ATLANTA -- It was still dark as Nate Paxton made his daily walk from the MARTA station to Georgia State's downtown Atlanta football facility for early morning workouts.
And it was certainly dark -- still night, really -- when he began his daily odyssey, a trek that included two buses, a train and plenty of walking, usually on an empty stomach. And that was before practicing football for two hours or more.
Three years later, the senior defensive lineman is still on the practice field every morning with his Panther teammates, but Paxton doesn't have to wake up quite so early and travel through the darkness because the former walk-on is now on scholarship.
"It was a struggle because my family wasn’t in the best of situations," Paxton said. "We've been homeless, we’ve slept in hotels and my parents have been unemployed for a long time so that was a struggle. I had to ride MARTA everyday and sometimes didn’t have food to eat and sometimes nowhere to sleep, but I always knew something good was going to happen sooner or later.
"I knew I didn’t want to give up on my dreams so I didn’t and I kept pursuing it."
Paxton originally joined the team in the winter of 2012, making then-head coach Bill Curry's squad after an open tryout. Then head coach Trent Miles arrived in 2013.
"When we first got here, we were doing our winter conditioning at 5:30 or 6:00 in the morning, but Nate never missed, was never late, always had a smile on his face and worked really hard," Miles recalled.
Senior linebacker Joseph Peterson added, "It really makes me appreciate being on scholarship and being able to eat in the dining hall and not take anything for granted."
Paxton has been able to earn some playing time for the Panthers, seeing action on kickoff returns plus a handful of snaps on defense. But the real prize will come next spring, when he will become the first in his family to graduate from college. He is majoring in business management, and he is interested in coaching.
"My parents tell me all of the time how proud I make them and how I persevered and never gave up on anything," Paxton said. "Most of the time, being in the situation I was in and coming from where I come from, there are guys going to jail and doing the wrong things. By continuing to play football and going to school, I’m making them proud."
Even though most fans probably don’t know No. 98, his teammates and coaches are inspired by Paxton.
"I don't think our team has been more excited, even after a victory, than they were the day that Nate was awarded a scholarship," Miles said. "They knew how hard it was for him and his commitment to the program. He earned it.
"He is respected as much anyone among the team and the coaching staff. Just the type of young man you love to have on your team and in your family," Miles continued.
Speaking of family, Paxton is happy to be able to spend his senior season with his younger brother, Jamal, who joined the team this fall as a walk-on.
Paxton has one more goal for his senior season.
"I just want to win," he said. "I have such a strong bond with everyone on this team and I just want to win. I don’t want it just for our seniors, but for everybody, all the players, the coaches and staff and the fans. I want to experience it with everyone."