If you believe in NFL success stories, you should pay attention to Ryan Spadola during the final New York Jets preseason game. He is a rookie wide receiver from Lehigh University who went undrafted but is making waves in camp.
At 6'3", 200 pounds, Spadola is not the largest target downfield for Mark Sanchez—or Geno Smith, or Greg McElroy?—and he's not the speediest wideout.
The Howell, N.J. native is not lauded for needing to order specially made gloves to fit oversized hands—a la Hakeem Nicks—and you may not see him make one-handed grabs, spearing the tip of the ball out of the reach of a cornerback.
The news coming out of Cortland, N.Y., the site of Jets training camp, however, is that Spadola is a reliable, hard worker and very well could comprise part of the 2013-14 receiving corps.
In fact, for Jets fans wishing and willing to relive the glory days—or a time that is nowhere near the painful present—Spadola's story may remind them of a former Meadowlands favorite; and a receiver who often chose not to wear gloves at all.
Wayne Chrebet, originally from Garfield, N.J., went undrafted in 1995 after a collegiate career at Hofstra University—the former site of Jets training camp and year-round facilities. But the Jets signed him after he displayed a blue-collar work ethic, and the risk undeniably paid off in the end.
As ESPN New York's Rich Cimini writes Wednesday, "He arrived as a walk-on and walked out a decade later with 580 receptions and more than 7,300 yards."
Nate Taylor of The New York Times says that Spadola never even received a scholarship to play football at Lehigh; what's more, the young receiver had a chronic problem dropping passes as recently as the 2010 season.
But Spadola improved over his next few seasons, compiling nine touchdowns and 1,130 yards in his sophomore year, and 11 touchdowns and 1,614 yards in his breakout junior year, according to CBS Sports.
The undrafted rookie has also steadily improved this preseason, avoiding early roster cuts to remain on the 75-man roster and showing up big under the lights in his home state against the Giants last Saturday.
Taylor describes part of Spadola's most recent game:
In Saturday’s game against the Giants, Spadola finished with a touchdown and three catches for a team-leading 110 yards. On his 22-yard touchdown reception from Matt Simms, Spadola beat a cornerback on a sharp route in which he faked to the outside before making a quick pivot for the middle of the end zone. He ran past the safety and showed off his athleticism, perhaps his best trait, in lunging for the ball and catching it with two hands.
Here's the video (per NFL.com) of the Simms-to-Spadola hookup which reclaimed the lead against the Giants with just over two minutes remaining.
Thursday night is the final preseason game for the Jets, who take on the Philadelphia Eagles at MetLife Stadium. It could be the make-or-break game for the young wideout hoping to make the final 22-man cut this Friday and Saturday in order to stay aboard for the regular-season 53-man roster.
Throughout training camp, he has improved in almost every way, from catching passes to running precise routes to contributing on special teams.
“Every day, I’ve been fighting, fighting, fighting to prove people wrong, and that I can play in this league,” Spadola said. “I’m becoming more comfortable in our style of plays and our schemes.”
Spadola is also becoming more comfortable with the unavoidable comparisons to Wayne Chrebet; perhaps that is because the former 5'10" poster child of the Jets success story has caught wind of Spadola and has reached out to the youngster via email. Cimini writes:
Spadola has heard the Chrebet comparisons for a few months, but now it's real. It hit home when he received the first email, which was followed by a congratulatory email after the Giants game.
"He wished me luck and gave me tips about going through the whole process," Spadola said. "I kind of embraced it. He said, 'Never sit back on anything you achieved, and continue to work hard and push to better yourself.'"
Chrebet said he can get behind a player like that—a player who has yet to see the limelight and who may not resemble the average NFL superstar. After all, according to Cimini, a Jets security guard did not even allow a young Chrebet to enter his first training camp back in 1995, believing it was another kid hoping for an autograph.
"I can root for a guy like that," said Chrebet, who went to YouTube to check out Spadola's college highlights. "He's a Jersey guy -- small school, undrafted. You can't beat that. It's a great story, but it's his story, the Ryan Spadola story. Who knows where this could end up?"
The Ryan Spadola story indeed could end up at dinner-table discussions down the road. Chrebet is not the only undrafted success story as a New York football receiver.
Even though the NFL is cutting down on touchdown celebrations and dancing, none of us will stop following the current success of similar New York Giants wideout Victor Cruz—who, by the way, dances the salsa as a tribute to his late grandmother.
Cruz, standing at just 6'0", is a Paterson, N.J. native who grew up only a few miles from MetLife (which is in East Rutherford). After attending the University of Massachusetts, he also went undrafted in 2010, though was signed by his home team the following day.
What was Cruz's breakout game?
A preseason performance for the ages against—who else—the New York Jets on Monday Night Football, in which he caught six receptions for 145 yards, including three touchdowns (per NFL.com).
For now, the next success story of the NFL and New York football could be Ryan Spadola. He told Taylor that "catching a touchdown pass in MetLife Stadium was an indescribable feeling," and that "After Saturday’s game, he said he was astonished by the number of voice mail messages, text messages and Twitter messages he received."
Humility and an ability to take in the moment as it speeds by is good for any professional athlete, especially an NFL wide receiver for the New York Jets.
But for now, Spadola should keep his sights on the ultimate prize: a starting role and a secured spot as a go-to target that could bring him to the same level of fan respect and football legacy as Wayne Chrebet.
If Saturday is a prime example of what's to come, it may be clear that Spadola plans to "look to his laurels" instead of rest on them. Following his 22-yard touchdown catch toward the end of regulation, he ultimately caught a 70-yarder from Simms in overtime that set up the game-winning field goal.
And he could also wind up being similar to Cruz in his tremendous ability to pick up yards after the catch, as the long score included 39 yards after the initial reception.
Although he will be wearing gloves, Spadola provides a straightforward comment on his short-term goals, something that may remind New York fans (of either team) why Chrebet was such a reliable receiver.
Nate Taylor writes: “I’m not the shiftiest guy out there,” he said. “I may be deceptive in speed because I’m a long strider, but I really pride myself on getting two hands on the ball.”
A simple enough personal standard, but one that should pay off for a non-scholarship, undrafted workhorse like Ryan Spadola.