Te’von Coney’s last tackle came in the fourth quarter of the final preseason game for the Oakland Raiders on Aug. 29, 2019.
The former Notre Dame linebacker wrapped up Seattle Seahawks running back Bo Scarbrough for a two-yard loss on third-and-3. It was the fifth tackle of the game for Coney, who played half of the defensive snaps for the Raiders that day.
Two days later, Coney was cut from the team. His first stint in the NFL lasted less than four months.
After accounting for 314 tackles in his four seasons at Notre Dame — 10th in program history — Coney couldn’t know when his next tackle would come. It was the latest blow in a surprising stretch for Coney after not being selected in the 2019 NFL Draft.
Coney wasn’t projected to be a first-round pick, but many draft analysts slated him as a mid-to-late-round selection. NFL.com’s Lance Zierlein gave Coney a 6.1 grade, which goes to players projected as a “good backup who could become a starter.” Zierlein labeled Coney as a fourth- or fifth-round pick.
But after all 254 selections were announced, Coney was left without a team.
“I definitely did not see that coming at all,” Coney said. “I wish somebody would have told me I was going undrafted.”
Coney took the news in stride and accepted a deal with the Raiders in May. Plenty of undrafted free agents end up making a career in the NFL. But when Coney was cut at the end of August, he clearly had an uphill climb ahead of him.
“That was the challenge that God put in front of me to reach new levels and not be complacent to where I was at that moment leaving college,” Coney said.
Coney returned home to West Palm Beach, Fla., determined to improve. When his next opportunity came, he wanted to take advantage of it. Coney waited longer than expected, but the Raiders eventually signed him to their practice squad Dec. 11.
The dream was still alive.
“It’s a domino effect,” Coney said. “The challenge of getting better, that’s what I needed. The challenge of going undrafted, that’s what I needed. The challenge of being able to fight for a job is what I needed to push me to the level I am now and to go further as well. I truly needed it.”
The pain that came with the harsh reality of life in the NFL was felt by Coney twofold.
He wasn’t able to play the sport he loved from August through November. But he also wasn’t able to pour money into his other passion: his community.
Coney’s dreams never stopped at playing in the NFL. He also wanted to impact lives in South Florida.
“That’s what hurts me the most of not being that first rounder or second rounder,” Coney said. “If I was going to get drafted early, I would have that capital and that influence to be able to make the change I always dreamed of making when I got to the professional league.
“During that time (last fall), it made it even harder. Because I’m like, ‘Wow, I’m home. I have this free time and I can’t make the real impact I want to make in the community because I’m not in the NFL currently.’”
But that didn’t stop Coney from making plans. He has big ideas for what he calls the Tough Choices Foundation. He recently launched a web site (toughchoicesfoundation.com) and created a line of apparel designed to help promote and fund the cause. Coney wants to create a mentorship program that provides resources and guidance to kids on how to pursue their dreams.
“The motivation is having a lot of kids reaching out to me and being really lost,” Coney said. “Not having anyone that they can go to for the simplest information. They want to be in the NFL, a doctor or an entrepreneur, but they haven’t had anyone tell them that they can do it.”
Coney learned more about how to launch a nonprofit organization while working with the United Way in February as part of the NFL Players Association Externship program. Coney visited the United Way Worldwide headquarters in Alexandria, Va., and visited schools around the Washington, D.C. area.
Then he returned to South Florida to work with United Way of Palm Beach County. Through that partnership, Coney gave out backpacks of food to students in need at South Grade Elementary School, served meals at the Cros Ministries Caring Kitchen and spoke to students at several schools including his old high school in Palm Beach Gardens.
Coney wants to take advantage of any chance he can get to share his story. Even days before his own Pro Day at Notre Dame in March 2019, Coney spoke to kids at the Juvenile Justice Center in South Bend.
Coney’s Tough Choices message comes from experience. He’s been on the wrong side of decisions in the past. In August 2016, Coney and four other Notre Dame teammates were arrested for marijuana possession following a traffic stop in Indiana’s Fulton County. Coney received one year of probation for a guilty plea.
But he made plenty of correct choices too. Coney realized early on in high school that the decisions he made would impact his future.
“The people that were my friends for so long started to go the wrong direction,” Coney said. “Do I stay with them because they’re my friends from forever? Or do I care more about my success and what I want? That was really tough because I got backlash for it. I got comments made about me for it.”
When Coney picked Notre Dame as a recruit, he heard doubters telling him he wouldn’t succeed in South Bend or even graduate. He proved them all wrong.
“Even to this day, I’m still fighting this battle of making the tough choices of who I’m going to surround myself with, because these are people that I grew up with,” Coney said. “These are people that I have real love for, but it’s not about that. It’s more so about making the tough choices for your future.”
Ready to compete
Coney’s path to playing time became even more crowded in the past week. The Raiders, who will complete their move to Las Vegas this summer, doled out three-year contracts to free agent linebackers Cory Littleton and Nick Kwiatkoski with reported guarantees of $35.5 million between the two. With linebacker Nicholas Morrow expected to return, all three starting linebacker positions appear to be set.
Coney and two other linebackers — Derrick Moncrief and Nick Usher — signed reserve/future contracts with the Raiders in January that were set to go into effect when the new league year started last Wednesday. The contract doesn’t provide much short-term or long-term stability, but it should offer Coney a chance to impress during offseason workouts whenever the NFL resumes normal activities that have been impacted by the coronavirus pandemic.
The 6-foot-1, 227-pound Coney insists he’s in the best shape of his life.
“The ability to go for a really long time, be really fluid in my movements and speed has increased as well,” Coney said. “Being able to have those things increase over the offseason is huge when we’re talking about going back and competing for a job.”
A slow start in the NFL mirrors Coney’s Notre Dame career. He saw limited action as a freshman and worked his way into the linebacker rotation as sophomore. But it wasn’t until Coney’s junior year that he truly established himself as a stalwart in Notre Dame’s defense.
In Coney’s final two seasons with the Irish, he recorded 239 tackles — a little more than nine tackles per game. Tackling has never been the concern for Coney. Keeping up with the speed of the game was the challenge.
Coney felt he was up for the task last fall after tallying 11 tackles in four preseason games. But the Raiders told him otherwise.
Coney didn’t lose confidence. He responded by working harder. Soon he’ll learn if he’s done enough. But either way, he knows he made the right choice.
“I love the Raiders for keeping everyone at a high standard,” Coney said. “That’s something that’s pushed me this offseason to be able to go back and be way better than I was before because the mind set and the motto is always getting better and finding ways to move the needle.”