Parental Perspective: A football family

Dec 21, 2022 | 2 comments

Having a son go from the high school level to playing NCAA football is a rare feat all in its own. To have that son then go on to be a first-round draft pick in the NFL is even rarer. Then when you add yet another son playing DI ball at a high level into the mix, you’re at the point of winning the lottery or being struck by lightning type of odds.

In fact, only 7.3 percent of high school football players make it to any level of the NCAA. Of that 7.3 percent, only 1.6 percent of NCAA football players are drafted into the NFL.

For Donnetta Etienne, the mother of second-year Jacksonville Jaguars running back Travis Etienne and true freshman Florida Gators running back Trevor Etienne, these numbers are simply that – just numbers. So far, the Etienne brothers have not only beaten the low odds but have succeeded in their sport.

“It makes me very, very proud because you see the one son, older, teach the younger son how to do the things that he’s doing in the NFL so he could do it in college,” Donnetta said.

Self-described “football people,” weekends in the Etienne household revolve around the sport they love, especially when Trevor plays a home game in The Swamp on Saturday and Travis plays a game at TIAA Bank Field on Sunday.

Donnetta moved to Jacksonville during Travis’ rookie season with the Jaguars, which helps alleviate what normally would be a near-impossible travel schedule. She explained the family will drive out to Gainesville to see Trevor play, drive back to Jacksonville that night, and then wake up early to see Travis play.

Although Jacksonville and Gainesville are less than 2 hours away from each other, the difficulty arises when Florida plays at 7 p.m. on Saturday and Jacksonville plays at 1 p.m. on Sunday. This was the case for the Gators’ game against USF on Sept. 17 and the Jaguars’ game against the Colts on Sept. 18.

“You barely get any sleep because we come in from Gainesville at like 2-to-3 a.m., and you get up at 9-to-10 a.m. to be at Travis’ at 1 p.m.,” she said. “It’s a lot of football.”

Despite it being more football than most families can handle, it’s worked out for the Etienne family. First Travis and now Trevor have found immediate success at each level, and being in such close proximity, the brothers have used the sport to grow their bond both on and off the field.

The older brother mentors the younger brother

Their relationship is what you would expect from two brothers who play the same sport – a joking relationship off the field while supporting each other on the field.

“They’ve been like that their whole life. If Travis could make it to whatever Trevor has, he’s there. If Trevor could make it to anything Travis has, he’s there,” Donnetta said. “They’ve always supported each other hand-in-hand.”

In fact, Travis was able to attend Trevor’s very first game in the Orange and Blue – Florida’s 29-26 win over Utah to open the 2022 season.

Even when they’re supportive, the brothers take the time to crack jokes at each other’s expense, including when Trevor fumbled in that very game, and Travis took the time to tweet about it.

Trevor’s no stranger to Jacksonville, too. The younger Etienne has been to a few Jaguars games to support his brother but can’t stay long due to team meetings on Sunday afternoons.

The brotherly competition and joking extends to the field. Donnetta said that the brothers will critique their games and even compete for better stats. If Travis scored a touchdown in his game, Trevor had to score one in his game, and vice-versa.

There are also times when the brothers joke about the other’s opponent’s inability to stop them. In a high school playoff game where Trevor scored multiple touchdowns in the first half, Donnetta said Travis cracked jokes with her by saying he was the only one there who could stop Trevor.

“Give me some pads,” Travis said.

“What are you going to do?” She replied.

“Go out there and catch my brother because they’re acting like they can’t catch him,” he answered.

Although she told him no, Travis wasn’t done joking about the opponent’s struggles against his brother.

“Then they can keep getting run all over because they can’t tackle him,” Travis said.

However, Trevor does have an advantage that Travis didn’t have – learning from an older sibling’s experience. Donnetta explained that Travis wasn’t an “all-purpose back” coming out of high school, but they were able to use the lessons learned from his experience to benefit Travis.

“When Travis came out of high school, he just had to run out the backfield. He didn’t have to catch. He didn’t have to pass pro,” she said. “But when Trevor came out, they called it the ‘new era back,’ ‘all-purpose back.’ So, he helped Trevor develop into an all-purpose back in high school.”

Everything Travis learned at Clemson, such as pass protection and catching passes, the family used to benefit Trevor in high school. In fact, Donnetta believes that Trevor is the better running back of the two because of this early training.

“Travis would say the same thing because we taught Trevor earlier what Travis had to learn in college,” she explained. “Trevor did it in high school. And that’s from his brother working with him and shaping him and teaching him.”

No matter what, the brothers have found success everywhere they’ve gone so far, but their journeys are in slightly different places.

After a successful college career with a national championship in 2018 and two ACC Player of the Year awards (2018 and 2019), the Jaguars drafted Travis with the 25th overall pick in the 2021 NFL Draft.

Around that time, Trevor was getting ready for his own major career move – choosing a school to spend his college career. That decision didn’t come without risks as Trevor eventually chose to go to a school out of state to play for a head coach that would eventually be fired.

However, a twist of fate involving a familiar face all but confirmed it was the right decision. That face was Billy Napier.

He got his school, and he got his coach.”

The Etienne’s relationship with Napier began during Trevor’s freshmen year when the then-University of Louisiana head coach began recruiting him. However, Donnetta didn’t truly learn about the kind of person Napier is until she overheard a phone call between the coach and Trevor about one of Trevor’s friends who played at UL.

“He was having trouble with the transition in college from high school,” Donetta said of the friend. “He was like, ‘I don’t have anybody to talk to.’ So, Trevor calls Coach Napier for him, and Napier was like, ‘Well, get him here at 8 a.m. Monday, and we’ll see what we can do.’”

Although the friend would end up transferring from Louisiana, Donetta said, Napier’s actions spoke volumes to her.

“That let me know that Coach Napier was a good coach because he could’ve just thrown it away, but he didn’t,” she explained. “He still wanted to help the kid even though he walked out … And Coach Napier didn’t even know I was in the car when he and Trevor were having a conversation.”

However, their paths wouldn’t cross again until Napier became the head coach at Florida in late November of 2021. As soon as the new ball coach stepped on campus, it looked like earning a commitment from the younger Etienne was a priority. However, that job was already taken care of.

Trevor had already silently committed to Florida on Oct. 14, 2021, under the previous staff with the intention to announce during the All-American Bowl on Jan. 8, his mother said.

“When [the new staff] came in, that’s why [Napier] when straight to see Trevor because he was so excited that Trevor was already there,” Donetta said. “He got his coach, and he got his school.”

But why Florida? Trevor could’ve gone to Clemson, where the Etienne name was already etched in history. He could’ve gone to LSU, which is less than two hours away from his hometown of Jennings. Why Florida?

“Our motto was, ‘If you rocking, we rolling,’” Donnetta said. “Whatever he decided because we didn’t get there and work hard for those scholarships — he did. So as a family, we just rallied behind him.”

There were plenty of reasons why Trevor chose Florida, according to Donnetta. To start, the educational opportunity stood out.

“We really didn’t look at colleges for football. You can because you’re going for football, but then you got to look at what I’m majoring in and how can this network help me? The Gators have a good network,” she explained.

The second, ironically, was the location, even with LSU so close to home. Although Travis’ move to Jacksonville didn’t directly influence the decision, off-field difficulties for the family could be put at ease with the choice to go to Florida.

Travis tore his ACL on August 16, 2021, before the regular season began. Donnetta moved to Jacksonville to help him as he was unable to travel, which forced her to miss most of Trevor’s senior season of high school.

“He had to grow up on the field with me coming in and out because I missed a lot of Trevor’s senior season being with Travis,” Donnetta explained. “So, I think so at some point during his senior season, he realized that [going to Florida] will make it easier on the family.”

Their past experiences of splitting up family members to support both brothers’ games, award ceremonies, and other events also made it easy for Trevor to pick a school less than two hours away from where his brother plays.

“In high school, we’d had to split up,” Donnetta said. “Trevor was having a playoff game, and Travis was receiving his ACC Player of the Year for the second time. So, we were at the awards looking at Travis, and we have the air pods in our ears listening to the radio, and Trevor’s playing a game. So, we know what it is like to split up.”

As far as holding true to his commitment despite a coaching change, Napier’s hiring only confirmed Trevor’s choice was the right one for him not only because of his experience being recruited by the former Louisiana head coach, but also because of the similarities between him and Travis’ college head coach Dabo Swinney.

Napier coached under Swinney as Clemson’s offensive coordinator for the 2009 and 2010 seasons, and Donnetta sees the similarities between the two and the position coaches.

“I needed somebody that I could trust Trevor with that he trusted,” she said. “[Then-running backs] Coach [Tony] Elliot was that guy for me. Coach Elliot and Dabo [Swinney] were those guys for Travis. I knew that they could make Travis a good man and get Travis to the next level. Coach Napier and Coach [Jabbar] Juluke are those guys for Trevor. He trusted them already.”

From what Travis experienced at Clemson with Swinney and then-running backs coach Tony Elliot, Donnetta saw the longtime Tiger head coach build a sustainable championship contender through a strong culture. She sees that same trait in Napier.

“They build a culture,” she explained. “It’s getting them to buy in and love each other. Build a brotherhood.”

That brotherhood includes experiences with Louisiana culture. Since moving to Florida from Louisiana, the former UL coaches have made an effort to introduce Louisiana culture to the returning Florida players while making the Louisiana-based players feel at home.

On Florida’s 2022 roster, seven players were either from Louisiana or transferred from a school in Louisiana, which includes former UL players Montrell Johnson Jr., O’Cyrus Torrence and Kamryn Waites. Of the 12 on-field coaches and non-analysts, eight have previous experiencing coaching in the state of Louisiana.

“A lot of their staff is from Louisiana. So, Thanksgiving came, and Coach Juluke hired somebody to cook a little gumbo, somebody from Louisiana to cook up a gumbo,” she said. “And I thought it was cool because when Coach Tony did it at Clemson for Travis, the jambalaya didn’t turn out so good. They tried because these guys are missing their culture, their home.”

As far as the future of the Florida Gators’ football program under Napier is concerned, Donnetta believes if it is anything like the Etienne’s experience under Swinney at Clemson, the program and the running back donning “Etienne” on his nameplate are poised for success.

“We got a chance to be a part of UF history. I think that ’23 and that ’24 team, they’re going to make history,” she said. “I’m excited to see what these young guys can do because I watched them do it at Clemson. Put a lot guys together, and they believe, and they went to the Natty. So, I’m excited to see what the future holds for this young UF team.”

Although Trevor’s freshman season did not end the way the team hoped after a 30-3 loss to Oregon State in the Las Vegas Bowl, the future of the Florida Gators offense is bright with No. 7 carrying the rock.

(All photos provided by the Etienne family)

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