, so as soon as I got there, my defensive back coach moved me to corner so I was kind of iffy about that, but oh well. But, as far as the transition, it was alright. Having to start from the bottom where you were a star in high school, and not to be the guy anymore, and that you had to wait your time was different. I redshirted my freshman year and that was the best thing that could have happened to me. I got an offseason under my belt, and I got to learn the defensive better. It was a smooth transition though.
Strauss : First preseason in college is probably a little more difficult than in high school in terms of conditioning, and all that fun stuff. What was that like for you? How tough was it for you?
Unamba : I grew up in Texas, so it was always hot there too. I always had long wind and was able to run around all day. My friends actually make jokes now, and say because I’m half-African that, “That’s the African in you.” That I can run around all day, and not get tired. That part of it, was actually easy for me. I can run around and do whatever, and I always wanted to impress and prove a point out there.
Strauss : You say you’re half African?
Unamba : Yeah, my dad is African. He’s actually Nigerian.
Strauss : You said you redshirted your freshman year. When was your first start and what was it like stepping onto the field for your first start?
Unamba : I didn’t get my first start until my redshirt sophomore year. It was fast. Going back to my freshman year getting my playing time, I just remember it being fast. It felt like everyone was moving too fast and people were flying around. Once you get a couple hits in though, you kind-of relax.
Everything started to slow down once I got to my sophomore year. When you get experience under your belt, you play better and relax. I adjusted well and started making plays sophomore year. I went into my junior year and made All-Conference and made a bunch of plays. I had a pick in four consecutive games and making newspapers. We might be DII, but we have great fans at Southern Arkansas, and they pack the stands every home game.
Strauss : Who was your secondary coach?
Unamba : My secondary coach was David Reeves. He transferred to Jacksonville State. He caught me in my immature state and he worked with me a lot, and he taught me a lot, not just about football, but also about life and about responsibility, and I needed that.
My senior year I met my new position coach. I have a close relationship with James Colzie. He was just as good as David Reeves. He taught me a lot about football, about my mechanics, and worked with me throughout the draft process, and handled everything with scouts and let me know what it was going to be like. He was an All-American cornerback at Florida State and played in the league for a couple years, so he knew what it was like and he was able to help me. I got a blessing to have two good position coaches.
Strauss : It clearly shows that they were both very helpful to you. I know a while ago there was a Mulerider in the NFL, by the name of Dennis Woodberry. Woodberry was back in the ’80s, and was a cornerback. Did you ever get a chance to meet him?
Unamba : No, I haven’t got the chance to meet him. That was the one who was drafted by the Atlanta Falcons. They had an article out projecting me to be drafted, which didn’t happen but it’s all good. It said that I would have been the second Mulerider to be drafted since him. But it didn’t work out that way, so he’s still the lone ranger from SAU to be drafted.
Strauss : Another question for you… You made this huge commitment in the offseason to go from good to great. How did you go about your off-seasons? Did you set goals that helped you become better from junior year to senior year?
Unamba : I’ve always been a believer that you get nothing without hard work. I put the time in and effort in, in the weight room to change my body. I went from weighing 170 pounds to 195 or 200 pounds. I changed my whole body. I just put the time in.
I took Spring Break when people go to Panama for the whole, but I did nothing, but stayed at school and worked out. During Christmas Break when you’re off for a whole month, I didn’t go home… I stayed at school and worked out. Whole summer breaks, where everyone is going home all summer and partying, I’m staying at school and working out.
I just decided to invest my time into my future. I knew that I had to do something different than everybody else if that’s what I wanted to do. I had different goals. I wanted to be strong, so I got out there and I could bench 225 18 times, which I did at my pro day so I did that. I wanted to improve my speed to get in the consistent 4.5 range. I knew I was not going to be the fastest guy, so at least wanted decent speed and make sure I was stronger than everybody if I couldn’t be faster. I worked on my footwork, my hips, my hands and just working on my game and touching up my craft and making sure I was ready to lead my team because I knew those guys were looking up to me and expected me to do that. I know it would have been a let-down to them and myself if I wasn’t ready to be able to do that.
Strauss : What did Southern Arkansas do in the community?
Unamba : We actually had a program at the school where some of students got on the field with younger kids who played football and really looked up to us. We let them go through some drills and we interacted with them. We also did an event at a local schools, where the football team participated in, one of their pep rallies. It was cool because we were the big thing there. It was fun to do too!
Strauss : You received an All-American honors for your play during your senior season at Southern Arkansas. What was it like to receive that honor and be recognized?
Unamba : That was the best feeling in the world. That’s the ultimate goal. I wanted to be the best defensive back, not just on my team, but in the country. Back in the day, my freshman and sophomore year, I remember wanting to be on our Hall of Fame Mural, which is a thing we have where when you get an accomplishment, they put your picture on the wall. Whether it’s All-American, All-Conference, or something like that. I remember telling people I was going to have the next spot on that wall. It’s one thing just saying something, but for it to actually happen, a picture will go up there with All-American, it is kind of surreal. I set a goal, and I accomplished it, and so that was the best feeling in the world accomplishing that.
Strauss : Of all the plays you made during your time at Southern Arkansas, Is there one that sticks out to you specifically that highlights what its you can do?
Unamba : There are actually two plays. There’s one play that doesn’t really show up on the stat sheet, but it shows what I can do. I don’t know why this play always sticks in my head. We were playing against Henderson State, this might have been my sophomore or junior year. We were actually in a Cover 3 Defense and they play-actioned us and my safety bit hard, so we had no one in the middle of the field, and I still had my guy on my side. I saw the tight end going straight up the middle, straight up the seam, and he would have scored a touchdown. So I left my zone, and ran to the middle of the field and made a play that, to this day, I feel like I could have picked it off. But anyway, right before he caught the ball, I knocked the ball down and stopped that play. All my teammates were excited especially my safety whose butt I saved on that one. The effort that I put in, sticks out to me.
The other play, I made this year. Actually, it was the play where I got my first college touchdown. I intercepted the ball and took it 66 yards for a touchdown, so that was a good feeling too.
Strauss : The season ends… You get a unique outlook on the whole pre-draft scenario as a D-II prospect. What was that process like for you when you were preparing on your own?
Unamba : I did a lot. I actually trained in Delray Beach, Florida and in the Boca Raton area. I trained with Tony Villani, and I trained with the top defensive backs in the draft that came out this year. Dee Milliner, David Amerson, Matt Elam, Tyrann Mathieu, Brandon McGee who is here with me in St. Louis and also, Ray-Ray Armstrong, just to name a few. I trained with all of the top guys, so it was a great experience working with those top guys. I got the chance to level out and see how I stacked up against those guys. The whole process of meeting different coaches and scouts from different teams and getting those phone calls was surreal. To even be in those coaches minds, my process was great, it was a fun experience. The only downfall was the letdown of not getting the call on draft day, but G-d had a different plan for me and everything has worked out so far.
Strauss : Coming from a small school, how would you describe that situation?
Unamba : That was fun. It was a great feeling. I was glad I got to experience that. It was fun seeing how my skills compared to those D1 athletes. I found out that those guys were just like me. They’re the same, not better. Those guys were cool and down to earth. We all got along. I got to see, first hand, a lot of the guys I watched on TV.
Strauss : What was your pro day experience like?
Unamba : My Pro Day experience was cool too. It was a smaller environment obviously. We didn’t get the attention of the big Combine guys, but we still had a good showing. I remember the Packers being there, the Jaguars, the Saints, the Giants, the Rams, the Bills, so we had a good showing there. I just had to go in and do the same things the guys at the Combine did. I ran my 40, did my shuttle, my vertical. It was still a fun experience. It was guys in my conference that I knew and I was comfortable with, and we had to do to just try to live our dream.
Strauss : You mentioned how the draft was a downfall. But that whole draft experience, they say ‘Everything happens for a reason.’ What was the whole draft experience like looking back? Specifically the weekend.
Unamba : The draft weekend was crazy; [It was] just a mind-boggling experience. It’s almost like false hope [because] you really don’t know what’s going to happen. Before the draft started, different teams were calling me to verify my number, so that is getting me excited right there. After that, you’re expecting to get a phone call. Obviously, my friends and family were excited for you to have the opportunity. So they’re all trying to throw me parties and this and that. The draft is where you want to be excited, but you can’t be excited at the same time. At least, that’s how it felt for me, coming from a small school, and knowing that my chances were slim, so I wasn’t really feeling the whole draft party thing.
My close family wanted to have something, so I didn’t do anything huge; I just had a couple of friends and some family over. It still was a fun experience to have everyone over. I actually had it on Day 3 because I knew it wouldn’t be before then. We had fun, but towards the end of the sixth round, it wasn’t. I had fun the first two days watching the dudes I trained with get taken, but Day 3, I was expecting it to be me now. I started to get nervous at the bottom of the sixth round, so I had to take some time to myself. Come seventh round, I was really getting nervous and then getting disappointed just waiting for my phone to ring.
Finally, the last pick of the draft came, and I didn’t get that phone call. It was disappointing, and I’m not ashamed to admit that tears came to my eyes. It almost felt like a failure. Like I worked, and it didn’t work out like I thought it would. But I kept the faith and obviously I got that phone call from the Rams saying they wanted to bring me in. So I took my opportunity, and it was a humbling experience. It motivated me to keep pushing harder and to keep working so hopefully I can prove them wrong because they aren’t always right.
Strauss : For a Rams fan who wants to know more about your style of play, how would you describe it?
Unamba : I play physical. I play fast. I play with passion. I am everywhere. I’m flying around and making plays. I’m having fun, and I might interact with the fans, you know, point at them or something, you’ll have fun when you see me play. I’m physical. I’m a ballhawk I believe. Wherever you see the ball, you’re going to find me somewhere around it.
Strauss : How much experience do you have playing special teams?
Unamba : I played everywhere on special teams. I’m a beast at blocking kicks. That was my thing. I blocked several kicks during my time at SAU. I blocked a lot of field goals and I blocked a lot of punts. Punt returning wasn’t really my thing, but I loved blocking for punt returners. I liked springing people loose; I had no problem doing that. I played everywhere. I’ve also gone down and played on kickoff, and I’ve also been a kick returner. My thing is doing whatever it takes for my team to win.
Strauss :If you could describe yourself as any ice cream flavor, what would you be and why?
Unamba : (Pauses) Man, do they all take this long to think about it? (More pause). I would say I’m rocky road. I’m some of everything. I’m funny, I’m a good guy, I’m humble, I’m down to earth. I can also turn it on and be the bad guy on the field. I’m a lot of different things. I’m a role model to a lot of people. I’ve got a real soft part, I’m giving. At the same time, I can make everybody at the table laugh and be goofy. So I’d say rocky road. I’m some of everything, you never know what you’re going to get.
Strauss : For someone who wants to play football in the NFL, what’s the best advice you can give?
Unamba : Just work at it. Work at everything you do and work hard. Try to be the best. Never let anyone tell you that you can’t do it. Just keep that faith and have faith in G-d, and he’ll open up doors for you. Work at your craft. If you’re a quarterback, work on your release, your passing motion, your technique. If you’re a defensive back, work on your back-pedal, footwork, speed and catching balls. You have to be good because there’s going to come a point where everybody’s around the same, and you have to show that you’re more crisp and try to separate yourself from other people. That would be the best advice that I can give.
Strauss : Is there anything else you want to tell your fans that we haven’t really talked about?
Unamba : I don’t really talk a lot or brag or anything. I’m going through this process, which is a hard process, and I’m just trying to stay focused through this process and we’ll see once the season starts whether I make the roster or not. Just know that I’m going hard and doing my best to make these things happen for me. I want to have a successful career in the league. We’ll see. I’m doing it for my family, my friends and my fans.
Strauss : Thanks so much for your time Don Unamba, I really appreciate it.
Unamba : It was cool man. That was fun. You had the pleasure of having one of my first interviews.
Strauss : It won’t be your last.
Unamba : I appreciate it man. Thank you.