Donna Pumphrey has been alongside her son, UB outside linebacker Justin Winters, every step of his football career. She was the one shooting video from the sidelines during his youth games. She was the one telling him that everything would be OK even though not a single Division I-A school offered him a scholarship. And she's the one jumping on airplanes every week, to El Paso, Texas, to Buffalo, to Orlando, to wherever the Bulls are playing, unwilling to miss an opportunity to watch Justin play.
"She's my biggest fan," Winters said Tuesday. "Always has been. She was my rock, really. When I'd be down she'd let me know it was going to work out. And it worked out."
It's by sheer serendipity that Winters, a junior from Greenbelt, Md., ended up starring at UB. He was a day away from cashing in his dreams and playing at Division I-AA Duquesne when he had a change of heart. His cousin, current senior cornerback Kendric Hawkins, was already at UB. The idea of playing for coach Turner Gill intrigued him. Convinced he could succeed at a higher level, Winters decided to take his shot as a walk-on, which presented the risk of not playing football at all.
"We went to visit UB and he really loved Coach Gill and I was really impressed with Coach Gill," Pumphrey said by phone. "We were on the plane on the way home and I said, 'Is this where you want to be?' And he said, "Mom, this is where I want to be.' And I said, 'Let's do it. I'll finance it.' "
"It was hard but we got through it, me, my mother and my family," Winters said. "I just went through a lot of trials and tribulations back then. You could write a storybook."
It's a storybook, all right. Last year, as a first-time starter, Winters set a UB single-season record for tackles, recording the second-highest total in the Mid-American Conference. He had a huge day in Saturday's 23-17 loss at Central Florida, with eight solo tackles, a sack, a forced fumble, a fumble recovery and a pass break-up. It's the kind of game the Bulls have come to expect, perhaps even require, from the player they took in as a Division I-A orphan.
"That he's a walk-on and earned a scholarship says a lot about him," junior cornerback Josh Thomas said. "The ideal linebacker is, you speak of Ray Lewis, a high-intensity guy before a game. And to me, Justin's the same way. He takes the ideal role of a linebacker and he runs with it."
"I think [Josh] made a good point about him being a walk-on and earning himself a scholarship," Gill said. "That takes a lot of hard work and dedication and perseverance. He's definitely one of our better football players, offensively or defensively. He's been a guy that's made plays, sacking the quarterback, covering people, and also understanding what he needs to do in the run game. . . . And he definitely can run. That's probably his biggest asset. Can run and has good intensity."
The Bulls will need all the intensity they can muster for Saturday's MAC opener at Temple. The Owls would have shared the East Division crown last year if not for their Hail Mary loss at UB Stadium. They put up some decent offensive numbers in last week's 31-6 loss at Penn State as junior quarterback Vaughn Charlton continued to show improvement. But for Temple to negotiate UB's defense the Owls will have to account for Winters all afternoon.
"He's probably the best linebacker in the conference," Temple coach Al Golden said on Monday's coaches conference call. "He really runs, he's very active. He's a tremendous player."
Donna will be there, of course. So will other family members and friends. It's another chance to see the former underrated linebacker who could.