NEW ORLEANS (AP) — Trouble off the field caused LSU senior linebacker Michael Divinity to miss the majority of one of the most extraordinary football seasons in school history.
The team's 2018 co-leader in sacks even briefly quit the team in early November. But he decided to come back about two weeks later, knowing his remaining punishment would prevent him from ever playing college football again unless LSU advanced all the way to Monday night's national championship game.
"I love these guys so much. I love football so much," Divinity said this weekend as the national title tilt between No. 1 LSU (14-0, No. 1 CFP) and No. 3 Clemson (14-0, No. 3 CFP) approached.
"I could have went and declared (for the NFL draft) and started training, but that's not what my heart wanted," Divinity continued. "I just wanted to stay with the team and be a part of it, and if I got the opportunity to play, I'll play. And if I didn't, I'd still be joyful just to be part of the team with them. It helped me stay positive, along with my family and friends."
LSU has not publicly explained the nature of the team violation that triggered Divinity's suspension this season. Divinity also has elected to discuss his personal struggles in general terms.
"It was a hard time," he said. "I was going through a lot, dealing with a lot. I had to take a step away back from football, focus more on just me myself personally, fixing myself as a young man, and focus on graduating, which I did. It's just finding myself again, finding the ability to be the Michael I was before all the things that was going on."
The 6-foot-2, 241-pound Divinity has missed nine of LSU's 14 games this season, partly because of an ankle injury but mostly because of his suspension. But in the five games he did play, he had four tackles for losses and three sacks.
Coach Ed Orgeron announced Divinity had left the program Nov. 4, the Monday before LSU visited Alabama for one of the most anticipated games of college football's regular season.
The 21-year-old Divinity watched LSU's thrilling 46-41 victory against the Crimson Tide from his home in the New Orleans area as his 1-year-old daughter played nearby.
"She was just running around the house and I'm screaming at the TV, standing up the whole time, and she's just looking at me like, 'Daddy, what are you doing?'" Divinity recalled. "Just being able to see them and watch them play, even if I was there or not, I felt the energy."
Divinity returned to the team Nov. 18, two days after LSU's victory at Mississippi. He had to sit out LSU's final two regular season games against Arkansas and Texas A&M, as well as the Southeastern Conference championship against Georgia and the Peach Bowl, which doubled as the College Football Playoff semifinal, against Oklahoma.
Orgeron said he wasn't surprised the senior returned without any guarantee playing again.
"Michael had a chance to go out early (for the NFL draft) last year. He wanted to come back. He wanted to finish his career at LSU," Orgeron said. "He had a bump in the road. He paid his penalty, and he came back. So it tells you a lot about his character, tells you a lot about his grit and who he is."
Divinity said the even while he was away from teammates, "I still was engaged with them, still being a leader. They were texting me asking me certain things and I would help them. It kept me positive."
LSU edge rusher K'Lavon Chaisson said Divinity's presence in the lineup "changes a lot" for an opposing offense.
"You can't slide one way. You can't chip one way. If you do that all towards me, Divinity will win his one-on-one battles," Chaisson said. "And his body is fresh — fresh as possible — so he can go all game."
LSU defensive coordinator Dave Aranda said his impression is that players' respect for Divinity has only gone up since his return to practice eight weeks ago.
"So they're excited that he's in this situation. I know I am," Aranda said. "I want to see him do well."
Now Divinity finishes his career with the biggest game in which he's ever played, for the college team he's been with for four years, and in his home town.
"It's wonderful just being able to play again, my last college football game here in New Orleans," Divinity said. "I'm taking advantage of it."