NORMAN — About a month after the U.S. Army All-American Combine in 2011, Oklahoma assistant Bobby Jack Wright finally tracked down the elusive Charles Tapper.
Wright had found about Tapper's performance at the combine — just weeks after Tapper started paying much attention to football — and immediately reached out through Facebook.
But it wasn't until weeks later when Tapper was at the home of Cory Robinson, his trainer and mentor, that Tapper saw the message.
When they finally talked on the phone, Wright extended a scholarship offer.
Tapper was stunned.
“For what?” Tapper asked Wright.
“I was like no way,” Tapper said.
“No way” could easily describe Tapper's journey from being a sophomore at Baltimore's City College High School that didn't really play football to less than four years later being the starting defensive end for the No. 14 team in the country.
Robinson started seeing Tapper on the basketball court, where his cousin coached Tapper. Robinson, an assistant football coach at Baltimore's Calvert Hall College High School, started envisioning Tapper as a defensive end.
One day in a meeting at McDonald's, Robinson laid things out for Tapper. He could play basketball and be a middling player or he could be a star on the football field.
“I've been working hard ever since then,” Tapper said.
In the immediate future was preparing Tapper for the combine in San Antonio.
Tapper started watching film of college and NFL defensive ends and working on basic things like the stance he needed to get into to start a 40-yard dash.
Robinson also tried to tie in drills to basketball.
“I had him doing medicine ball tosses into a shopping cart,” Robinson said. “It was like shooting a basketball into a goal, but we put him on his knees. That just kind of made it relevant to him and kind of having fun, but he was working on technique at the same time.”
Tapper's mother, Rhonda, was surprised that Charles was finally giving football a try — she'd talked him into playing as a sophomore, but Charles didn't go to many practices and just used it to kill time until basketball started.
She wasn't surprised in his rise once he finally decided to give football his full attention.
“He's always been a hard worker and a go-getter in everything,” Rhonda said. “Everything happened so fast.”
Before Rhonda knew it, the offer came from the Sooners.
Both mother and child were en route to an AAU basketball tournament — on separate flights — when Bob Stoops called Charles.
Her phone blew up when she landed, and she hurried to call Charles, fearing there was something wrong.
“He told me he talked to Bob Stoops and if you talk to Bob Stoops, you have to go to Oklahoma,” Rhonda said. “It was amazing experience. Everything that Bob Stoops and, I love Bobby Jack Wright, told me would happen, it happened just as they said. They were honest. They were true. They didn't sell us any dreams. They told us the truth.”
After playing in five games last season, Tapper made his first start Aug. 31 against Louisiana-Monroe.
Through three games, he has 14 tackles and has been a disruptive force at defensive end.
“His strides are unbelievable,” Sooners defensive line coach Jerry Montgomery said. “He's nowhere near his potential, and we're working every day for him to basically get a better feel for the game and just let it loose and play with technique and fundamentals.”
Tapper isn't doing this just for himself.
Wednesday evening, his 11-year-old brother, Shawn, jumped into his mom's car after practice and proclaimed, “I want to be a defensive end like Charles.”
Both Shawn and 9-year-old Jordan, adopted by Rhonda, do.
They came with their mom to the Sooners opener.
“They love it,” Tapper said. “Especially coming to the game. They wish they could (be) out onto the field with me. They love playing. They've been pushing themselves a lot, especially in school, to get better.”
Tapper felt like he needed to get away from Baltimore.
“All my friends just pretty much were getting in trouble and not really thinking in the right mindset,” Tapper said.
By the time Tapper's high school career ended, two of his basketball teammates died from gun violence.
“He could've easily been one of those at-risk youth who chose to go down the wrong path,” Robinson said. “But he's made some strong decisions that have led him to where he is today.
“He's an example to many young kids coming out of Baltimore City that it is possible — that it's never too late to tap into your gifts and make your dreams reality.”
Since he came to Oklahoma, Tapper has seen a change in some of his friends when he goes back home.
“Seeing me. I guess I opened a lot of guys' eyes in Baltimore that this could actually be a reality instead of a dream,” Tapper said.
Tapper's father died when he was young. His mother is an administrator with Baltimore City Public Schools.
“Baltimore is a rough place to grow up in,” Rhonda said. “After Charles' father passed, we moved to an area of Baltimore that's a little more settled, but he went to a school in a very rough area of Baltimore and basically beat the odds of what is expected of African-American males here.”
Next week, Rhonda will make the drive from Baltimore to South Bend, Ind., with about 15 relatives to watch her son play for the Sooners against Notre Dame.
“We are a very close-knit family, and Charles has made us proud,” Rhonda said. “Baltimore is excited for the success that Charles is having. I'm just so excited that he is my son. It's just unbelievable.”