When Marlon Moore was a college junior and lost his father to cancer, he didnt want to do much of anything, let alone play football.
When Marcus Thigpen hit a wet patch of gravel as a 14-year-old kid, his joyride turned fatal.
And as a younger Jimmy Wilson sat in jail, on trial for his life, his main concern was freedom, not reaching the NFL.
These days, their stresses making the right cut, blocking the right player seem almost trivial by comparison. Moore, Thigpen and Wilson are cornerstones of a Dolphins special-teams unit that has been shaped by adversity and molded into a cohesive, hungry and dangerous unit.
Through Week 8, the Dolphins special teams is among the leagues best. They rank first in field goal percentage allowed, and in the top 10 in punting, punt returns, kickoff returns and kickoff return yards allowed. That goes a long way in explaining why the Dolphins are in the thick of the playoff hunt despite ranking outside the top 20 in both total offense and total defense.
And theyre doing it with a bunch of guys who beat impossibly long odds just to get on the field.
It makes you that much more resilient, said Moore, a receiver and a terror in kick coverage.
Youve overcame so much in your life to get to this point.
Take, for example, the two special-teams stars of Dolphins recent victory against the Jets.
Late in the first quarter, Wilson came up the middle to block a punt, which Olivier Vernon recovered in the end zone for a touchdown. Vernon later deflected a Jets field goal, earning conference special teams player of the week honors in the process.
Yet neither had an easy path to the pros.
Particularly not Wilson, who was twice tried for the 2007 murder of his aunts boyfriend. On that fateful night, Kevin Smoot was drunk and abusive toward Wilsons aunt, Opal Davis. Wilson came to her rescue. Smoot pulled an assault weapon, the two struggled for the gun, and a shot rang out, leaving the boyfriend dead.
Wilson, a rising junior at the University of Montana, claimed he acted in self defense, yet was charged with first-degree murder and spent a year and a half in jail awaiting trial only for a hung-jury verdict. He was later acquitted, yet 25 months of his young life were gone.
Its way behind me; Im living a whole new life. Thats stuffs a distant memory, said Wilson, who then added, Im going to keep on playing with a chip on my shoulder and keep giving it all for the Dolphins, because they took a chance on me. Its a blessing.
This time last year, Vernon had just finished up a NCAA suspension that cost him half his junior year at the University of Miami. The powerful pass rusher received a six-game suspension the stiffest of any Hurricanes player for accepting impermissible benefits from former Hurricanes booster Nevin Shapiro.
Vernon decided to forego his senior season, but had to wait until the third round for his name to be called on draft day.
I had high expectations going into my junior year, said Vernon, also a third-down specialist for the Dolphins. I wanted to set records, wanted to do what I knew I could do. Everything falls into place and everything happens for a reason. I wouldnt even be here if that hadnt happened. Im blessed.
Shortly after his father Ernie was diagnosed with liver cancer in 2008, Marlon Moore considered giving up football and school altogether.
The news came the night before training camp of Moores junior year at Fresno State, and he wanted to go care for his father. Ernie Moore would have none of it; he told his son to press on.
Dad died a few months later. Moore also said he has since lost a god-daughter, and in July, his best friend Phillip Johnson died in an accidental drowning.
Its a lot of stuff that you have to put it behind you and press forward, Moore said. Thats what we do.
Thigpen, the Dolphins first-year kick returner, has dedicated his life to childhood sweetheart Lacrecia Daniels. She was killed more than a decade ago when the car an underage Thigpen was driving slammed into a tree.
When he returned a punt for his first NFL touchdown in the season opener, Thigpens thoughts turned quickly to his friend.
I think every team in the NFL has a lot of guys play sports because the household isnt that great and things at home arent that good, Wilson said. It just turns into something great. Im glad all of us can relish in the opportunities and have great careers.