The Times West Virginian

Sports

April 28, 2014

Journey from Division II to the pros an uphill battle

FAIRMONT — Every young athlete dreams of hearing his named called during the draft.

But you’ve seen the statistics. Somewhere near 3 to 4 percent of high school athletes go on to play a college sport. From there, roughly 7 percent of college athletes make it to the big times. And then, you’ve got an even smaller chance of making it onto the playing surface. The odds aren’t in favor of the majority of student-athletes.

But if you’re a Division II or III athlete? Consider yourself to have an even smaller window of opportunity. Of the 254 players selected in the 2013 NFL Draft, just 11 were from Division II.

As this year’s NFL Draft nears in the upcoming weeks, Fairmont State’s Garrett Davis hopes to be part of the minority. He hopes to get drafted to play linebacker for an NFL franchise.

But the Falcons’ leading tackler from a season ago knows that he holds the key to his own destiny.

“It’s always nerve-wracking coming from high school and going to college,” Davis said. “You never know if you have that next opportunity but now that you have that opportunity, you have to take the next step.”

And for Davis, that next step is professional football.

To get there, the linebacker knows that he must take certain steps. He must get his name out there to pro scouts. He must gain some weight while keeping his athleticism. But, most importantly, he must stay positive.

“I went to Florida State (for a workout) and there were tons of scouts there and it was a little nerve-wracking until I got settled in,” he said. “But it was a fun experience knowing that all those eyes are watching you. And when you go into those individual drills, you're only one of four or five guys out there. It’s like playing under the lights on Friday or Saturday night.”

Being from a Division II school, Davis has had to exhort his options on how to get noticed by scouts everywhere. He’s been to several schools to link up with other D2 players who have the same goal in mind. One of those players being former Fairmont State standout and current California (Pa.) draft hopeful Dewey McDonald.

Davis and McDonald played together at FSU, Davis minding the linebacker spot while McDonald patrolled the secondary at safety. But, after breaking his arm, McDonald used his extra year of eligibility to head to Cal and raise his draft stock.

But Cal and Fairmont State are schools that fight the same battle, getting players noticed by scouts. But it’s not the size of the school nor the level of competition that matters, one coach said. It’s the type of player that you have to offer.

Cal coach Mike Kellar has had success sending players like Eric Kush, Rontez Miles, Tommie Campbell and Thomas Mayo to the NFL in recent seasons and said the key to success at the next level is to have personal success at the college level.

“The first thing they do is that they have success at the school that they're at. It wasn't just a statistical thing, where they were all-conference or all-American,” Kellar said. “They were guys who did things right all the time.”

The fact that Davis and McDonald come from small-time schools might limit their exposure, but their character and hard work will be what move scouts’ eyes past that.

“You explain to them that (coming to a D2 school) means going to the NFL is a long deal and it’s a long shot. The statistics show that it’s not something that happens very easily,” Kellar said. “We say, listen we’re going to give you the tools to be successful in all phases. Now you've got to go take those tools and apply them.”

Overall, Cal has 11 former players currently on NFL or Canadian Football League rosters, showing that D2 schools can, in fact, put players into the next level.

If drafted in May’s NFL Draft, Davis would be the first Fairmont State player to be selected since 1982 when Luc Tousignant was selected in the eighth round by the Buffalo Bills. Tousignant, however, opted out of the NFL and went to the CFL, something Davis would consider only if the NFL didn’t come calling.

But for others, reaching their ultimate goal of playing at the highest level must come through taking the path through smaller leagues.

Much like Davis, former FSU basketball star Isaac Thornton has aspirations of the bright lights. But he knows that his journey has a few more stops before he reaches that plateau.

Heading to play in a league in Peru this summer, Thornton plans to further get his name out there in hopes of landing a deal with a professional team overseas. But, Thornton said, staying hungry is the key.

“The main thing I've learned throughout this whole process is that you can't get too down on yourself and you can't get too high on yourself. Continue to be humble and get better,” Thornton said. “I'm very blessed for this opportunity.

“I think playing overseas and playing with those teams would help my chances because you are playing against top guys over there and it gives myself a chance to prove that I can play at a high level.”

Reaching the NBA, Thornton’s ultimate goal, is much less likely than reaching the NFL. As opposed to the NFL’s 254 selections, the NBA has just 60 each year and hardly any of those come in the form of Division II players. The last notable players from D2 came over a decade ago with Flip Murray and Devean George. But Thornton hopes to turn that around.

“Being from a D2 school doesn't mean you're not a great player. It just means you have to prove yourself when your time is called,” he said. “Believe it or not, people look down on you for playing D2, but that's OK because I loved being the underdog and proving people wrong.”

Coming from anything other than a top-tier program automatically puts Davis, McDonald and Thornton in the underdog category, but, Davis said, never giving up is much better than not trying at all.

“If you have a dream, you have a chance to make it a reality,” Davis explained. “The worst that they can do is tell you no, but you'll never know if you don't try it.”

Email Matt Welch at mwelch@timeswv.com or follow on Twitter @MattWelch_TWV.

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