Noted draft analyst Leo Tolstoy once said, "All big-school prospects are alike; each small-school prospect is unusual in his own way."
OK, Tolstoy did not write that, or anything at all about the NFL draft. But the sentiment holds true. Top major-program NFL draft prospects follow a predictable, humdrum career path: coveted recruit, perhaps a redshirt, then a bench role, starter, star, combine, pro day, draft, rookie. Some come from hardscrabble backgrounds or have injuries or bad behavior in their backgrounds, but there's a reason we call the big programs "football factories." Most of their products are machine-tooled to precise specifications.
But the Football Championship Subdivision and small-school guys don't fit the mold, which is why many have a story to tell. Some left college to raise a family. Others had recruiters hang up on them. They made plans for other careers: video production, the police, the military.
Some wandered the Division II or National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics wilderness after some youthful bad decisions. Others overcame childhoods that Charles Dickens would reject as too maudlin for a Victorian novel. They broke records in D-III obscurity or, disillusioned, left top programs.
But their NFL dreams are still alive, even if the schools they play for are barely on the map.
This year's draft class offers no shortage of small-school wonders with heartwarming, heartbreaking or just flat-out strange backstories. Here are some of those stories.
A Little Carrier on the Doorstep
Our epic tale begins, like Exodus or Superman, with the discovery of a baby.
"I opened the door and there was a baby in a little carrier on the doorstep," Billy Watson told the Los Angeles Times in 2013. "It was like something you see in the movies. Then I stepped outside and saw this girl running across the street. It was my daughter."
The Watsons named their infant grandson Terrell and raised him themselves. Terrell Watson has heard the story of the carrier on the doorstep since he was five years old. He has had almost no contact with his mother, who later left other siblings to their grandparents' care. His birth father died when he was 12.
Watson grew into a gifted athlete, but a learning disability kept him in special education classes throughout high school. His grades were fine, but the remedial courses did not pass muster with the NCAA clearinghouse, which surveys course descriptions and syllabi to make sure students are taking "college prep" classes. It's a bureaucratic issue—a low-level course can meet the NCAA requirements by changing a few words in a syllabus—but Watson's curriculum slipped through the cracks.
"Schools came to see me," Watson told Bleacher Report. "Then they saw my transcript and thought, 'Why even waste our time?'"
Watson, a running back, enrolled at Azusa Pacific, a Christian college nestled in the San Gabriel Mountains of California. He majored in sociology, taking extra courses in criminal studies. His goal: Enroll in a police academy after college, then make a team. A SWAT team.
"Being in SWAT puts you in the high-risk areas, where you can make the difference between someone living and dying or (whether) they make a bad decision or good decisions," Watson said. "I want to impact lives."
Watson did well in the classroom. He also excelled on the field as Azusa Pacific climbed from the NAIA to NCAA Division II. Watson led Division II and finished third across all collegiate levels with 2,153 rushing yards for the Cougars in 2014. Abandoned by his own mother and ignored by Division I, Watson suddenly began drawing attention from the NFL.
The Texans, Bengals and Dolphins have visited Watson in recent weeks. Watson will be traveling to visit a few teams before the draft. California police academies may have to wait a few years.
"My goal is what it has always been: Just to help a team win, whether I'm drafted or a free agent," Watson said. "If I get the chance, I just want to be on a team I can actually help. It doesn't matter if I am on special teams, scout team, anything. I want to help a team be successful."
Some NFL team will get an eager, bruising 235-pounder when it gives Watson a shot. It will also get a young man who takes nothing for granted, and who learned more from his college—and his life—than how to score touchdowns.
"Sociology can open your mind to different social groups and why people do the things they are doing. It makes you very empathetic toward other people."
From Unstoppable to Unwanted
Recruiting can be a slimy business. Grown men fawning over high school students, making pie-in-the-sky promises, applying the hard sell to get what they want. When recruiters want you, they're like seagulls circling a dropped funnel cake. But if you do something to turn them off, they're harder to get ahold of than tech support.
Division I superstars usually only see the giddy upside of recruiting. But lower-level recruits often see the seamy underside. Davis Tull of Tennessee-Chattanooga went from unstoppable to unwanted in a heartbeat.
He was an undersized but quick-and-relentless pass-rusher at Bearden High School, not far from the University of Tennessee campus in Knoxville. As Tull has recounted, including in a Q&A with Bruce Feldman of Fox Sports, the Volunteers were not interested in Tull, who estimated that he had barely cracked 200 pounds when recruiters began calling, but mid-majors and FCS powerhouses were.
Everything changed when Tull severely fractured his femur while sacking a quarterback in his senior season. Recruiters did everything short of leave skid marks when they peeled away from his driveway.
Tull recalls some recruiters politely backpedaling from offers and rushing to end phone calls when they heard about the injury. Others didn't bother being polite.
"I remember one call where the coach asked how I was, and when I told him how badly I had broken my leg, there was silence on the phone and he just hung up," Tull told the Chattanooga Times Free Press.
A Georgia Southern coach said a scholarship might still be available, but signing day came and went without a peep. When Tull tried to contact Georgia Southern, no one would even return his calls.
Tull walked on at Tennessee-Chattanooga. He briefly considered quitting football altogether because he felt so forgotten and overmatched. Instead, he worked his way up from the scout team to FCS All-American status at defensive end.
He was a three-time Southern Conference Defensive Player of the Year, as well as a two-time Academic All-American and a finalist for the Buck Buchanan Award (best FCS defender in the nation) in 2013 and 2014. Tull matched or broke many of the records set by Dexter Coakley at Appalachian State (Coakley went on to a decade-long NFL career as a Cowboys and Rams linebacker).
Tull pulled a hamstring before the NFL Scouting Combine, so he could not run. He did, however, finish among the top linebackers at the combine in the vertical jump (42.5 inches) and broad jump (11 feet). The hamstring tightened again at UTC's pro day, but Tull (who now weighs 244 pounds) managed a 4.57-second 40, which would have ranked fifth among linebackers at the combine.
Tull is also dealing with a shoulder injury this offseason. It may be his injury history, not his competition level, that will force Tull to wait until the late rounds of the draft.
Given a chance to get healthy after his high school injury, Tull could clearly have thrived as a Division I sack superstar. Maybe, just maybe, some of those recruiters should have had the courtesy of picking up the phone, or at least not slamming it down.
It's too late now. Tull is headed to the NFL.
Record-Breakers and Track Stars
Records and accomplishments set at lower competition levels often look and sound like they came from some completely different sport played on a faraway continent. We have already seen Terrell Watson rush for over 2,000 yards without earning a headline and Davis Tull dominate an FCS conference for three years with zero fanfare. But they are just the tip of the iceberg.
Cartel Brooks holds the all-time NCAA single-game rushing record with 465 yards on 38 carries in 2013. A 400-yard game at any level of football is noteworthy, but it's easy to discount Brooks' effort because he played for the Heidelberg Student Princes in Tiffin, Ohio, and he set the record against Baldwin Wallace, which is an actual Division III college, not just one overworked dude. (At least the Baldwin Wallace nickname is the Yellow Jackets, not something that sounds like it was coined by a focus group of maiden aunts.)
Brooks ended his Heidelberg career with more than 5,100 rushing yards and averaged more than 7.7 yards per carry. To put Brooks' yards per carry into perspective, his average collegiate run produced over half a yard more than Tom Brady's average pass netted last season.
Competition levels being what they are, Brooks was relegated to one of the NFL's regional combines in Houston. Brooks is said to have run well and performed his drills smoothly (as Barry Barnes at LockerReport.com confirmed), but at 5'8" and 192 pounds, he will probably have to settle for a camp invitation.
Brooks was in Houston along with Justin Sims, a Conference USA 100-meter sprint champion at Southern Miss who showed promise as a wide receiver before tearing an ACL in 2013. Sims transferred down to Division II North Alabama, but hamstring injuries kept him from helping the Lions on the football field. A 4.36-second 40-yard dash at the Houston combine could get Sims into a camp.
Brooks holds an NCAA record. Sims can point to track championships and a gaudy 40 time. Old Dominion quarterback Taylor Heinicke has enough trophies to fill a garage and statistics that Drew Brees would envy if Brees was the kind of person who envies stats.
Heinicke won the Walter Payton Award as the best player at the FCS level as a sophomore. He broke Steve McNair's FCS passing record with 5,076 yards, adding 44 passing touchdowns, 470 rushing yards and 11 rushing touchdowns in 2012.
Heinicke also made just about every FCS All-America team that exists before Old Dominion climbed up to Conference USA in Division I-A. He still earned C-USA honorable mention as the Monarchs adjusted to much tougher competition. Heinicke threw for 3,476 yards and 30 touchdowns in 2014. Not bad for a guy whose team was battling Duquesne and the Campbell Fighting Camels (as well as many legit FCS powerhouses) two years earlier.
Heinicke is just 6'1", with a weak arm by NFL standards, but he performed well at the Shrine Game and has all the intangibles to stick as a backup once he earns a late-round selection or camp invitation. Technically an I-A player, he's still a guy whose college accomplishments look like they were produced on a video game set to "easy."
All this doesn't minimize what these players did, but it makes them a little hard to project, though their stat lines and trophy cases are wondrous to behold.
Five-star recruits are so coveted that they rarely have to worry about regime or scheme changes. But a lower-tier player goes from pet project to paperweight if a larger program, NCAA investigator or simple wanderlust pulls away the coach that recruited him.
Lynden Trail arrived at Florida as a 6'6", 200-pound beanpole of a speed-rusher. Urban Meyer redshirted Trail while he gained weight and experience, but after Meyer left, Will Muschamp had little use for the slow-developing prospect. When Trail stopped even dressing on Saturdays, he decided to transfer.
Other I-A schools were interested, but after two seasons without playing a snap, Trail wanted a quick path to the field, not a year in NCAA transfer-rule limbo followed by another overcrowded depth chart. He chose Norfolk State, whose defensive line coach, Mark Thurston, was a fellow Miami native.
Andy Staples nailed Trail's story in a Monday Morning Quarterback article that I will not cannibalize but I will summarize. Trail's family comes from Turks and Caicos. He was raised by his protective mother in a rough part of Miami. Trail's high school teammate and other neighborhood friends were killed or severely injured at a rowdy party his mother would not let him attend; for want of a little helicopter parenting, Trail might not even be here today.
Trail planned to use football to work his way onto ESPN...as an editor or producer (Norfolk State's robust communication program was also a selling point for a player whose NFL dreams had dimmed). He ate eight meals per day to bulk up to his current playing weight of 265 pounds.
By his junior year, he was a Buck Buchanan Award finalist, all-conference defender and member of several FCS All-America teams.
He was the first Norfolk State player ever invited to the Senior Bowl. He performed well during Senior Bowl week, opening some eyes when he asked for some reps at tight end on the final day of practice. Trail showed he can block well (a smart thing for a player whose NFL career may hinge on special teams play) and even scored a practice touchdown at a position he had never played at the college level.
Trail worked out at defensive end, linebacker and tight end at Norfolk State's pro day. Some teams see a 6'6", 265-pounder with speed and envision an offensive weapon. Others see a player who can beef up and play with his hand in the dirt at defensive end.
"I'm pretty much a robot," he said at his pro day, according to David Hall of The Virginian-Pilot. "How ever they want me to mold and shape my body to help my team win, I'm willing to do it."
Trail made the "robot" remark at the Senior Bowl as well. But he is nothing like a robot. Robots are pre-programmed and follow scripts, like the top recruits who ride football-factory assembly lines to the top of the draft classes. Trail is more flexible. At the FCS level, he got an opportunity to grow into a unique prospect. If he ever reached the field at Florida, he might well have been just another face in the edge-rushing crowd.
Not every small-school story reads like a ready-for-Hallmark-Channel teleplay. Many young men skid down the competition rungs because of immaturity or bad behavior. Lots of college football players have an arrest or allegation on their records. Top prospects and programs can sweep all but the biggest issues under the rug in a dozen different ways. But if a player chooses to walk away from a major program, a few small incidents can become an avalanche that buries his career.
Brandon Wegher set Iowa freshman rushing records when he gained 641 yards for the Hawkeyes in 2009. But Wegher decided to transfer to Oklahoma for personal reasons. He left the Iowa program just two days into spring practice in 2010 and applied for an NCAA waiver to play for the Sooners in 2011. The waiver was denied. He initially stated that he would still practice with the Sooners but was out of the Oklahoma program by March 2011.
Wegher began taking classes at Iowa Western but was deemed ineligible for athletics. No longer a football star but still well known enough to make the wrong kind of news, Wegher began appearing in newspaper police blotters, as recounted by The Daily Iowan, among other outlets. He was arrested on suspicion of public intoxication and eluding police in October 2011. He was arrested for domestic-abuse assault after a fight with his brother in March 2012.
Wegher and former Iowa track star Megan Glisar had a child in the midst of all the upheaval. In 2011, Glisar sued for custody and support, as reported by the Courier Lee News Service.
His college football career seemingly over, Wegher worked at a mining company and his father's construction business, as HawkCentral.com detailed. He eventually called a coach at Morningside College, a tiny NAIA school where some of his high school friends had played.
The former top recruit and budding I-A star overwhelmed the competition on the college football fringe. In 2014, Wegher rushed for 2,680 yards and 39 touchdowns. Solid performances at the Medal of Honor Bowl and Iowa State's pro day put Wegher back on the NFL map.
Wegher and Glisar (and their son) are a family again; Glisar briefly transferred to Morningside as well, then returned to the NCAA as a star high jumper at South Dakota. Wegher is now 24 and striving to put the problems of 2011-12 behind him; he admits that he made mistakes, but he has grown older and wiser.
"I've definitely had time to reflect on it," he told The Des Moines Register. "It's a journey. I'm proud of where I've come."
Wegher carries some baggage at the end of his long journey, but he faced the kinds of problems—early parenthood, campus partying, sibling brawls—that most of us work through without newspapers, college football blogs and talk radio shows chronicling our every slipup.
Wegher might have been just another running back with whispered "character questions" if he had stayed at Iowa. He chose a much harder path. That path makes Wegher an NFL longshot—his father played in Canada, and the CFL is an option if Wegher cannot push his way past younger prospects in training camp—but it also made him someone who understands what happens when an opportunity is squandered.
The Other Notre Dame
Notre Dame University in South Bend, Indiana, is the most historic, well-known college football program on the planet. Notre Dame College in South Euclid, Ohio, may be the most obscure, least historic program on the planet. The Falcons' football program was founded in 2009 and only moved from NAIA to NCAA Division II in 2011. Notre Dame College is no football factory.
Doniel Gambrell enrolled at Notre Dame College because he was working at a real factory. His story, as has been reported most notably in Lynn Ischay's profile for The Plain Dealer, reads almost like a too-unrealistic-to-be-true inspirational novel.
Gambrell grew up poor—his father, Doniel Gambrell Sr., was murdered when he was 11—and he walked on at Eastern Michigan when the school rescinded a scholarship offer for the 6'6" offensive lineman who barely weighed 200 pounds. Gambrell bulked up to 260 and had just started practicing with the Eagles when he learned his girlfriend was pregnant. Gambrell left school to take a labor job for a power company, the factory heat melting him back down to 200 pounds as he worked to support his young family.
Gambrell is now married with three children. He works at an assisted-living facility for disabled children and young adults. He sometimes worked 16-hour shifts during the football season, dressing and feeding severely disabled youngsters or supervising the aggressive teenagers.
Gambrell now weighs 306 pounds. After starring at Notre Dame College, he stood out at the College Gridiron Showcase, one of the lower-level college all-star events.
"It was pretty clear he was the top offensive line prospect here. He looks like an NFL lineman," said Dane Brugler, draft analyst for CBS Sports. Gabriel attended Toledo's pro day and earned another round of positive reviews.
Gambrell is a likely late-round pick or street free agent. At 24, he is old for a traditional prospect, but scouts and NFL evaluators see the big picture. Gambrell faces a long climb from Division II to the NFL, but life experience cannot be simulated, and not many Division I super-prospects know what it's like to raise three kids, work on a 100-degree factory floor or play football after working double shifts in a hospital environment. Gambrell has faced more real-life grownup pressures than most college prospects.
Though one prospect has life experiences that no other can match.
Not all power-conference prospects are stamped out by a cookie cutter. But players with unique backgrounds are often relegated to specialist roles at the major programs. A nonstop pipeline of 17-year-old mega-talents feeds most of the positional depth charts, but at a position like long snapper, a 30-something combat veteran can still find his way onto the field.
Nate Boyer sounds like he sprung from the imagination of a focus group of writers Eric Meyer, Tom Clancy, Chris Claremont and Mike Lupica. But he's real. Boyer wasn't cut out for college as a young man, so he worked on fishing boats, trained to be a firefighter and even set out to be an actor. After learning about the Darfur genocides in 2004, he joined Catholic Relief Services in Africa. He then enlisted in the army and qualified for special forces training. Boyer became a Green Beret. He saw combat. He won the Bronze Star.
Boyer then enrolled at the University of Texas on the G.I. Bill and walked on to Mack Brown's Longhorns football program.
Already nearly 30 years old, he tried out at wide receiver and safety but couldn't compete with specialized athletes over a decade younger than him. Brown kept him on the program as more of a role model than a player; you don't just cut a Green Beret. Boyer eventually decided to try long snapping. He became the Longhorns' regular snapper. In the offseason, he sometimes found himself back in heavy combat overseas.
Three paragraphs don't come close to doing Boyer's story justice; Dan Wetzel at Yahoo Sports wrote a much more thorough feature.
Boyer is now 34, well past NFL retirement age at most positions. But long snappers are a little like kickers: technique, precision and grace under fire matter more than speed and strength.
Boyer has been snapping at Michael Husted's kicking academies, a top proving ground for specialists hoping to reach the NFL. Husted said earlier this week that Boyer has been snapping very well and can run and block well enough to play for an NFL punting unit.
And of course, "grace under fire" is no problem for someone who has literally been under fire. "Who else you want to take on that 'battlefield' of a football game than someone like that?" Husted told Bleacher Report last week. "Fans booing at you and throwing ice cubes...the guy saw a lot worse overseas."
Boyer is no small-school hero: He attended a huge program and is more of an actual "hero" hero. But like the FCS, Division II and NAIA marvels, his is a story of not fitting in right away at college, taking different routes and learning hard lessons away from the football field while the big-name guys remained cocooned within the power programs.
These guys bring a lot more to the table than highlight reels and 40 times. Given a chance in the final rounds or at a minicamp, these young (and not so young) men are guaranteed to make the absolute most of it.
Mike Tanier covers the NFL for Bleacher Report.