Philadelphia native and current FIU standout Teair Tart was 6-2 and 280 pounds by age 16. Yet, because his original high school didn’t have a football team, Tart had never played the sport at that time.
In the summer before his junior year, Tart was playing in a basketball tournament when he was spotted by a West Philadelphia High football coach.
“I was watching Teair run down the court and thinking, ‘This is a future NFL prospect,’” West Philadelphia defensive coordinator Karl Patrick said. “He could dunk at 285 pounds, and he could run like a gazelle.
“I called his mom and said: ‘Let me save your son’s life. He’s playing the wrong sport.’”
Tart, who had played basketball since age seven, showed up at West Philly that summer, but he was far from an immediate success in football.
“I couldn’t keep the cleats on my feet for longer than 10 minutes,” Tart said with a laugh. “They were killing my feet, and the helmet was squeezing my brain.”
Tart tried for two weeks to play football while wearing basketball shoes. He eventually ditched his sneakers and developed what he calls a “deep passion for football.” Even so, the path to his current status as a senior starting defensive tackle at FIU has had its share of sorrow, sidetracks and setbacks.
Despite Tart’s passion for football, college scouts didn’t share the same love for the big kid from Philly. Tart had zero scholarship offers out of high school and wound up at ASA College in New York.
But after five sacks in six games at ASA, Tart quit the team when his 22-year-old brother, Rasheed Spencer, died in a motorcycle accident, leaving behind a wife and a daughter.
During that time, Tart also lost his grandmother, Dorothy “Dottie” Miller.
Tart’s story could’ve ended there, but he got the itch to play football again.
“I didn’t like being home,” Tart said. “It felt like I was standing still.”
Tart’s next stop was Valley Forge Military Academy in Wayne, Pennsylvania, but he didn’t complete the first semester there before bolting for East Mississippi Community College — made famous as “Last Chance U” on a Netflix series.
East Mississippi released Tart just before the start of the season, and, right after that, a scholarship offer from the Alabama Crimson Tide also evaporated.
But Tart kept plugging, signing with Ellsworth Community College in Iowa, where he lasted just two games — getting one sack — due to a meniscus tear in his left knee.
Despite the injury, Tart had shown enough for FIU to offer a scholarship.
Former FIU assistant coach Eric Thatcher — now the assistant recruiting coordinator at Penn State — contacted Tart and flew out to Philly to make his pitch. By that time, Tart was rated by one service as the No. 5 junior-college prospect in the nation.
Tart signed with FIU and eventually played 12 games for the Panthers last year. And despite making just two starts, he led FIU with four sacks.
Against Charlotte last year, Tart broke through the line and pounded running back Ishod Finger, resulting in a fumble that was returned 61 yards for the go-ahead touchdown by teammate Sage Lewis.
Even with that success, Tart admitted recently that his first year at the Division I level was difficult.
“I thought I knew a lot,” Tart said of his attitude upon arriving at FIU. “But it turned out that I didn’t know as much as I thought.
“My steps, basic fundamentals, playing the shoulder, I just got better over time. Learning the playbook — team chemistry was a big thing for me. By the end of the season, I had started to progress.”
FIU center Dallas Connell, who goes up against Tart every day in practice, has noticed a major improvement in his teammate this fall.
“Teair is a talented guy, but I don’t think he realized how much harder this level is as opposed to [junior college],” Connell said.
“But, the other day, I saw him in the film room, analyzing an offensive lineman’s giveaways, his run/pass ‘tells’. He’s gotten a lot better.”
Tart, now listed at 6-3 and 300 pounds, has come a long way from his humble beginnings. The second youngest of 11 children, he didn’t get his own room until his sophomore year in high school, when he moved down to his parents’ basement.
Seven schools later, Tart is finally hitting his stride.
“It’s been a really long journey,” Tart said. “I’m glad I stuck to it because I feel like I’m now at the perfect place.”