NFLPA Collegiate Bowl is a step towards the future for players

Jake Browning
Washington Huskies quarterback Jake Browning (3) is chased down by Texas A&M Commerce defensive tackle Mike Onuoha (96) during the 2019 NFLPA Collegiate Bowl on Saturday, Jan. 19, 2019. Photo by Dennis J. Freeman/News4usonline

PASADENA, CA-The NFLPA Collegiate Bowl annual contest is not what you consider to be Disneyland. Getting the chance to play in the National Football League will not be every player’s dream that will come true. However, those that do participate in the showcase football game are taking a step in the right direction. For a bunch of seniors looking to impress NFL and other professional league scouts with their play on the field, the options are limited to make that happen.

Yes, it’s that time of year. Once the college football season concludes, the next barrage of activities surrounding the sport comes in the form of Pro Days, private workouts, combine drills, interviews, and a whole lot of evaluations and scrutiny and getting up to speed on the how the pro training regimen works. The phone rings constantly. All this madness comes after these young men try to prove on the football field they are worthy of an invite from an NFL team.

North Dakota running back John Santiago (22) feels the wrath of several defenders during the 2019 NFLPA Collegiate Bowl on Saturday, Jan. 19, 2019. Photo by Dennis J. Freeman/News4usonline

Jockeying for that chance at the 2019 NFLPA Collegiate Bowl, played Jan. 19 at the Rose Bowl Stadium in Pasadena, California, were players that either didn’t to work get enough reps on the field to make a big enough impression for scouts to get a real good look at them or athletes playing for smaller schools with little or no fanfare.

With former NFL greats like Ed Reed, Darrell Green, Andre Johnson, and Plaxico Burress, among others, manning the sidelines in their assistant coaching roles, the National and American team rosters were filled with players hoping to make that one play that might raise their NFL or professional football stock.

college football
Middle Tennessee State quarterback Brent Stockstill (12) moves out of the pocket to get away from Michigan defensive tackle Lawrence Marshall (95) during the 2019 NFLPA Collegiate Bowl on Saturday, Jan. 19, 2019. Photo by Dennis J. Freeman/News4usonline

Slippery Rock running back Wes Hills was one of those players hoping they made a good impression. After rushing for 78 yards and a touchdown to collect the game’s MVP trophy in the American team’s 10-7 win, Hills probably raised more than a few eyebrows with his relentless running style.

“It’s amazing.” said Hills.”I wasn’t expecting this. I just wanted to come out here and go to work every day, show these scouts, show my coaches that I can compete against anybody. I’m going to grind it out, day in and day out. A lot of people don’t get this opportunity. A lot of athletes are out there grinding, working to get a shot. I was blessed with this opportunity to showcase that against great talent and be coached by legends. You don’t pass up that opportunity like that.”

NFLPA Collegiate Bowl
North Dakota running back John Santiago (22) hits the open field during the 2019 NFLPA Collegiate Bowl on Saturday, Jan. 19, 2019. Isaiah Mack (98) from Tennessee-Chattanooga gets around the corner to try to make a play on Santiago. Photo by Dennis J. Freeman/News4usonline

At 6-foot-2, 218 pounds, Hills, who rushed for 1,714 yards his senior season, is listed to go anywhere from the fifth to the seventh round, according to early projections.  North Dakota running back John Santiago might have a tougher time trying to make that big impression. Santiago is listed at 5-foot-9 and 187 pounds. What he lacks in physical size, however, Santiago makes up for it with his speed and shiftiness to elude defenders.

“I’m just blessed to be in this position,” Santiago said. “Not a lot of guys from FCS, from my school, come and get this far. It’s a blessing in every aspect, learning so much from all of these guys. Every coach has been a huge inspiration to me. I’ve learned so much throughout this whole week. I’m just blessed to have this opportunity.”

Slippery Rock running back Wes Hills (34) rushed for 78 yards and a touchdown during the 2019 NFLPA Collegiate Bowl on Saturday, Jan. 19, 2019. Photo by Dennis J. Freeman/News4usonline

Rhode Island quarterback JaJuan Lawson might be considered to be an in-betweener as an NFL Draft choice. The 6-foot, 203-pound signal-caller is rated as the No. 37 out of 122 possible quarterbacks going into the draft, according to The Sports Xchange. With his senior campaign cut short by a leg injury, Lawson managed to pass for 1,728 yards and 17 touchdowns in just seven games in 2018. He fared pretty well in the NFLPA Collegiate Bowl, connecting on 8 of 13 passes for 83 yards and a score.

Lawson, who lists Los Angeles Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers as his favorite NFL quarterback, said he is excited about the prospect of having the opportunity to realize his childhood dream.

“It’s a lifelong dream of mine,” Lawson said. “I remember watching JaMarcus Russell (Oakland Raiders) get drafted as the No. 1 overall draft pick and saying how I wanted to get there. So when dreams become more of a reality, it makes you want to work that much harder.”

Rhode Island quarterback JaJuan Lawson (15) tries to get this pass off before Northwestern State linebacker Obinna Iheoma (51) takes him down with a sack during the 2019 NFLPA Collegiate Bowl on Saturday, Jan. 19, 2019. Photo by Dennis J. Freeman/News4usonline

Maine linebacker Sterling Sterling Sheffield has played on the outside throughout football career. But for this game, Sheffield, who played for the American team, was moved to play inside linebacker. The switch knocked Sheffield out of his comfort zone a little bit, but he adapted.

“I’ve played outside linebacker my whole life, so I’m comfortable playing like that,” Sheffield said. “Being here and being able to put on film that I can play inside is definitely a plus.”

College Football
Texas State tight end Keenen Brown (48) barrels through this tackle made by North Texas cornerback Nate Brooks (29) during the 2019 NFLPA Collegiate Bowl on Saturday, Jan. 19, 2019. Photo by Dennis J. Freeman/News4usonline

Echoing the sentiments of other players, Sheffield was pumped that he was chosen to participate in the 2019 NFLPA Collegiate Bowl.

“It’s a wonderful opportunity,” Sheffield said. “It’s a definitely a great platform. I’m just honored. A lot of people wish they could be in our shoes, but for us to be able to play here is awesome.”

Dennis J. Freeman
About Dennis J. Freeman 1373 Articles
Dennis is a news and sports photojournalist. Dennis has covered and written on issues such as civil rights, education, politics, and social justice. His work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Daily Breeze, Daily Press, Los Angeles Wave, Los Angeles Sentinel, and other media outlets. Dennis is currently the editor and publisher of News4usonline. He covers the NFL, NBA, Major League Baseball, and NCAA. Dennis is an alum and graduate of Howard University.

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