For years, Lavonte David has toiled.
His work hasn't exactly been done in anonymity. But the former Nebraska Cornhusker's consistent excellence at inside linebacker for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers did not, according to many, garner the recognition it deserved when it came time to pick Pro Bowlers or all-pro teams.
Maybe that type of recognition, or lack of it, bothered David on some level.
But to hear him talk in the days before the biggest game of his life, you'd be convinced he knew that this week was coming all along.
"Whether you're underrated or not, no matter what's going on with your success, the team's success, just stay the course," David said Monday. "Everything will turn around eventually."
It's turned around in a big way for David, who before this season had played on exactly one winning team in his eight previous years in Tampa Bay.
That team, in 2016, went 9-7 and didn't make the playoffs. Six times in David's first eight seasons, the Buccaneers finished last in the NFC South. Despite David putting up monster season after monster season, his organization's lack of success left him a virtual unknown to casual football fans.
Sunday, finally, he will put his skills on display on the game's biggest stage.
"This year, it's been that moment. Going through the playoffs and being in this position, a lot of people can see why I feel like I should be rated one of the best linebackers to play this game," David said. "Being able to go out there on this stage and put it on display, there's definitely going to be people who may turn their heads and see the kind of football player I am, or the kind of football player they've been missing."
David has always been that football player, of course, from high school at Miami Northwestern, to junior college at Fort Scott in Kansas, to two of the most productive seasons a linebacker has ever had in Lincoln.
David's 285 career tackles rank fourth on NU's all-time list. He owns two of the top five single-season tackle totals in program history, including a school-record 152 in 2010.
That productivity hasn't waned in a standout pro career. His 137 tackles this season, including 98 solo stops, are second on the team. He remains the lynchpin on a Tampa Bay defense that includes Ndamukong Suh, and young stars such as Shaquil Barrett, Devin White and Antoine Winfield Jr.
"Leaders step up in the times when they’re needed. There’s been times this season when things haven’t been going well on the sideline, and he calls the guys up, gets them together, and he has a calming presence about him," Tampa Bay inside linebackers coach Mike Caldwell said.
"He’s not going to panic. He’s a calming presence that guys look to, and they feed off of it. And when things aren’t going well, he’s a guy we look to to get us out of a certain situation or get us into a play we need. And that’s what he’s been doing throughout his whole career, and he’s continuing to do it."
That attitude served him well as a younger man, when he left Miami for a town of 8,000 on the Missouri-Kansas border that wasn't particularly close to anything, but provided David an opportunity to hone his craft.
"Leaning towards football, leaning towards faith — just having faith in what I want to do and what I like to do, and then making it out of there," David said. "And then actually kind of falling in love with the Midwest. Just being away (from home) and focusing on what I have to focus on, and going to Nebraska and having a pretty successful two years there."
David credited his two years under then-Huskers coach Bo Pelini for helping him make a smooth transition to the pro game as a second-round pick.
And according to one of his Tampa Bay teammates, had his timing been better, he would have been drafted higher.
"He's told me before: 'If you would have played with me, you would have been a first-round pick,'" David said of Suh, whose Nebraska career ended one season before David arrived. "And I said, 'If you would have played with me, you would have been the No. 1 overall pick.'"
No matter whether they played with each other in Lincoln or not. They're together now, a pair of veterans trying to lead the Buccaneers to the promised land.
"My main thing I try to do is just serve the guys and be a helping hand. I’m not a yelling guy, I’m not going to curse at you or whatever, I’m basically just going to pull you to the side and just talk to you like (a) man. I think guys respect that, and take that well," David said.
"I feel like I’ve definitely impacted the people I’ve needed to impact, who have reached out to me. So I just feel like the main thing is, I just have to serve the people around me in order to be a great leader."
Early in the season, David's teammates gave him a hard time for having never made the playoffs.
But the respect he commands in the Tampa Bay locker room is real.
"When you have a guy that’s a leader and as well-respected as Lavonte is, guys do want to get them where they’ve never gone before," Caldwell said. "Deep down, I think everyone on the team wanted it. For themselves, but just a little extra wanted it for Lavonte because of the type of guy he is, the type of player he’s been, and what he means to this organization."
Contact the writer at email@example.com or 402-473-7436. On Twitter @HuskerExtraCB.