There isn’t necessarily a direct route to playing for the New England Patriots.
Some players were highly recruited out of high school, went to a school with a major college football program and came to the NFL as a first-round draft pick. Consider that the Dont’a Hightower model.
Others went undrafted out of college (Jonas Gray) or played at the FCS level (Jimmy Garoppolo), and plenty went to Rutgers (Devin McCourty, Tim Wright, Logan Ryan and Duron Harmon).
Some of the Super Bowl XLIX-bound Patriots’ biggest stars weren’t even recruited out of high school, however.
“This locker room is filled with stories like that,” wide receiver Julian Edelman said Sunday after the Patriots beat the Indianapolis Colts in the AFC Championship Game. “Guys who weren’t wanted, guys that have had to change positions — not necessarily me, other guys. That’s what Coach Belichick does, I guess. He finds football players.”
Edelman, defensive end Rob Ninkovich, running back LeGarrette Blount and cornerback Malcolm Butler all began their college careers at junior colleges. For young athletes who don’t have the option of going to a Division I program and aren’t content with Division II or Division III options, beginning at a junior college can be the best option.
One would think that toiling away in a school where most players won’t ever sniff a D-I school, let alone the NFL, while maintaining the drive to reach the ultimate goal would be an undertaking. Blount didn’t exactly see it that way.
“No, not at all,” Blount answered when asked if he ever had doubts during his two years at East Mississippi Community College.
Blount originally intended to go to Auburn, but didn’t have the test scores to attend the SEC school. After 367 carries for 2,292 yards and 18 rushing touchdowns in two seasons at the JC, Oregon came calling, and he accepted a scholarship, partially because of their snazzy uniforms.
Blount has stuck around in the NFL since coming in as an undrafted free agent in 2010, and can proudly say he’s the best football player in his family.
“Growing up I just heard a lot of stories about how good my dad (Gary) was at football,” Blount said. “About how good his team was, and how he was the best player in the state and all kinds of stuff. I wanted to be like him. I wanted to be better than him. I made it to this level, so I’m the best football player in the family.”
Butler, like Blount, didn’t have the academics for a D-I school, but never made it past Division-II West Alabama before receiving a tryout during rookie minicamp with the Patriots last spring.
Butler took the rockiest trip to the NFL among his teammates, enrolling at Hinds (Miss.) Community College, getting kicked out, re-enrolling, and transferring to West Alabama before he received any Division I offers.
Many doubted that Butler could find his way to the NFL.
“Oh yeah, that’s everyone,” Butler said. “That’s everyone. But you just gotta believe in yourself and keep working. You’ll get what you want to get.”
Butler played in 11 games as a rookie for the Patriots this season and even was a contributor in the AFC Championship, playing 15 snaps in a rotating secondary.
Have fun trying to find Edelman on any recruiting website. He was so lowly sought-out that even other junior colleges didn’t want him, despite quarterbacking a conference champion high school.
“I wasn’t recruited by anyone, not even the other JCs in the conference,” Edelman said. “I won’t say any names, but College of San Mateo, they wanted me and they’ve been a big part of me getting to where I’m at. It’s unbelievable to see how that program is probably one of the best in the country right now, surpassing all the other teams in that conference.”
Edelman was a late-bloomer and didn’t start playing quarterback until his junior year at Woodside High School after beginning as a tailback. He said he had Super Bowl dreams when he was still in diapers, but by the time he was at College of San Mateo (Calif.), all he wanted was to get to the next level.
“I wasn’t thinking about the NFL when I was there,” Edelman said. “I was thinking about trying to get a scholarship. That’s really what I was worried about.”
Edelman, who threw for 1,312 yards with 14 touchdowns and had 1,253 rushing yards with another 17 touchdowns at San Mateo, wanted to keep playing quarterback, despite being 5-foot-10. He accepted a scholarship from Kent State and was permitted to transfer from San Mateo after just one year because of good grades.
Edelman probably could have made the process to the NFL, where he now stars as a wide receiver, a bit easier if the had changed positions earlier along the way.
“I’m sure they did, but I was a stone head about it,” Edelman said when asked if any schools wanted him to move from quarterback.
“You don’t change it. Everything happens for a reason.”
Ninkovich has a similar story to Edelman’s. He was just 215 pounds as an All-State defensive end at Lincoln-Way Central (Ill.) High School and was too small to garner D-I offers, so he attended Joliet Junior College for two years.
“I didn’t have that ‘wow’ factor,” Ninkovich said. “I still might not have that ‘wow’ factor. It’s about — I had to be about 250 (for a D-I scholarship). I was 255, 250 (leaving Joliet).”
Ninkovich didn’t know about the option of prep schools, and wanted a shot at a Division-I program rather than settling for something lower.
“Prep schools — that would have been cool to get those two years, then had another four years to really develop, but looking back on it now, it’s really better because I was younger coming into the league,” Ninkovich said. “I was 21 years old.”
Ninkovich recorded a school-record 16 sacks as a sophomore at Joliet before transferring to Purdue. He eventually was drafted in the fifth round of the 2006 NFL draft by the New Orleans Saints, so the decision paid off.
“That was a perfect place for me to take those two years and use them to mature and get bigger and faster and become a Division I athlete,” Ninkovich said about Joliet, where he played with cornerback Kelvin Hayden, who was drafted in the second round of the 2005 NFL draft by the Indianapolis Colts.
Ninkovich bounced around the NFL from the Saints to the Miami Dolphins, back to New Orleans, where they wanted him to be a long snapper, and then finally to the Patriots, where he’s found a home since 2009.
Ninkovich embodies what Belichick looks for perhaps more than any other player on the team. From a junior college to opposing teams wanting him to change positions, Belichick found a “football player” in the starting defensive end.
Thumbnail photo via Greg M. Cooper/USA TODAY Sports Images