As part of a series called My Big Break, All Things Considered is collecting stories of triumph, big and small. These are the moments when everything seems to click, and people leap forward into their careers.
All football players know they're one big hit away from the end of their career. Delvin Breaux was a high school senior with a scholarship on the line when he took one of those hits. It broke his neck.
But, nine years later, he has become one of the NFL's top young defenders with the New Orleans Saints.
How did he manage such a feat? Well, Breaux says it's a long story — one that began when he started playing football at age 4.
"Every day I used to wake up, I used to be like, 'Hey, man, I'm gonna be in the NFL one day,' " he says. "You know, just watching the guys play on TV. It was just something that I always dreamed of."
In high school, college coaches came in to recruit for schools all over the country — UCLA, USC, Virginia Tech, Virginia, Ohio State, Michigan. But Breaux says LSU — his "hometown team" — was the only school he wanted to attend.
Before he even got there, his life changed.
"The day I got seriously injured was Oct. 27, 2006," Breaux recalls. "I shot down the left side of the field, just went in there and made the tackle. And next thing you know I was on the ground and everything just went dark.
"I couldn't move or nothing, then I heard my teammates: 'D Breaux, get up! We need you, man, get up!' " he says. "And I'm like, 'I would but I can't move.' Then two or three seconds after I say that, a bright, white light just ... appeared!"
He was able to open his eyes and stand up. Breaux started walking back to the sideline, getting ready to go back in.
"That's when the sharp pain came and shot up the back of my neck. And I went to the sideline and told my dad that my neck's hurting, and he was like, 'Take some ibuprofen.' And I couldn't swallow the pills because my disc slipped out my esophagus."
It turned out he had broken his C4, C5 and C6 vertebrae. Doctors put in screws, pins and rods to secure his neck, and there's a scar in the front part of his esophagus where doctors put a plate in.
After that, the college teams stopped calling with offers.
"I was just so frustrated," Breaux says. "I was like, 'Man, my career's over with. Can't play ball no more, can't pursue my dream. What am I gonna do next?' And that's all I kept thinking while I was in the hospital for that month."
Luckily, he had committed early to play for LSU. The school kept him on scholarship, even though he was injured. But LSU would never clear him to play.
He ended up getting cleared by his own doctors, though.
"I went back home and told my wife, 'Baby, I'm cleared to play football again.' She said, 'No, you're lying.' And I was like, 'No, baby, look at the papers!' Everything was cleared and there was no restrictions," Breaux says. "And she was like, 'Alright, well get your butt back on out there. It's time to go play!' "
In 2012 — for the first time in six years — he was back playing football, with the semipro Louisiana Bayou Vipers.
He didn't know what to expect after being out of it for so long.
"Am I gonna be rusty? Am I gonna be great?" he wondered.
Breaux remembers it all coming down to one play.
"I think it was like the second play of the game. They ran the ball and they came my way. And I'm sitting up there like, 'Man, I've got to make this tackle. They're coming right to me. I've got to make this tackle. Please!' And I went in and I made the tackle, and I jumped up and I'm like, 'Man, I'm not dead. I'm not dead.' "
His confidence regained, Breaux quickly started playing better. "I started ballin' out," he says. "I had an interception, I had two more tackles. I just started enjoying it. This is it — I'm back playing football again, I'm doing what I love, and now it's time to get to the NFL."
It wasn't straight to the NFL, though. His next step was playing with the New Orleans VooDoo, an arena football team. After several months, he was recruited by the Hamilton Tiger Cats in Ontario, part of the Canadian Football League.
"My big break came after my CFL season. Recruiting felt like college all over again," Breaux says. "I had a lot of teams wanting me — I would say 28 of the 32 NFL teams they had, I had workouts. Ended up signing with the Saints. I went through the physical process, and they were like, 'You're good to go!' I've been pumped ever since."
Despite the difficulties along the way, he never considered giving up football. People even told him to quit. But "that did nothing but add fuel to the fire," Breaux says. "It made me want to go hard and work out extra hard. I was trying to show people that I'm not out of it, I'm still in it.
"My motivation and dedication and determination just wouldn't let me quit," he says. "It was always: Let's do one more rep, let's do one more set, you can make it, you're gonna make it, just continue to keep believing."
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