Gervon Dexter – once opposed to the game of football – joins the Chicago Bears as a talented defensive tackle with untapped potential

If persistence is the intersection of optimism and grit, Lake Wales (Fla.) football coach Tavaris Johnson leaned heavily on those traits every time he crossed paths with Gervon Dexter in the school’s hallways.

Johnson, who is also the dean, was eager to see Dexter, a huge freshman and talented AAU basketball player, on the football field. His initial efforts were met with the kind of box-out that Dexter would use to block rebounds with ease.

“I knew Gervon and I knew his family well,” Johnson said. “I played with some of his uncles. He comes from a very talented family. The first thing I said to Gervon was, ‘Hey, a guy your size should be on the football field. You are a dream waiting to happen. He looks at me and says, “Coach, I don’t play football.” I’m like, “What?!? You kidding me.'”

Undeterred, Johnson maintained an all-court pressure on Dexter his sophomore year and remained singularly devoted to basketball.

“I was pretty firm,” Dexter recalled.

With spring football approaching, Johnson worked to convince Dexter to try out for football during the 20 days allotted for in-state spring practice.

“Gervon, listen, you have to play football. That’s your goal,” Johnson said.

“Coach, no, I don’t care,” Dexter replied.

Johnson pushed forward, eventually convincing Dexter to try on a football uniform in the locker room and see how he looked in one of the Highlanders’ black jerseys with white lettering and orange numbers.

“I think that was just the catch,” Johnson said. “He felt that uniform.”

“Okay coach, I’ll try that,” Dexter said. “When do you think I’ll get my first offer?”

“Gervon, no one will give it to you!” Johnson said. “You haven’t played a football match. It doesn’t work that way. You have to give me some time to work.”

“Well, I’m not going to play then,” Dexter replied. “I won’t waste my time. I’m not going to waste your time.”

“Gervon, listen, I’m telling you, this is where you belong,” Johnson said.

“Coach, who is it?” that child?’

Johnson’s dogged pursuit and Dexter’s eventual desire to try a sport he had only played in his youth led to bigger things sooner than the coach could have imagined. Johnson was in attendance at Dexter’s draft party when the Chicago Bears selected him with the 53rd pick with hopes he can be a key piece amid a defensive turnaround.

“Feeling the emotion and the energy in the room was just surreal,” Johnson said. “Of course it was meant for him. He had done the things he had to do to make sure this became a reality.”

On the first day of spring ball, after Dexter was blown away by how he looked in a Highlanders uniform, then-South Florida assistant coach Eric Mathies was at practice. Johnson was showing him a list of prospects from the school. The Highlanders typically have about four kids move on to college football each year.

“(Mathies) comes back and Gervon is in the corner,” Johnson said. “‘Coach, who is it that child?’

“I said, ‘This is a project now, this is Gervon Dexter.’ “

Mathies went to Dexter and watched him go through some drills and told Johnson he was going to offer him a scholarship that day. Three days later coaches from the southeast were flocking to Lake Wales. The word was out.

“During his junior year, he played one season, helicopters were landing on our baseball field,” Johnson said. “You would have thought we had the Pope here with the amount of traffic we had with people coming to see Gervon. He handled all of this well. He walked with humility. I told him that success is proportional to effort. You have to realize that.”

In short order — ridiculously short considering some recruiting stories — Dexter emerged as a five-star recruit and eventually settled in Florida.

Gators defensive backs coach David Turner burst out laughing when asked if Dexter was still relatively raw when he set foot on the Gainesville campus.

“What would you think?” Turner fired back. “He was raw, with a lot of athletic ability. There are a lot of things you can train, but you can’t train 6-foot-6, 280 pounds. From this point of view, he had all the tools. He was a natural and aggressive child. The good thing about football, you don’t get five fouls. So it can bother them a little and they don’t have to worry about being cheated on.

“It wasn’t much different than (Kansas City Chiefs defensive tackle) Chris Jones. I had it at Mississippi State. Chris didn’t play football until his junior year and thought he was a basketball player. … Gervon is a kid who wanted to be coached. He’s a great kid. ‘Yes, sir. No sir.’ I was delighted to have the chance to work with him. The good thing is, there weren’t a lot of bad habits he needed to break. You just had to train him. He wanted to be great and it was a natural progression.”

On-the-job training

Dexter’s father, Gerald, died of a brain aneurysm in the spring of his senior year at Lake Wales in April 2020, making his transition to Florida more difficult.

“I approached the man above and used my dad as motivation,” Dexter said when asked how he channeled his grief.

Dexter saw regular playing time as a freshman, recording 254 snaps, and doubled that total in 2021. The Gators used him as a penetrating defensive tackle his first two seasons — how the Bears envision using him — before the last change of coaches. the fall led to a new scheme. In logging 636 snaps (53 per game), Dexter was asked to read and react more and keep traffic away from linebackers. While it proved to be durable, it didn’t exactly play to its strengths.

Still, in 36 games (23 starts), he finished with 125 tackles, five sacks, 10½ tackles for loss, two interceptions and 51 quarterback pressures.

“SEC is not a true entry-level position, so he had to get on-the-job training, and the only way he was going to get good was to see and understand that everybody is big and strong,” said Turner. “The biggest thing in the second year was the technique and the level of the pad. He still wasn’t where I wanted him to be, but he understood that he had been tested and thrown into the fire. Everything he went through the first year was the first time he went through it, so the second time was easier.”

“I want to be one of the best”

Turner’s comparison to Jones, a four-time Pro Bowl selection who twice had 15 ½ sacks, is interesting because the combined metrics are similar in many ways.

Chris Jones | Gervon Dexter

  • Height: 6-5¾ | 6-6
  • Weight: 310 | 310
  • Weapons: 32¾ | 32¼
  • Wingspan: 85 | 80⅞
  • 40 meter board: 5.03 | 4.88
  • Division into 10 meters: 1.69 | 1.81
  • 3-cone: 7.44 | 7.50
  • Bench press repetitions: 26 | 22

Turner said Jones took a quicker first step and was a little more fluid. An NFL staffer said Jones is quicker laterally, with wider hips and the ability to bend like elite players. Still, if Dexter is 75 percent of the player Jones, a second-round pick of the Kansas City Chiefs in 2016, the Bears will have a star.

“It’s hard when you’re gifted with size and strength to understand that things are going to take time to get to where you want to be,” Turner said. “That was the biggest thing that had (Dexter) understanding the process, being patient in development. You’re not going to be great now, but eventually you’re going to have a chance to be a very, very good player.”

Dexter is measured when discussing goals with the first steps this weekend at rookie minicamp. He wants to get the playbook down, which shouldn’t be too much trouble for a defensive tackle.

He’s excited that the Bears are asking him to be a gapper, tasked with going up the field and wreaking havoc. He is excited to learn alongside fellow rookie Zacch Pickens from South Carolina.

The NFL is an adjustment for all rookies, even more so for those with limited experience. Dexter set a goal when he arrived in Florida to play three seasons before making the jump to the NFL. However, the overall goal is one he made with his father before his death.

“I’m just trying to do it for him,” Dexter said. “I want to be one of the best.”


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