Aaron Curry, Safe at Home -- Part 1
There are two kinds of safe picks in any draft. The more common kind can be seen in the mid-to-late rounds; players who meet their decent college projections, become valuable roleplayers, and occasionally break out into star status. The second kind of safe pick is extremely rare. These are the occasional players who not only have everything it takes to be a legitimate high-first-round draft pick; they've also sidestepped any red flags that could harm their draft status and their eventual NFL success. Once in a while, you see the complete package, with very few dings.
The 2009 draft class has one of those players -- Wake Forest linebacker Aaron Curry. With a rare combination of perfect size (6-2, 254 pounds), speed (a 4.52-40 at the Combine), experience (50 games played) and passion for the game, Curry is regarded by most experts as the one sure thing in a huge field of very talented players. A team leader, scholastic star, and physical marvel who has kept his head in the face of family issues that would derail most people, Curry has proven everything he needs to. The NFL is about to come calling, and he won't have to wait long before he hears his name.
"I think being labeled the safest pick means that you can't go wrong drafting Aaron Curry," he recently told me. "For the football things, I would say the versatility. Being able to play inside, outside in both the 4-3 and the 3-4. As a person, I would say it's because I don't have any character issues. You don't have to worry about me going out and wasting all my money and forgetting about the game of football that I love so much. And I think I've expressed that to the GMs and coaches that by just showing them I'm a high-character person, and that I'm a team-first type of guy, and that it's not always about me, it's about the people around me, I want to see my teammates be successful."
Born April 6, 1986 in Fayetteville, North Carolina, Curry is the son of former NFL safety Reggie Pinkney, who played for the Lions and Colts from 1977 through 1981. He was raised by his mother, who also brought up his two brothers. Curry still speaks to his dad from time to time, but mom Chris is the one who's made the sacrifice. The family struggled but held together through Aaron's high school years. Things hit bottom when he came home in his sophomore year in college to find that his mom was being evicted.
"We didn't have anywhere to stay at the moment, so my mom moved in with my great-grandma, and me and my brothers, we moved in with our friends for the entire summer," he said. "Until I reported back to school for camp, so I think we did a good job of handling that situation and just staying positive and not letting it really bring us down. I mean, it was a tough time and it really drives me now to be successful."
The situation has resolved, and things are better for the family, but the drive hasn't gone away. Curry graduated high school at 195 pounds, and got offers from a grand total of two colleges -- East Carolina and Wake Forest. He chose the latter school for its academic record and the chance to play against ACC competition and got to work.
"I was just always working out and I was always eating," Curry said of the regimen that filled him out. "I spent countless hours in the weight room and on the field, running and lifting. In the cafeteria, just wanting to put on weight and I was successful my freshman year. I went into my freshman year weighing 230 and I was happy about that. As the years went along, I knew I had to eat right, eat better and I put on more weight, but it was healthier weight."
Preparing for life after football brought about some interesting career possibilities -- the gavel or the whistle? "My ideal, when I first entered school, was to be a lawyer and possibly one day end up being a judge, but I built a bond with my coaches at Wake Forest and I realized that coaching was what I wanted to do," he said. "I kind of always caught myself coaching on the sidelines during practice or during a game. It's fun being able to coach and teach a defense."
He didn't make on-field calls with the Demon Deacons, through. "We didn't huddle up on defense. [Linebackers] coach [Brad] Lambert made all the calls from the sideline. And we just repeated the calls. We made a few adjustments, but not a lot. He didn't want us out there thinking too much. He just wanted us to play fast."
Curry's most important relationship was with head coach Jim Grobe. He got a father figure and a host of life lessons that he'll carry forward. "It was awesome that any given day I could walk into the front office and talk to coach Grobe. His door was always open. At the beginning, being a freshman, I was a little nervous about it. By my second season, I found myself in his office every day and we weren't always talking about football. We were talking about school. We were talking about life. He would tell me his experiences in being a coach, his experiences of being a player. He would talk about the team, anything that was going on. And he helped mold me into the high-character guy I am today.
"The biggest thing is, I realize that it's not about me. As a freshman, everybody comes in and they were the superstars of their high school, and now, Mr. Bigtime isn't always the way. I think I'm somewhat different now because I'm more of a leader type, and I'm going to continue that."
Given that kind of support and encouragement, Curry blew up the ACC in 2007, earning second-team All-ACC honors and tying a record for a linebacker with three interception returns for touchdowns in his junior year. 2008 was even better -- Curry developed a rare versatility in that he was an unblockable force as a run-stopper or edge-rusher, and a consistent threat in pass coverage. His drops are safety-quick, and he's able to use his amazing closing speed to stop plays in space.
Click here to see his 2008 highlights.
Curry's ready for any position in any type of defense, but he most enjoyed the strong side in a 4-3 defense in college. What makes him so effective? "I would say my long arms and my strong hands," he said. "They allow me to stay off blocks, stay unblocked and I feel like I'm still disruptive with my speed and quickness against the run. It's just a lot of fun down there. One guy trying to block me, most of the time it's the tight end. And it really just gives me the opportunity to be disruptive in the backfield."
He's already thought about how he'd fit in a 3-4 scheme, comparing himself to a New England defensive star. "I would say I'd be Adalius Thomas," he said, when asked how a "SAM" linebacker fits best in a new formation. "That's exactly what he does. He can stack against the run, and also be out in space and plays on top of those slot receivers and that's exactly where a SAM goes. I think my rookie season is going to come down to which position I learn the quickest, and the fastest, and whichever I get comfortable with. It'll still be on the coaches as far as where they need me in the scheme."
How did he learn to run with receivers? "It was definitely something I had to work on coming into my freshman year. Being that in high school, we pretty much focused on the run all the time. As you see my years go along, I got better in my pass drops. My junior season, I really broke out as far as being able to read pass routes, read the quarterback's intentions and making the play on the ball."
After his college career ended, the accolades started rolling in. First was the Butkus Award, given to the top high school, college, and pro linebackers every year. The honor came with a great introduction when the legendary linebacker whose name carries the award showed up at the Wake Forest campus to present Curry with it. "Yeah, he did. Dick Butkus, he actually just met Manti Te'o, the high school winner, in Hawaii, and he flew in from Hawaii, straight to Winston-Salem, and presented me with the collegiate award in person. That was just amazing to meet Dick Butkus, let alone with the award."
Who are the greats that Curry aligns himself with, stylewise? "From a playing angle, I see myself as a mixture of Ray Lewis and Derrick Brooks. I'll take the athleticism and the speed and agility from Derrick Brooks along with the passion, the leadership and the enthusiasm of Ray Lewis.
"I definitely feel like my passion is going to carry me through my career in the NFL. And as far as what I feel I need to work on, sometimes I get over-aggressive when I'm playing. I'm always going for the kill shot, and I talked to a few position coaches at the Combine and they said they recognized that on film and that I just need to learn that sometimes I just got to make the tackle. I can't always go for the kill shot."
In Part 2: The Senior Bowl, the Combine, the NFL, and what makes Aaron Curry so special between the lines.
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