updated 05/18/2012 AT 5:00 PM ET
•originally published 05/19/2012 AT 10:00 AM ET
Donald Driver remembers that night when he was a second-grader lying in bed with his older brother Marvin. Their family was gripped by poverty and homelessness, sometimes sleeping in a U-Haul trailer.
“I told my brother, ‘This is it. I’m gonna take my family outta this,’ ” he tells PEOPLE. “I didn’t know what it was going to be or how I was going to do it, but that’s what I told him. He just laughed and told me to go to sleep.”
Three decades later, Driver, 37, is a star wide receiver who played in a Super Bowl for the Green Bay Packers and now competes as a finalist on Dancing with the Stars. He’s written children books and has his own foundation.
How did he turn it around?
Driver credits two people: First, his mother Faye Gray, who raised him and his siblings mostly on her own.
“I think my strength was what my mother told me a long time ago,” he says. “Only two things can happen to you if you’re doing it the wrong way. Either you can end up dead or you can end up in jail.”
A Source of Strength
“At that time in college, I was still selling drugs and I asked my wife to put a package away for me in her room and hide it while they did a search in the dormitories,” he says. “And she simply said, ‘No. God is testing you and if you want to be with me, then you have to stop this now.’ ”
“That time in college I knew I had a great athletic ability,” he adds, “but that was easy money. But she completely changed my life.”
They’ve now been together for 14 years – married for 12 – with three kids of their own, and Tina remains a strong guiding force.
Even as he performs sexy dances with his beautiful pro partner Peta Murgatroyd, Driver expects to get advice – not jealousy – from Tina.
“She’s my biggest critic,” he says. “She’ll tell me in a heartbeat, ‘Baby, that doesn’t look sexy enough. You need to hold Peta this way, with this expression on your face.’ ”
And if Driver has learned anything, it’s to be a good listener.
“As a man, you never want to embarrass your wife,” he says. “You don’t want to have an expression on her face on national TV like she’s ticked-off at her husband. For me at the end of the day I like to see her happy because I danced so well for her.”