Matt Rhule was at Elizabeth High School recruiting Phillip Walker and Jahad Thomas when he got a phone call from Romond Deloatch.
Deloatch’s mother, Wanda, was sick. She was dying of cancer. Just months earlier, Rhule had watched his wife, Julie, lose her mother to a different form of the same disease.
Rhule called Wanda, who he’d grown close with while recruiting Romond two years prior. She had Rhule make her a promise: Take care of her youngest son, the baby of the family, and make sure he gets his degree.
Wanda passed away soon after. For Deloatch, then 18 and in his second semester of college, it was a difficult time.
“She pretty much got me here to Temple,” Deloatch said. “That was the main thing, coming out here at a young age and losing your mom at a young age, that’s kind of hard. That’s kind of like my career had a downfall, but I knew coach Rhule was like, ‘I promised your mom that I’m going to make sure your son graduates.’”
Over the next four years, Rhule was hard on Deloatch. “Why aren’t you doing this? Why aren’t you doing that?” Rhule would often say when he didn’t like something the young wide receiver was doing.
Rhule punished Deloatch when he was late to practice. He’d threaten suspension, in an effort to keep Deloatch on the right path toward fulfilling Wanda’s wish.
“I was really kind of a disciplinarian,” Rhule said. “And I always justified it in my mind like, ‘Well I promised her he would get his degree.’”
Deloatch said while his mother isn’t with him physically, she’s stayed with him spiritually throughout his career. His Instagram account handle, @_mommasboy11, is a tribute to her.
Four years after Wanda passed away, Deloatch got his degree in criminal justice in May, making good on his mother’s wish.
“It’s probably been one of the more gratifying things in my career because I fulfilled a promise to his mom,” Rhule said. “But really he did.”
With promises met, Rhule has taken a different approach to coaching Deloatch this season.
Every morning the two eat breakfast at 7:30 a.m. and go over the daily practice schedule. They’ll sit and talk for about half an hour.
“This year, you know, he and I had a moment where, like, we just said, ‘Let’s try something different,’ and like, I just really got to see him and he got to see me,” Rhule said. “We’ve always had kind of a close relationship because we went through all that together right. Now, it’s like he’s like my peer.”
“We had a rough up-and-down,” Deloatch added. “But now we’re getting back on that page and me and coach Rhule have that good chemistry. And I’m proud to play for him.”
Deloatch has blossomed into a two-way contributor this season. Playing primarily at wide receiver throughout his career, Deloatch was used mostly in goal line passing situations last year.
In the spring, Rhule called Deloatch into his office and asked if he might want to play defensive end.
It wasn’t a new idea. Deloatch had been flipped to the defensive line as a sophomore when he showed up late to practice. It was supposed to be a punishment, but he ended up playing well at the position. However, Deloatch rejected a permanent position switch.
“I was young-minded,” Deloatch said. “I had dreams to play receiver in the NFL, and I was like, ‘That’s what I’m going to do.’”
When Rhule brought up the idea again this spring, Deloatch’s response was different. Heading into his final season, goals of winning an American Athletic Conference championship had taken precedence over his NFL dreams.
“Coach was like, ‘If you want to play at the next level, you might want to think about something else,’” Deloatch said. “I was like, ‘OK.’ I just thought about, I just want to help my team out, and it wasn’t just about me.”
Deloatch added some weight before the season to prepare for defensive end. He weighed 214 pounds last season and is listed at 245 pounds on this year’s roster. The added weight also turned him from a receiver to a tight end.
Through eight games he has 212 yards receiving — more than any other season in his career.
On third and long, he comes in on defense to rush the quarterback. Even though his role is limited to specific moments in the game, he has four sacks.
“Romond has a natural ability to kind of rush the passer,” Rhule said. “It’s not just, ‘Oh he’s fast,’ or ‘Oh, he’s this.’”
“When I was in New York we had Jason Pierre-Paul who could kind of naturally get guys off balance with his length and speed,” Rhule added. “And Ro’s got that same sort of movement that really kind of affects offensive tackles.”
Owen McCue can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @Owen_McCue.