VERMILLION — DeValon Whitcomb keeps his tragedies close by.

He goes by the nickname ‘Meaty’ in honor of his father, who died when Whitcomb was six years old.

He wears the number of 47 in honor of his cousin, who wore 74 before his untimely death on a football field.

He keeps in his playbook the obituary of his grandfather, who died before Whitcomb began his senior season this fall with the South Dakota football program.

“He’d usually be sitting in that section over there,” Whitcomb said after Wednesday’s practice, as he pointed to the northeast corner of the DakotaDome.

“He’s with me at every game, because he would have been there at every game.”

Grief, unfortunately, has become an all-too familiar feeling for Whitcomb — a native of Omaha, Nebraska — throughout his life.

He’s had to process and move forward from the death his father, his brother, his cousin and his grandfather.

“I’ve lost a lot of people,” Whitcomb said.

Football, though, has provided an outlet for that grief. In some ways, it’s allowed Whitcomb — now a fifth-year defensive tackle for the Coyotes — to release a lot of his pent-up anger, but it’s also afforded him an opportunity to honor those he’s lost.

Upon learning his story, the question was asked of Whitcomb: How in the world did he handle all of those tragedies?

Faith and perseverance, he’ll tell you.

And plenty of support.

Whether it was daily phone calls with his mother or grandmother, or even the advice of his fraternity brothers at USD, the message to Whitcomb was essentially the same: Keep pushing.

Not only does he carry the scars of the death of his father, brother, cousin and grandfather, Whitcomb has dealt with physical scars.

As in, literal ones.

He arrived in Vermillion in 2015 with a torn labrum in a shoulder, but rebounded to play in 10 games the following season. Then came another setback.

Whitcomb tore the meniscus in a knee and had two screws inserted in his femur in 2017, which caused him to miss the entire season — all he could do was watch and support his teammates during their FCS playoff run that fall.

No matter what he did or how much time he put into his passion, Whitcomb couldn’t seem to catch a break.

“That was a real dark time,” he said. “I don’t wish that on anybody.”

Once again, he fought back from another setback and last year played in 11 games for the Coyotes. He’s now started all four games this season for USD (1-3), which will host Indiana State in Saturday afternoon’s homecoming game and Missouri Valley Football Conference opener.

“He’s become an outstanding leader in our program,” head coach Bob Nielson said Wednesday.

Whitcomb, his coach added, has impressed the USD staff with his development as a player, his resiliency in the face of injuries, his dedication to his academics and his leadership in other campus activities.

It’s all been part of Whitcomb’s journey.

“It’s been a rough one, but we’re still going,” he said.

Follow @jhoeck on Twitter

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