The segments are grainy, but a figure distinguishes himself. Dressed in red and white, he dekes, spins, and outraces hordes of defenders in a way that, if not for his size, would prompt parents from opposing high schools to demand a birth certificate be presented.
“The plays that I made and the way that I played the game in high school has still got people talking to this day,” Noel Devine, now 31, said proudly, referring to the YouTube cut-ups. “My biggest accomplishment would be my highlight reels. Everything else speaks for itself.”
Devine ranks third all-time in rushing at West Virginia University, behind only former teammate Pat White and Avon Cobourne. He’s second in all-purpose yards (5,761), trailing burner and seven-year NFL vet Tavon Austin, and has the most receptions (98) by a running back in Mountaineer history. He’s one of eight players from North Fort Myers high school to have his jersey retired, others including Deion Sanders and Jevon Kearse.
Devine grew up in Fort Myers, living between the homes of his grandmother, his mom and stepdad, and, later, the family of a former Pop Warner teammate. Playing football across the bridge from Fort Myers in Cape Coral provided Devine a sense of relief and a hope of making something of himself.
“[Football] was something I felt helped me get away from what I was going through with losing my mom,” he said, mentioning that his mother died due to AIDS when he was 12. “It was an escape and as soon as I put my hand on the ball, it was something I enjoyed doing and something I was good at doing.”
Devine eventually began to notice how he was outracing defenders, oftentimes to the endzone. To say the least, he was good. But, come high school, some looked at his size and had their reservations.
“I remember nights being on the back porch at my grandmother’s house lifting weights after my 8th grade year, just trying to prepare myself,” Devine said. “People were like, ‘Oh he’s too small, he’s not going to play running back.’”
By his freshman year of high school at North High, Devine said, he was bench-pressing 315 pounds. He soon learned that his father and uncle attended the same high school in the 1980s.
“It was an amazing feeling to know that I was following the same footsteps and that there was a little family tradition there,” Devine said.
As a ninth-grader, he played on the varsity squad and, after an eye-popping run, many believed him not to be a freshman. His average carry was good for more than nine yards.
By his senior campaign, he was a five-star all-purpose back who ran scampered for 2,148 yards and 31 touchdowns. Devine was offered by Alabama, Florida, and USC, among others. He committed to play for offensive designer Rich Rodriguez and WVU in March of 2007.
However, he almost didn’t qualify academically. He thought of going through a prep school, visiting Milford Academy, the same seminary LeSean McCoy attended.
“I was going to come in and rep behind [McCoy],” Devine said. “I took the visit and thought ‘This place looks creepy.’ There was a graveyard right behind the football field, a shed as a weight room. In the middle of New York, it just looked haunted.”
Instead, Devine reworked his grades through computer courses and enrolled in Morgantown, where he finally graduated from in December.
“It was time-consuming and it was challenging, but it was definitely worth it,” Devine said. “Taking classes online is way different than being on campus and having hands-on and tutors and mentors to guide you through and kind of help out, but I got it done. Football mindset, no excuses, man.”
On the field, he was a two-time All-Big East honoree and one of four players in the history of the conference to surpass 4,000 career rushing yards.
Devine made a name for himself, becoming the quickest WVU player to ever rush for 100 yards in a game, reaching the mark in two carries at Maryland. He filled the shoes of an injured Steve Slaton in the Fiesta Bowl as a freshman, scoring a pair of touchdowns against Sam Bradford’s Oklahoma Sooners. In his junior year, he was one of 16 semifinalists for the Maxwell Award.
After moving on from West Virginia, Devine’s physical stature once again came into question as a detriment. He estimates he weighed 160 at the Senior Bowl and 20 pounds heavier by the Combine, where he didn’t run because of a toe injury.
He went unselected in that spring’s draft, but was picked up by the Philadelphia Eagles as an undrafted free agent. His time in the City of Brotherly Love last less than a week, as one of his best friends was killed and pressure weighed on Devine’s shoulders.
“My dreams turned to a nightmare,” Devine said. “I was devastated, basically walking out of Philly just in disbelief. I couldn’t compete for the job I needed to do. I felt like I just had anxiety, worrying about punt returns.”
Without football, he felt empty.
“This is something I worked for all my life. This is my dream. This is what I want to do. It’s what I’m happy doing. I turned my back on my dreams.”
Devine landed with the Omaha Nighthawks in the since-disbanded United Football League. He would later join a couple of teams in the Canadian Football League, but his playing time was limited by established league veterans.
“I never thought I would take those routes,” Devine said. “My biggest fear was to not make it in the NFL.”
Most recently, Devine made plays for the reigning American Arena League-champion West Virginia Roughriders, sporting colors almost as flashy as his highlight tapes. In Wheeling, Devine said, he was making sure that he still had the affection for the game.
“You’ve got to really ask yourself, ‘Do you love the game?’” Devine said. “It was a great experience to be back in West Virginia, to be around those fans that know me and see me in their eyes as a legend.”
Devine has his sights set on greater, however. He recognizes that, from critical and political standpoints, his window is closing.
“It felt great, man,” he said of his time in the AAL. “Just being back out there running around, I feel like I haven’t lost a step. My body really hasn’t taken a beating, so I feel fresh. I feel young.”
Last Monday, Devine participated with roughly 20 others in an invitational workout in Dallas. The scouts judged change-of-direction in footwork drills and route-running against air.
Sometimes opportunities come when you least expect it but If you stay ready, you don’t have to get ready! Thank you @xfl @xflvipers @xflbattlehawks @xfldefenders @xflwildcats @xfldragons @xflrenegades @xflguardians @xflroughnecks for the invitational workout. @xflboard pic.twitter.com/SKPKEj3ABn
— Noel Devine (@noel_devine7) February 12, 2020
“I feel like there are always second chances and second opportunities. I feel like I should be able to have one and a lot of people want to see it […] I’m just trying to get a taste of it.”
Although he hasn’t had any contact with XFL clubs, Devine is willing to work his way up from Team Nine.
To whoever takes the chance on who many call the most exciting player in WVU lore, Devine said, “They’ll get a playmaker that can take the top off of a defense. Someone who’ll make big plays and that’s accountable. I’m what they’re looking for.”
Brendan is a junior journalism major at Slippery Rock University in Pennsylvania. Along with contributing to XFLBoard.com, he serves as the Assistant Campus Life Editor and has written over 100 stories for his school’s award-winning student publication, The Rocket. He has also contributed to the newspaper’s sports section for what will be six semesters; covering games, writing game previews and recaps, and features.