The Best Brother
FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. — Desmond Trufant always knew his brothers were something more than rivals, but he didn’t know exactly what that something was until he was 14. His oldest brother, former all-pro cornerback Marcus Trufant, was in his second season in Seattle in 2004, and the middle brother, Isaiah Trufant, was moving up the depth chart at Eastern Washington, four hours from their hometown in Tacoma. One day that season, Marcus introduced his baby brother to teammates, telling them, “He’s going to be better than all of us.” Desmond was stunned, but Marcus kept saying it over and over.
“I remember that clearly,” Desmond said 11 years later. “I couldn’t have been older than 14. It was a surprise, just because of the level he was at. I was just a young kid. He was a first-round pick. When you’re in that house growing up, you don’t really hear too much of that. I already had a lot of confidence, but that was a confidence booster.”
Desmond, or ‘Des’ as he’s called by his brothers, went to the University of Washington and was a 2013 first-round selection of the Falcons. The six-foot corner hasn't yet made a Pro Bowl, but he’s earned a legion of believers in an NFL analytics community that meticulously tracks snaps for every player. He’s probably the best cornerback you’ve never heard of, and there are several reasons for that.
A. He’s not particularly quotable, leaving the outspoken self-assessments to the Patrick Petersons of the world.
B. The Falcons have been bad, bad, bad on defense, ranking in the bottom five of the league in points allowed in his two seasons.
… and here’s the big one:
C. He doesn’t catch the ball.
That’s what has frustrated Desmond and his believers in two NFL seasons; he’s held onto five interceptions with 33 passes broken up. It even caught the eye of new coach Dan Quinn, who took the Atlanta job on the second day of February, replacing Mike Smith after a second consecutive losing season in the moribund NFC South. Quinn phoned Trufant while he was training in San Diego within days of his hiring and gave his best returning defensive player a rundown of all the things he needed to do to get better.
“Pretty much the first thing he said was I need to work on my hands,” Desmond says. “He said I could’ve had nine interceptions last season, and I agree with that.”
Would he be considered the best cornerback in football, better than Darrelle Revis and Richard Sherman, if he could’ve reeled in nine picks last season, instead of three?
“I do think that, honestly, I would be considered the best," Desmond said. “I know corners who have gotten a lot of interceptions but given up a lot of touchdowns. And I know the opposite. I want to be in a position to make plays, and I know to really become a household name you have to get interceptions.”
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It’s Sherman who has been the embodiment of Quinn’s success in commanding Seattle’s defense since Quinn took over as coordinator in 2013. A fifth-round pick out of Stanford in 2011, the former wide receiver became an overnight sensation in 2013, earning shutdown corner status with outstanding press technique and unrivaled ball skills when the stakes were highest. Not long after that Quinn call, Desmond received a call from one of the assistants who worked closely with Sherman in Seattle, Marquand Manuel, who would be joining Quinn in Atlanta. Manuel, a former Seahawk, happened to meet Desmond a decade earlier on the day Marcus introduced him as the best of the brothers Trufant. The phone rang as Desmond was walking into yoga class, and the conversation with Manuel lasted more than an hour.
“You could see it as he grew up,” Manuel says. “He just was the better athlete. He was more quick twitch than all of them.”
But he needed coaching if he was going to take the Sherman role Quinn envisioned for him in Atlanta.
“The way we play it is a lot different,” Manuel says. “We had a lot of technique things to tweak—teaching a player to put himself in position to make more interceptions.”
Desmond soaked it all up:
• Get ready to press more often.
• Slow down your feet.
• Raise your pad level.
• Get your hands in the game.
• Be patient with your speed.
When Desmond got back home from San Diego, he had a zeal for the offseason his brothers hadn’t before seen. He became a devotee of the JUGS machine, catching balls without receiver gloves on, and practicing the fine art of spinning to attention at the last possible moment and catching a speeding pigskin.
“Our schedules have been so conflicting throughout the last 10 years,” Isaiah says of his brothers. “It’s rare to get everybody home at one time. Marcus and I would be at a cookout and we ask dad, Where’s Des? He’s at the gym at his second workout of the day. He’ll be back in two hours.
“I saw his whole mindset change. His drive to be a top corner in the league has doubled. He has a set schedule and he wont let nothing take him off of that schedule.”
Isaiah spent nine seasons in pro football, beginning with the Arena 2 league after going undrafted due in large part to his height (5-6), eventually working his way up to the NFL in 2010 after winning the UFL defensive player of the year award. In five seasons, Isaiah bounced from the Jets, to Philadelphia, back to New York and finally Cleveland last season. When they were kids, Isaiah would tease Desmond at every turn, whether playing basketball outside their Tacoma home or in video games like Madden and NBA Live.
“There were times when I was too rough with him,” Isaiah admits, “because I was the middle brother who would give him a lot of tough love.”
After the revelation that his brothers secretly adored him, Desmond watched Marcus thrive at Washington State and spend 10 seasons in Seattle while simultaneously watching Isaiah labor through the NFL’s de facto developmental leagues before finally reaching the NFL.
“He saw the grit that they showed,” Manuel says. “He watched his first-round brother be successful. He watched his brother go to all these lengths just to make it. Grace is showing you that you don’t have to go through certain things to learn from them.”
And the brothers make sure the smallest lessons don’t go unsaid. After games, they have a three-way group text with a practiced agenda. First, they make sure Desmond’s healthy. Next, they critique his performance down to the play.
And instead of crumbling under the expectations that come with having two NFL brothers who played his position, Desmond turned their experiences into a blueprint he hopes will make him a household name and bring the Falcons back to relevance.
“We’re hungry,” Desmond says. “We’re trying to do it like nobody’s done it before. I know I’m never going to be satisfied. I’m not trying to be like anybody else; I’m trying to be the best.”
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