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Path to NFL: Former UA lineman Eben Britton details his long, bumpy road to the pros

UA+Football+vs+OSU+11.22.2008
Luke Adams
UA Football vs OSU 11.22.2008

A tattoo on Eben Britton’s right forearm reads, “vitualamen pro fatum,” a Latin phrase meaning “sacrifice for destiny.”

“It really struck a chord with me,” Britton said. “I try to live my life that way. I’ve always been a ‘things happen for a reason’ kind of guy. I’ve always put myself on the path to reach where I’m at. It can be destiny or just me working my ass off, but that saying made sense to me.”

The former Arizona offensive lineman has made sacrifices, he’s been through the wringer and come out fine. Now he’s working his butt off to reach his goal — success at the highest level.

Britton, 24, started playing football his freshman year of high school. Soon after that, he was already telling himself he would make it to the NFL. People told him to come up with a plan B. No, he said. There was no plan B.

“‘I’m not having a plan B, I’m playing in the NFL,’” Britton said to the doubters.

On NFL Draft Day three years ago, Britton expected to be drafted in the first round. The people around him at the time — agents, family and friends — kept telling him that it was all but certain.

At 6-foot-6, 309 pounds, Britton had the prototypical size for an NFL lineman and the numbers to back it up. In his three years at the UA from 2006-08, he was named to two All-Pacific 10 Conference teams and recorded 289 knockdowns. Even better, he was only penalized four times in 2,461 career snaps.

Despite all that, the first round came and went. Then, with the seventh pick in the second round, the Jacksonville Jaguars made a move Britton emphatically promised they would not regret.

Britton, who admits he might’ve “had a little bit too much to drink” that day, told the media that every team that passed him up would “regret it for the rest of the history of that franchise,” and that his agenda included first taking the Jaguars to the Super Bowl and second becoming the “greatest offensive tackle to ever play the game.”

At the time, Britton understandably received flak for his comments. Now, he knows that it was probably not the best idea to speak out like he did. People close to him, such as his former Arizona offensive line-mate Joe Longacre, know why Britton said what he said, and believe that he can follow through on his word.

“I understand the (public) reaction,” Longacre said. “I know how much of a competitor he is and anytime somebody tells you that you’re not good enough, if you’re a competitor, you get up and say, ‘I’m going to prove you wrong.’ Actions speak louder than words, so he probably didn’t need to say it. But I know exactly why he did.

He had every right to say it and I believe he still thinks it and he’s gonna go out and prove it.”

Childhood distress

On Oct. 14, 1987, in New York City, Jeff and Abbie Britton gave birth to Eben, their first son. After living in various parts of Brooklyn over the next 10 years, Britton’s parents got divorced. The 11-year-old Eben received an unprecedented culture shock when his mother decided to take him and his brother, Gus, and move to California.

“It was brutal, in sixth grade I was a wreck,” Eben Britton said. “I missed all my friends, I missed my dad, it was really tough. It was one of the toughest things for me.”

He added that it took him “six or seven months, maybe longer” to adjust to his new environment, away from his friends. This was made tougher by the fact that he would only see his father “maybe twice a year” until he reached high school.

“He didn’t have a whole lot of money so he wasn’t able to visit or fly out from New York,” Britton said. “Then, finally, he saved up enough money and moved out to California when I was in ninth grade. He basically saw my brother and I get through high school.”

Despite the rough transition, he said the ordeal brought him closer to his younger brother.

“We have a great relationship,” Britton said. “I think any time you deal with parents splitting up or having to deal with a lot of adversity growing up, you probably either go one way or the other, either become really close or really estranged. We were close.”

The path to the draft

Britton had always wanted to play football, but before high school, his mother wouldn’t let him play. After relentless prodding — plus a little bit of convincing from his father — Britton’s mother gave in and Eben’s career began.

By the end of his high school career, Britton was one of the most highly touted offensive tackle recruits on the West Coast and was rated the No. 16 tackle and a four-star prospect by Rivals.com.

The attention Britton was receiving, particularly from the Pac-10, was a strange but welcome feeling for him.

“It’s amazing, it’s just like, it’s surreal,” said Britton, describing how he felt about hearing from so many top football programs. “When I started playing football … I didn’t even realize that was going to happen. I was just like, ‘Man I love playing football,’ and then all of a sudden I started getting scholarship offers. It was pretty amazing.”

Despite all of the attention he received, it didn’t take very long for Britton to make a decision about his next stop after a trip to Arizona with his father.

“We took an unofficial trip and we came down to Arizona,” Britton said. “We flew in to Phoenix and drove down to Tucson and did this camp thing and met with all the coaches, spent a little bit of time in Tucson. Over that weekend, we drove back to Phoenix and visited ASU and that’s when I was like ‘Dad I want to go to the U of A.’”

Britton said former UA head coach Mike Stoops was a key contributor to his decision.

“He came and visited me at my high school and was the first to offer me a scholarship,” Britton said. “He was always a huge fan of mine and I always loved coach Stoops.

“Everybody has seen how fired up he gets and I think that was always a huge, huge deal to the guys who played for him, just seeing how emotionally charged and fired up he was in every game.”

While Britton is glad he went to Arizona, the actions, or lack thereof, of one university in particular added more fuel to his fire.

According to Britton, all the Pac-10 schools offered him scholarships, except for USC. And he said that pissed him off.

“I had this chip on my shoulder,” Britton said. “You kind of let that feed you.”

Never short on motivation, a lack of interest from the Trojans coupled with recent trend of mediocrity for the Wildcats gave Britton the same desire for success in his new digs that he displayed upon becoming a Jacksonville Jaguar.

“Arizona at that time hadn’t been to a bowl in like 10 years and that’s when I decided to go to Arizona,” Britton said. “I decided I wanted to be a part of that team that gets Arizona back on the map.”

Early impressions

Joe Longacre started alongside Britton on the offensive line for three years and even hosted Britton when he visited the UA campus as a high school senior. Though the two are now best friends, looking back upon Britton’s arrival, it was clear that he still needed to mature.

“Eben was a 17-year-old kid that we were having trouble convincing people that he was even 18,” Longacre said. “He was a young kid. We used to call him Keanu Reeves since he had that long hair and looked like a surfer guy, but as soon as he came in, it was clear how hard his work ethic was.”

Britton made it known from the get-go that he wasn’t going to sit on the sidelines, and his mean streak helped him earn the respect of his teammates early on.

“In his first or second summer in Arizona, we were running the stadium stairs and we’re all trying to beat each other. We have two laps left and in the second-to-last one, Eben is just throwing up everywhere.”

Just as Longacre was getting ready to claim victory in the workout, Britton showed exactly what kind of person the Wildcats were getting.
“I’m thinking in my head ‘I’m probably gonna beat him,’ and that fucker, he won the next one, still throwing up everywhere. He just kept running, he threw up all over himself, but he just kept running. He’s just one of those type of competitors.”

Mike Thomas was a teammate of Britton’s in college and their relationship has continued into the NFL, as the receiver was selected in the fourth round of the same 2009 NFL Draft by the Jaguars. Thomas described Britton as a “passionate, fiery guy” and someone whose “presence is always felt” on the football field.

“He’s just a guy that is passionate and you can tell that he loves the game,” Thomas said. “You can definitely see his love for the game in the way he carries himself and talks and just goes out there and tries to get after it full speed every time. That’s what you want in a teammate.”

Draft day

On April 25, 2009, that year’s NFL draft began. Britton began the day playing golf. It might’ve been a good idea to spend some more time on the golf course.

When Britton boasted about his NFL intentions to the media, it struck the wrong chord with a lot of people. Some thought the rant came about because of the amount of guaranteed money he lost by falling into the second round. That misunderstanding is what upset Britton the most.

“People were saying all the negative stuff and it just had nothing to do with the money,” Britton said. “It was just all about I felt like I earned the right to be somebody’s number one pick. It’s without a doubt a blessing to be drafted … for any young man, but the truth is you still have your pride and you still wanna feel respected. You wanna feel like you’re somebody’s number one.”

Thomas had no problem with Britton’s comments, saying, “If that’s what pushes him then that’s really great. I don’t blame him for it all.”

Veterans on the Jaguars’ roster, however, didn’t take too kindly to Britton tooting his own horn.

“I really put myself in a difficult position with my draft day comments, it made an awkward situation even more awkward,” Britton said. “Vets don’t like rookies to begin with, and then saying what I said they were like, ‘Who the fuck is this guy?’”

“But, you know, I worked my ass off and decided in camp, ‘You know what, I’m gonna be the starting right tackle at the end of this camp,’ and I worked my ass off to do that.”

By the last pre-season game, the Jaguars had inserted Britton into first-team offense, and he’s never looked back. Britton started 15 of 16 games as a rookie and his blocking was a factor in Jaguars running back Maurice Jones-Drew’s remarkable season of 1,391 yards and 15 touchdowns.

But Britton took something away from that experience on draft day, even if it took a little longer than some would have hoped.

“Control what you can control,” Britton said. “At the end of the day, the most important thing is how hard you work. People can talk all day but what really matters is how you perform on the field and how hard you work every day to be one of those guys that the organization really trusts.”

Overcoming injuries

Things haven’t gone as well since then, as Britton has struggled with injuries the past two seasons, playing only a combined 11 games due to shoulder and back issues. But going forward, Britton isn’t concerned as he said he will be at 100% by the time training camp starts, and he’s excited to return to action.

“One of the great things about (coming off injuries) is that when you have time because you’re physically incapable of playing, when you get back to doing it, you really remember how much you love playing,” Britton said. “That was the biggest thing for me. You really get rejuvenated and it really reminds you how much you love doing what you do.”

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