A gift for music led Rick D’Abreu to the football field. But it was D’Abreu’s hard work that turned him into a Football Bowl Subdivision football player.
The 6-foot-2, 240-pound defensive lineman from Thomas Dale High in Chester, VA, became one of the final pieces to first-year East Carolina head coach Mike Houston’s initial recruiting class on February 6. While still head coach at James Madison before coming to ECU, Houston had received a verbal commitment from D’Abreu to play for the Dukes. When Houston left JMU in December, D’Abreu decided to follow him to Greenville.
But D’Abreu might not have developed an FBS recruit if not for his musical abilities, which includes the talent to play the guitar, bass, drums and the tuba among other instruments.
“We got lucky with Rick,” Thomas Dale football coach Kevin Tucker said. “We have a specialty center at our school for fine arts in music, dance, all the arts. Rick was in the zone to go to another school. But he applied here because he is an accomplished musician.”
D’Abreu comes by his musical talents honestly. His father, Richard D’Abreu Jr., is a well-known jazz saxophonist who has created a niche in the music world with a style he calls “jazz in the spirit,” which combines elements of jazz and gospel. The elder D’Abreu has also performed with many popular singers and musicians, including Patti LaBelle, James Taylor and the Boston Pops orchestra.
Rick D’Abreu III had nurtured his musical talents, but was far from reaching his potential as a football player when he arrived at Thomas Dale as a freshman.
“If you had asked me then if this freshman kid was going to be a Division I football player, I would have said no,” Tucker said. “He was kind of a chubby kid and I’d never seen him play before because he wasn’t in our (recreation football) association growing up. He was a little bit of an unknown, to tell you the truth.”
A leg injury limited D’Abreu’s development as a freshman junior varsity player, and he had what Tucker described as “moderate” success with the varsity during his sophomore year. D’Abreu made 38 tackles, two tackles for loss and a sack as a soph as Thomas Dale went 9-3 and reached the second round of the state Group 6A playoffs.
But between that sophomore season and his junior campaign, D’Abreu underwent a major physical transformation. He went from a 6-1, 210-pounder as a sophomore to 6-2, 233 pounds when he reported for preseason practice in 2017.
“I think as he grew up he was very talented at football,” Tucker said. “But when you’re the biggest kid on the block you kind of just push people around. I think he got out here as a freshman and saw guys just as big as him were beating him. That’s when he came to me and asked, ‘What do I have to do to be the best at my position?’ At that time he was playing offensive guard and defensive tackle.
“I told him, ‘One thing you can do is get in the weight room.’ Well, he became addicted to the weight room. He became a kid we had to pry out of there (weight room) every night. If we had 10 things on the board for our players to do, he’d do 11 or 12. He went from a chubby ninth grader to a great physique by his junior year. Now, he looks like a man among boys.”
The physical translated into improvement on the field. Playing in 10 games as a junior, D’Abreu accumulated 72 tackles, 13 tackles for loss and seven sacks to earn all-state Group 6A honors as an all-purpose defensive player.
Army, Air Force and Navy were among the first college football programs to show interest in D’Abreu after his breakout junior season. Houston and James Madison jumped in the competition with a scholarship offer in April 2018 and he verbally committed to the Dukes in August just prior to the start of his senior season at Thomas Dale.
D’Abreu was a dominant force on defense in the Knights’ first three games, making 31 tackles, 13 tackles for loss and seven sacks. But his season ended abruptly in the third game against Hermitage on Sept. 7 when D’Abreu broke a bone above his ankle that required surgery to repair the damage.
“He broke his ankle on the last play of the third quarter,” Tucker said. “We were crushed, to say the least. He was not only having a monster season, but he was our team leader. He was the guy we expected to be our dude for the entire year. Unfortunately, he suffered the break and his season was cut short.
“But the thing I love about Rick is he never gave up or quit on his teammates. He was at practice every day. He was still a joy to be around. He didn’t have that poor, pitiful me attitude. Everybody wants a guy like that on their team.”
Tucker immediately informed Houston and D’Abreu’s lead recruiter at JMU, Jeff Hanson, who is now the defensive line coach at ECU, of the injury. Tucker was told the Dukes planned to honor their scholarship offer to D’Abreu, regardless of the injury from which he was expected to make a full recovery.
Fast forward to early December and Houston’s decision to leave JMU for East Carolina creates some anxiety for D’Abreu.
“Rick is crushed because he had built a great relationship with the coaches at James Madison,” Tucker said. “He was especially close to Jeff Hanson. He was distraught about what to do. So he decided to re-open his recruitment.
“Now all the guys (coaches) he had known at James Madison were at a major college program at ECU. So he went down for several visits to go through the campus, meet their players and the administration. I think that made him jump at that opportunity.”
Tucker said D’Abreu is progressing well in his rehab following ankle surgery. He’s starting to jog and has already been back at work in the weight room. “He’s working his butt off to get back because he doesn’t want to redshirt. He wants to play next fall,” Tucker said.