For most collegiate prospects who have hopes of playing at the next level, the National Football League serves as a peak on the world's tallest mountain. The long, grinding hours spent at the gym, the all-nighters pulled studying playbooks and the constant barrage of nerves fluttering around their stomachs on draft day are unique experiences that most of us sports fans will never truly understand.
But, for all of those who get selected each year during the NFL Draft, there are still thousands of young men who never get to hear their name called. For them, the journey to reach their dreams doesn't end on draft night.
Former University of Idaho wide receiver Justin Veltung is one of those guys. Passed over in this April's draft, the highly decorated Veltung still believed that one day, he would play in the NFL. Twice named to the Paul Hornung Award Watch List (2011, 2012) as one of the most versatile players in college football, Veltung served as touchdown apparatus for the University of Idaho Vandals.
An all-purpose threat, the 5'11", 190-pound Veltung's sub-4.4 speed and 42-inch vertical jump complemented his football smarts and unbelievable work ethic. So why did teams pass on an NFL prospect with that much athletic ability? The answer is a junior year that was hampered by a turf toe injury, and a tough senior year for an Idaho team that endured the midseason firing of its head coach, Robb Akey.
Most NFL scouts passed on this small school prospect in hopes of finding a player of his caliber elsewhere. But when there wasn’t a player like that to be found, the Seattle Seahawks invited the hometown Veltung to their rookie minicamp. Needless to say, head coach Pete Carroll and wide receivers' coach Kippy Brown were more than impressed.
“He’s a smart guy,” Brown said. “He knows what to do. He doesn’t make very many mistakes, and so far he’s been real reliable catching the football."
Shortly after Veltung flashed his skills at camp, he was offered a contract to join his favorite NFL team growing up in Puyallup, Washington. With the ink barely dry on the contract, I was given a chance to interview this talented receiver/return man.
When you found out you were going to play for the Seattle Seahawks, what was your first reaction?
Justin Veltung: Honestly, just shock. I mean growing up the Seahawks have always been my favorite team. Since I’m from around here and all, it was a crazy feeling.
I also got the chance to watch Coach Carroll during his time at USC. I never knew him personally, but I always thought that he seemed like a good coach and really fun guy to play for. So overall, yeah I'd say shock (laughs).
How was it catching passes from a guy like Russell Wilson? That must have been an awesome experience.
JV: Man, he (Russell Wilson) has a strong arm! I didn't know what to expect, but when I was running routes, you saw that he could get the ball out in a hurry and put it anywhere he wants it to go! Russell is such a smart guy. I only caught passes from him for one day, but you can just tell learning from him will be a great experience. I’m looking forward to it.
JV: For sure. I mean, I'm just digesting this playbook and taking in everything I possibly can right now. I realize that when you understand a playbook, it really allows you to go out there and help the team out with your skills and dedication. Guys like that show me that you can be great when you study and work as hard as you possibly can to get better.
It's got to be exciting for you having a player like Percy Harvin on the roster. Considering you guys are pretty similar, in the way that you are not just wide receivers, but serve more as all-purpose threats.
JV: Yeah, for sure. I watched him in college, and during his time in Minnesota. He was always one of those players who I matched myself to because of all the special things he could do with the football in his hands. I tried to play like him whenever I got the chance (laughs).
To be able to play with him is a blessing, because I feel like there's so much I can learn from his game. Throughout high school and college, punt and kick returns were always two of my favorite things to do, so to be able to have one of the best in the world on the same team as you is truly a blessing.
Another great part about playing in Seattle is you get to go against some of the best defensive backs in the game everyday. Guys like Richard Sherman, Brandon Browner and now Antoine Winfield. How was it lining up against those guys?
JV: Oh yeah! I went against Sherman for the first time a few days ago and I was like oh man, I've watched this man play being a life-long Seahawks fan, and now I'm going up against him, trying to better my techniques and learn from him.
I have to ask, is he really as great as they say?
JV: He's pretty amazing. He's one of those guys that just always knows what he's doing. He's really smart, super strong and all-around just a great football player.
This being your first year in the league, what are some major differences you've already noticed between playing in college and the NFL?
JV: Obviously the speed of the game. It's just a lot faster. And everyone around you is involved in practice. They are all there just trying to get better as a team. You can just tell the drive these guys have and how well they work together. I mean I came from Idaho, which was a bunch of players trying to build a team. Here in Seattle the team is here and everyone is just trying to improve and work hard to get better.
I know you said the speed of the game is a lot faster at the NFL level, we hear that a lot, but for those of us who never really played football or completely understand the difference, can you try to explain just how much faster it is?
JV: The best way that I can explain it is, in college you have that ability to pull-away from most defenders. At this level, guys are always right on top of you. In order for you to get that extra space, you need to be able to make another move and just play smart. You can't just rely on your athletic abilities anymore, you need to have the right techniques to break away from guys and make a play.
Switching gears for a second, I don't want to harp on it too long, but I know you battled injuries in the past at school. How are you feeling now?
JV: I actually would say this is by far the best I've felt since my junior year at school. I've been working out my body, staying in shape, overall I just feel great! I'm really prepared for this situation and blessed to have a chance like this. I couldn't have asked for anything better than the situation I'm in right now with Seattle.
When you first walk out of that tunnel and hear the 12th-man roaring, I would imagine that's going to be a really special experience for you.
JV: For sure. I mean, growing up a Seahawks fan, I've been to the stadium before. It's funny; the wallpaper on my phone is actually a picture I took of the stadium from a game I went to. After all that the hard work I've put in, to be able to play under those lights would be a dream come true.
Over the time I spent speaking with Justin, I got a sense that this kid really understands how to become a better player. From breaking down his appreciation for Wes Welker's journey, and explaining how being mentally prepared is a huge part of having success in the NFL, to telling me stories about growing up a die-hard Seahawks fan, it's abundantly clear that Veltung is thrilled he is part of this team, and the culture coach Carroll has built around it.
A gifted athlete who always found success in any sport he played, whether that was as an all-conference football player, an all-state soccer player at Puyallup High School or winning a state title in the long jump as a senior with a mark of 24 feet, 5 inches, having that understanding to become a smarter, more polished football player and not relying solely on your athletic abilities is something a lot of guys never really come to terms with.
When we finished up our call, I asked Justin what he was doing this Memorial Day weekend. He replied simply with "studying my playbook."