Undrafted isn’t always bad

Marvin Westwestwords

Let’s pretend your name is Bill Bates. You discovered while at Farragut High that you were one of the best football players in all of Knox County. You could play the game. You were fearless. You really popped people.

Ken Sparks was coach. He was an inspiration. And a motivator. He got those blue and silver uniforms with the star on the helmets, much like Dallas had. The Cowboys were America’s team.

“Wearing that star on my helmet, I dreamed about playing for the Dallas Cowboys,” said Bill Bates.

Those Admirals played well. They made it to the state semifinals in 1978. They lost. There was a photo of Bill on hands and knees in the end zone. He was crying. That’s how much football and winning mattered.

Recruiters came from everywhere. They didn’t have a chance. It was going to be Tennessee if he stayed home and UCLA if he ventured afar. The former all-American John Majors was coaching the Volunteers.

Bill remembered summarizing, during the flight back from his official visit to UCLA, that it was a fine school and an interesting team.

He smiled at the next thought: If I leave home, somebody will burn down our house.
Yep, Tennessee football really matters. Bill chose the Volunteers. He started the first game as a freshman strong safety. He was a four-year starter. His trademark was fierce determination and really tough tackling. Coach Majors said Bill was a slobber-knocker.

Alas and alas, his college career is remembered for that one play against Georgia, September 6, 1980, Herschel Walker’s debut with the Bulldogs, bigger man, full head of steam, coming his way.

“I still remember it like it was yesterday.”

What Bill remembers is a footprint here, a footprint there. He looked up in time to see Herschel rolling on toward his first college touchdown.

“It changed my life in a positive way. After that, I made sure that I was going to work my butt off so I could be the best I could be and I would never let that happen again.”

I thought Bill Bates adjusted the Golden Rule. He did unto others much of what Walker had done to him.

There was another disappointment. NFL personnel wasted what seemed like a week stumbling and bumbling through 12 rounds of the April 1983 draft – 335 were chosen but there was no mention of Bill Bates of Tennessee.

Bill said he guessed he just wasn’t good enough. He heard he wasn’t big enough. Or fast enough. Maybe he’ll become a coach.

Strangely enough, when the draft was finally over, somebody called. He said he was from Dallas and asked if Bill would be interested in an undrafted free-agent opportunity with the Cowboys.

“Undrafted” was suddenly very good. Bill could say yes or no. He said he signed a contract without even reading it. He recognized a dream when it came true.

You undoubtedly know the rest of the story, heart of a lion in an ordinary man, how Bates with the star on his helmet became a legendary special teams player. He made the Pro Bowl his second year. He was a leader on and off the field. Great coach Tom Landry said “hardest hitter I ever saw.”

Bill Bates played in the league 15 years. He has three Super Bowl rings.

Quick move, from then to last week and now.

After years of preparations, after doing everything the coach said, after all those violent collisions, after the applause and even a few awards, it must be heartbreaking to be on the outside looking in after 257 draft selections.

Nine Vols who consider themselves pro prospects are in the current undrafted free-agent class. There is hope, even optimism, instead of depression.

Linebacker Aaron Beasley and return specialist Dee Williams have already signed with the Seattle Seahawks. Tight end McCallan Castles, who transferred to Tennessee to prove himself in the big league, did it well enough to get a contract with the Philadelphia Eagles.

Tight end Jacob Warren has signed with New England. Former Vol Jerod Mayo is the coach. The Patriots drafted Vol quarterback Joe Milton.

Wide receiver Ramel Keyton is going with the Las Vegas Raiders, defensive back Jaylen McCollough with the Los Angeles Rams and offensive lineman Jeremiah Crawford with the Carolina Panthers.

Defensive back Gabe Jeudy-Lally has signed with the Tennessee Titans. Running back Jabari Small is supposedly headed that way.

Undrafted signees get paid. Teams are bidding for depth. Some offers exceed the required salaries for low draft choices. Free-agent contracts are rarely guaranteed but NFL minimum wage is $795,000 if the player is on the roster.

Eleven percent of current pros came up from the undrafted ranks. The odds aren’t great but Kurt Warner made it from Northern Iowa and a part-time job stocking shelves at Hy-Vee super market.

Old Vol Arian Foster went from undrafted to NFL rushing leader. Ramon Foster and Jabari Greer achieved. Bill Bates beat the heck out of the odds.

Fame and fortune await the fortunate.

Marvin West welcomes comments or questions from readers. His address is marvinwest75@gmail.com


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *