(LOS ANGELES) - One of the reasons that the NCAA provides such a dependable tunnel for professional caliber talent in the world of football is that without DFI, there is a lack of a universally recognizable second tier.
Regardless, heart is required.
That's the message of this group of men, who are are inspirations to all. Three of these men did not attend college at all and still went on to NFL careers, while two of them opted out of football but still found the NFL looking in their direction.
What these players are, though, is extraordinarily uncommon — and a reminder that sometimes an NFL, CFL or Arena opportunity could be just a little more game film away.
1. Ray Seals
Pictured above laying into Buffalo Bills quarterback Jim Kelly, Seals is one of the most well known NFL players to have skipped college in league history. Indeed, as a starting defensive end on a Super Bowl team (in this case, the Pittsburgh Steelers in Super Bowl XXX), Seals reached the apex of his position, even though the Steelers would end up losing that contest. Seals made his way to the NFL by stints with minor league football franchises, and would ultimately spend eight seasons playing at the highest level of professional football, playing for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and the Carolina Panthers as well as the aforementioned Steelers.
2. Eric Swann
For players like Eric Swann, who was ruled academically ineligible to play for North Carolina State, there was no DFI. He wound up playing for the now-defunct Bay State Titans, described as “a bunch of nobodies in Massachusetts.” When he was drafted by the Arizona Cardinals without playing a single second of college football, it must have been indescribable.
It’s worth noting here that Swann did briefly attend Wake Forest Technical College before dropping out to play with the Titans, but he’s included here because his collegiate tenure was brief enough that he’s listed as having “No College” on his official NFL page.
3. Sav Rocca
Easily the most incredible name on this entire list, Sav Rocca was a latecomer to the NFL — he didn’t play in the league proper until the age of 36, when he caught on with the Philadelphia Eagles in 2006, becoming the oldest rookie in league history. What was he doing before his debut? Playing Australian football, which is not the same as American football, or rugby, for that matter.
4. Michael Lewis
Michael Lewis, former Budweiser truck driver, finally caught on in the NFL after a decade of slogging through minor leagues, indoor and arena football leagues after graduating high school in 1990. The New Orleans native finally got his break on football’s biggest stage when his hometown team, the New Orleans Saints, signed him. The eventual All-Pro, who came into the league with the mostly-modest goal to “play in one NFL game,” would eventually carve out a six-year career that started when he was 30 years old.
5. Lawrence Okoye
All of these athletes bypassed the NCAA and the traditional college experience for one reason or another, but only Lawrence Okoye had a spot waiting for him whenever he wants it, as a defensive lineman for the New York Jets. Okoye had a distinguished career as an Olympic athlete, and a place to study law at Oxford waiting for him whenever his sports career starts to wind down.
6. Antonio Gates
While Gates did go to college, the tight end actually went and played basketball for four years. When his talent as a basketball player didn't take him the route that he wanted to go, he turned to football and ended up getting picked up by the San Diego Chargers without playing a single down since his senior year of high school.
7. Darren Bennett
The Australian-born Bennett contacted the San Diego Chargers while on his honeymoon in California and received a private meeting where he impressed the team enough to be offered a formal contract. He played Australian rules football for 12 seasons beforehand, but did not go to college before entering the NFL to play a prosperous number of seasons which resulted in a number of Pro Bowl starts.