Sterling Sheffield had dreamed of this since he was a little kid, but now that the moment was at hand, he was struggling to control his emotions.
It was April 18, just a week before the NFL Draft commenced in Nashville. When he heard his phone ring, Sheffield assumed it was an NFL team offering him a pre-draft visit to try out at linebacker. After all he had been training out in California all spring to transform his body and game to the next level. Instead, it was his mother, Judy, on the other line barely able to speak with tears flowing down her cheeks.
Sterling’s great aunt, Betty Green, passed away.
Travel 700 miles south to find another linebacker, Noah Dawkins from The Citadel. With 12 scouts in attendance at Citadel’s pro day, Dawkins is relaxed, focused and locked in. He’s about to showcase his potential 4.3 speed in the 40-yard dash. As he takes his first few steps, he suddenly he feels a pop. It’s his left hamstring, booming in pain.
Dawkins knows his pro day and possibly his chance at the NFL is over.
Head back up the east coast to find Ventell Bryant, a wide receiver who played at Temple. He overcame nagging injuries, a suspension and a coaching change to have one of the most productive receiving seasons ever at Temple during his senior year. With his size, speed and stats, Bryant believed he possessed a great chance to fulfill his lifelong dream of playing in the NFL. Despite doing everything correctly, he suffers through one of the worst feelings a pro athlete can encounter.
Sheffield, Bryant and Dawkins were invited to the Bengals rookie minicamp for a tryout and signed with the team after one day.
What makes this trio unique is the odds they initially overcame after a handful of meetings with the Bengals coaching staff and one team workout. A minicamp invitation essentially is an unsalaried tryout with the odds stacked against a player.
There is one common quality all three share in their journeys: faith.
Lost, Yet Found
Despite a highly productive collegiate career, numerous pro scouts believe Sheffield is too small for an NFL linebacker and not fast enough to play safety. Sheffield understands the critiques, he’s dealt with them his entire life.
When Sheffield first began his high school career, he enrolled at Paul VI High School in Haddonfield, N.J., but like many 14-year olds, he faltered academically. Sheffield with the help of his father Adrian transferred to Clearview in Mullica Hill, N.J. as a junior and completely flipped his life around. His grades drastically improved and eventually the extra effort in the classroom helped him earn a scholarship to play at the University of Maine.
Playing as an outside linebacker at Maine, Sheffield was one of the defensive leaders of the surprising Black Bears, who advanced to the national semifinals for the first time in the program’s history. He finished with nine and a half sacks, 18 tackles for a loss, three fumble recoveries and two forced fumbles.
With everything going well after his Maine career concluded, Sheffield zipped out to the west coast to train in California at a facility owned by Kobe Bryant.
Then Sheffield got the call.
“They actually changed the funeral date, just because the draft was going to be on that date,” Sheffield said. “It ended up being that next week, so being focused was the main thing I was taking day by day, working out and working hard.”
Green, who Sheffield affectionately called “Aunt Yanny,” helped raise Sterling when his parents were working. Day after day, Aunt Yanny was one of Sterling’s guiding lights, especially when he focused on improving his grades in high school.
The loss of Aunt Yanny drives Sterling to not only realize his NFL dream, but outside of football to be a great man and inspiration to others.
“When my parents were at work and everything, she raised both me and my little sister since I was 10 years old,” Sheffield said. “She was a very spiritual woman, she helped me with my spirit and my relationship with God. Helping me know what was good, and being as close as I can to the Lord, and just being there for me in general. I love her to death, she was amazing. I’m sorry that she passed on, but what she wants for me right now is to focus on this.”
The Second Chance
Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami is famously quoted for saying "everybody has to start somewhere." For Bryant in his football career, it's usually been at the bottom.
Bryant, who played high school ball at Jefferson High in Tampa, Fla., redshirted his first season at Temple after weighing only 169 pounds. He needed the redshirt to physically get stronger for Division I opponents and in 2015 he added 39 receptions for 579 yards and three touchdowns. One of his best performances that year came in a nationally-televised game against Notre Dame where he recorded six receptions for 91 yards.
He came back with an even better redshirt sophomore year with a team-best 54 receptions for 895 yards and four touchdowns for a Temple team that went 10-4 and beat No. 20 Navy for the American Athletic Conference championship.
Then Bryant’s journey took a significant detour.
After the 2016 regular season, head coach Matt Rhule left for the same position at Baylor. Temple hired then Florida defensive coordinator Geoff Collins to replacing him, but the new coaching staff and Bryant initially meshed as well as oil and water.
Bryant was dismissed from the team midseason after an overtime loss at Army, but a group of players forming the team's unity council went to Collins to plead Bryant's case. He missed the next game, against Navy, but rejoined the team for the rest of the season.
He rebounded his senior season with an impressive 51 receptions for 690 yards and three scores. Bryant believed that his strong senior year, coupled with his size at 6’3” and 209 lbs, would be good enough to get a good look at the next level.
Instead, it was nothing but inactivity throughout the pre-draft and post-draft process.
“You know after the football season finished, I felt like I had a pretty good career at Temple,” Bryant said. “I was just excited to go train, and get ready for hopefully the combine and the pro day. I didn’t get invited to any of the senior games as well. I didn’t even get any calls after the draft, so I was a little discouraged. But, I knew I was going to keep working and eventually I was going to get my shot.”
For undrafted college free agents, one of the biggest selling points is opportunity. For Bryant, he remained patient and kept believing. That faith eventually would reward him.
“Thankfully, the Bengals called and it is a great opportunity,” said Bryant. “I also had a tryout with the Saints the same week. I chose the Bengals. I felt like it was a better opportunity to sign, so I came here during rookie minicamp and just did my best, and now I’m here.”
Keeping The Faith
To say Dawkins is a man of faith would be quite an understatement.
His father Ronald is a deacon for a Baptist church in Spartanburg, S.C. He’s always drawn on faith and family to overcome the odds.
In high school, he ran the 40-yard dash in 4.46 seconds, broad-jumped 10 feet, eight inches and had a vertical leap of 39 inches, all impressive for an athlete of his size.
Yet major-college recruiters believed his size was a question mark. Dawkins was not big enough for the defensive line or linebacker and not rangy enough for safety. He held only two scholarship offers -- The Citadel and fellow FCS team South Carolina State.
It didn’t take long for Dawkins to turn that speed into productivity. Dawkins recorded 66 tackles and 13 and a half tackles for loss for The Citadel as a senior and led the team with five and a half sacks. The All-Southern Conference pick also intercepted two passes and led the team in sacks for three straight seasons.
Then came his pro day. With NFL scouts watching, the Bulldogs’ linebacker had tweaked his hamstring just a few strides into his 40-yard dash. He finished the 40, but wouldn’t be able to complete the position drills that followed.
Dawkins sat dejectedly on the side of the practice field, a towel over his head. This was his big chance and he couldn’t figure out why after doing all of the right things to prove himself as a player in the NFL that an injury would come then.
Drawing on his faith and the discipline he learned at The Citadel, Dawkins kept believing.
“After the draft, I got a call from the Seahawks to come tryout,” Dawkins said. “I went there a week and a half ago. I did their rookie minicamp and I already had this one set up as well. So, I came here afterwards. After the Seahawks minicamp, I obviously didn’t get signed. I then came to this rookie minicamp, practiced and everything. I did the best I could, and then thankfully they signed me afterwards.”
Beating The Odds
For some players, all they need is a chance. Among those that went undrafted in years past include Tony Romo, Arian Foster, Chris Harris Jr. and Antonio Gates, all of whom have gone on to have very successful careers.
Sheffield, Bryant and Dawkins all know they have long odds to make an NFL roster. Yet the league is scattered though with success stories. In fact, the trio doesn’t need to look far and wide when it comes to an undrafted player making it in the NFL.
Jordan Kovacs, the Bengals defensive quality control coach, was once one of them. He played safety in the NFL from 2013-15 with the Miami Dolphins. Originally a college free agent signee, he played in 28 games in his career with the Dolphins. What most people don’t know is Kovacs in college at the University of Michigan originally joined the team as a walk-on before working his way to team captain as a senior.
Anarumo said for undrafted players to make it in the NFL, it’s usually a combination of factors from team need, scheme, fit and luck.
"It has to be right time, right place, right situation and some things have to fall your way," said Anarumo. “But, it is definitely not impossible.”
This is where scouting comes into play.
Take a look at some of the top undrafted free agents in the Bengals history. Players listed in alphabetical order.
The Bengals over the years have shown a proficiency to land key contributors during the undrafted free agency period. Recently guys like Vincent Rey, Vontaze Burfict, Alex Erickson and Trey Hopkins each brought a unique skill set to the team that many talent evaluators thought would be a detriment like a lack of speed, size, agility or playmaking ability. Scouts focusing too much on what they couldn’t do versus what they could do helped those players beat the odds and contribute significantly in the NFL.
“You get a guy that you say 'hey this guy intrigues me' because he might be a good scheme fit in this particular deal, or he’s just a really good athlete,” said Anarumo. “Let’s give him a chance, and let’s see if that athleticism turns into being a pro football player, so you got kind of a little bit of both there.”
One element that helps undrafted free agents recently is in the current collective bargaining agreement there are not the same restrictions for rookies as there are for veterans as it pertains to player development. If a rookie has a desire to get better, they have access to the same resources as a veteran with strength and conditioning, nutrition and access to coaches. That access bodes well in a player’s bid to be a part of the team’s plans.
“Just being ready when the opportunity presents itself,” Bryant said. “I didn’t come in and dwell on not having an iPad or playbook or anything. I came in seeing the opportunity to work, and just get the most out of this opportunity. Just meeting with the coaches as much as possible. So, they know that I know what I’m doing when I get out there, so I can prove myself when I get the opportunity.”
After everything they have been through, there is no question Sheffield, Bryant and Dawkins will take advantage of every moment to capitalize.
For them, the ups and downs of life are part of the journey. Part of having faith.