Roughly halfway between Tampa and Miami lies the sleepy harbourside town of Punta Gorda. The second-largest community in Charlotte County, Florida, Punta Gorda has a population of just over 16,000 people — the median age of its residents is 66.8 years old. By any definition, it qualifies as a retirement community.
It’s also the hometown of FIU’s D’Vonte Price.
The 6’2, 225-pound running back was a modestly recruited three-star running back at Charlotte High and committed to FIU in December of 2016. He would have to patiently wait his turn for three seasons as stalwarts Alex Gardner, Anthony Jones and Napoleon Maxwell served as lead backs for the Panthers, while he saw time as a reserve and in situational packages.
Following the graduation of Jones and Maxwell in 2019, Price’s chance to serve as the primary back arrived and he made the most of the opportunity.
In the midst of a disappointing 2020 season for the team, Price was one of the biggest bright spots, rushing for 581 yards on 85 attempts. His 116.2 yards per game and 6.8 yards per attempt set program records in both categories while making him one of the top 2021 NFL draft prospects in Conference USA.
However, he played the entire season after suffering a tragedy that was the most seminal moment of his life. On July 16, 2020, 10 weeks prior to the start of his record-breaking campaign — Price’s daughter Malayiah was born stillborn. It’s a moment that Price says has indelibly shaped his life going forward.
“When it first happened it was a tough time, I see it as...God kind of setting me straight, slowing me down, letting me know that I wasn’t ready to have a baby,” said Price. “I see it as God looking out for me in a way, you know...making sure that I have my life right and do the things that I need to do in order to bring a baby into this world. It changed me as a person to be a better son, brother and leader.”
During the tumultuous time, Price leaned on his family and his football family, specifically former running backs coach and former offensive coordinator Tim Harris Jr.
“I leaned on him very heavily, he and I were already close but we became extremely close after going through what I went through,” said Price. “He let me know that every step of the way, he’s going to be there for me, even now despite him not being here anymore. We still text and we chop it up, he just lets me know that he’s still here for me.”
Entering the 2020 campaign, Price had rushed for just 940 yards in his three seasons as a Panther. Yet, he earned the respect and praise of opposing coaches who saw his potential all the while playing behind Maxwell and Jones.
“We game-planned for 24 (Price) heavily because we thought he was the most dynamic and explosive back of their bunch,” said Tulane secondary coach J.J. McCleskey, recalling the 2019 season-opener against FIU. “Him not playing against us, we know we caught a break that game.”
His 13 carries for 148 yards and two scores to open last year set the table for his breakout 2021 season. Had FIU played a full 12-game season and Price kept his per game average, he would have rushed for a league-leading 1,465 yards. Following the year, it wasn’t a foregone conclusion that he was going to return for an additional year that was provided by the NCAA. In fact, his five-game performance caught the attention of NFL scouts who were interested in him for the 2020 draft.
Senior Bowl Executive Director Jim Nagy noted that multiple scouts reached out to their selection committee at the conclusion of last year, pushing the group to invite Price to the Senior Bowl week.
“The league is always looking for 6-2, 225-pound backs who display a breakaway gear that can separate themselves from most backs that size,” said Nagy.
Price admitted that his decision changed multiple times throughout the offseason, before settling on a final go-around with the Panthers.
“That was a very stressful decision man, to be honest,” Price admitted. “One day I wake up, I said I’m leaving, the next, I said I’m staying and I was dealing with that during the season and a little bit into January. At the end of the day, I had to block out the outside noise, a lot of which was telling me NFL and just make the best decision for me.”
Panthers’ head coach Butch Davis has coached multiple Pro Bowl running backs, as well as recent Pro Football Hall of Fame inductee Edgerrin James at the collegiate level. He feels that Price has all of the tools to be as good as those players.
“D’Vonte Price has as good of vision and natural running ability as all of the great backs I’ve been around, the (Emmitt) Smith’s, Edgerrin (James), Clinton Portis’,” said Davis. “The year he had last year doesn’t get nearly as much recognition as it should, because we only played five games.”
With all of the accolades and attention coming Price’s way entering 2021, he admits that the spotlight isn’t something that he ever expected, but is leaning on faith and life experiences to keep him in the moment.
“I can’t lie, it can be a little overwhelming at times, but I used to pray for the opportunity to have all of this. Now, it’s about blocking out the outside noise and focusing on football and finishing out things the right way at FIU,” said Price.
Ironically, despite being a town inundated with pensioners, tiny Punta Gorda has been extremely kind to the FIU football program over the past half-decade.
Price, along with former FIU cornerback and current Carolina Panther Stantley Thomas-Oliver, current FIU long-snapper Tommy Zozus and running back Maleek Williams all hail from Punta Gorda, and they each played together either in youth league or high school.
When asked about his hometown, a smile comes over Price’s face and he notes that while it’s not for everybody, he takes pride in being from the area.
“It’s funny because when I first got to Miami, it used to be too much for me. Now I’ve adjusted. But I wouldn’t be who I am today without the positive people in my life and where I came from.”