The dream starts in backyards and on neighborhood playgrounds.
It intensifies as a player progresses through the various levels of football — Pop Warner, middle school, junior varsity, high school varsity and, finally, college.
Those who play on Friday night can’t wait for the chance to play on Saturday afternoon, then those who play on Saturdays can’t wait for the chance to play on Sundays. The dream comes into focus as the player ages from child to man.
A record 98 college underclassmen are attempting to accelerate the dream by applying for early admission to the 2014 NFL draft. They include major award winners, All-Americans and wall-to-wall all-conference selections. They represent Saturday’s best.
I just hope all have thought this decision through and are making the wise choice.
I’m sure all have been told by family, friends, coaches, teammates and agents that their games are ready for the next level. All expect to be drafted by the NFL and most expect to go high. Big money awaits.
Look at Barry Sanders, Emmitt Smith, Ray Lewis, Tony Gonzalez, Randy Moss, Aaron Rodgers and J.J. Watt. The NFL loves underclassmen, right?
Not exactly. Not all underclassmen.
Reality often authors a different script.
Sanders paved the way for juniors in 1989 when he bucked the system and skipped his final season at Oklahoma State to become the third overall pick of the NFL draft by the Detroit Lions.
Then in 1990, the NFL officially opened the door to underclassmen. Thirty-eight applied for early admission that year, and eight became first-rounders, including quarterback Jeff George, the first overall choice by the Indianapolis Colts.
George would become the first of 15 juniors to go No. 1 overall in the 24 drafts since then. In 2012, a record 19 underclassmen were selected in the first round, including the first six overall picks.
But of the 1,071 underclassmen granted early entry since 1990, 342 went undrafted and only 274 became first-rounders. The dream became a nightmare for many.
Rufus French was an All-American tight end at Mississippi in 1998. A two-time all-SEC pick, he applied for early admission to the 1999 NFL draft. He went undrafted and never played a down on Sundays.
Kwame Cavil was the Big 12’s leading receiver with a Texas single-season record 100 catches for 1,188 yards in 1999. He elected to skip his senior season but also went undrafted. He wound up playing one NFL season, catching four passes, before taking his game to Canada for less money than a college degree would have earned him.
Kai Parham was a three-year starter and an all-ACC pick as a pass-rushing linebacker at Virginia. Coming off a nine-sack junior season, Parham applied for early admission in 2006 but went undrafted and never played a down in the NFL.
John Clay was the Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year at Wisconsin in 2009 as a sophomore and followed that up with a 1,000-yard, 14-touchdown rushing season as a junior in 2010. He also decided to leave school early but went undrafted in 2011. His NFL career lasted two games and 10 carries.
Tony Jefferson and Kenny Vaccaro were all-Big 12 safeties in 2012. Vaccaro was a senior and Jefferson a junior. Vaccaro became a first-round pick and an NFL all-rookie selection. Jefferson skipped his senior season but went undrafted last April, signing on with the Arizona Cardinals and contributing 24 tackles off the bench.
If I were the NFL czar, I’d require collegians to spend four seasons on campus and finish out their eligibility before entering the NFL draft. Legally, that will never happen. But logically, a college degree will take most of these players further in life than their football careers will.
The holy trinity of NFL quarterbacking — Tom Brady, Peyton Manning and Drew Brees — all spent four years on campus and all left for the NFL with college degrees in hand. They were ready for the NFL and ready for life. Four years of college didn’t slow their progress toward greatness. I wish more college players would follow in their footsteps.
Spending an extra year on campus would help foster a maturation of these underclassmen as both individuals and players. It would also give them an extra year to appreciate what, for most of them, will be the apex of their football careers.