Nowadays people forget that New Haven was the birthplace of American football. That Walter Camp devised the line of scrimmage and the system of downs while studying on the campus of one of America’s elite universities. That in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Yale football was the team to beat, a perennial national powerhouse.
People seldom remember that Calvin Hill ’69 played for Yale. Or that Dick Jauron ’73 wore the Bulldogs’ blue and white. That even into the 1970s, Yale football meant something on the national scene. The Ivy League’s move down to the Division I-AA level of college football meant that Yale’s block-Y helmet slipped out of America’s college football consciousness. And though the students, alumni and fans in New Haven have maintained an interest in Yale’s football tradition, most outsiders have not. As college football grew ever more popular in the age of television, the Bulldogs were relegated to the ticker.
But it was not just the fans and the media. For a while there, NFL scouts did not come to New Haven. Or if they did, they trickled in, one at a time, and did not seem to pay too much attention. Ivy League football just was not up to snuff.
But as the NFL grew in popularity in the 1990s, public attention to the draft increased. ESPN began televising every round of selections.
Russell Baxter, head of NFL research at ESPN, believes that increased attention has benefited players from smaller conferences like the Ivy League.
“Scouts are looking everywhere for players,” Baxter said. “They don’t want to get burned by somebody else who probably took a little more initiative in looking at everything. And I think the Arena League and Kurt Warner [played] a big factor in that — They want people who can play, and they’re going to look everywhere. And I think they’ve reopened their minds when it comes to the Ivy league schools.”
The possibility of going to the NFL is something that Nate Lawrie ’04 admits he took into consideration when choosing Yale. Offered a scholarship by Division I-A Ball State University, Lawrie realized that the higher level of competition played there might help him transition to the NFL. But he decided that the education he would receive at Yale outweighed the NFL grooming potential offered by Ball State’s scholarship. And like ESPN’s Baxter, Lawrie believed that the transition from the Ivy League to the professional ranks was feasible.
“I felt like it probably would be harder to come out of an Ivy League school to make it in the pros,” Lawrie said. “But at the same time, if you’re good enough, they’ll find you — I knew that it was the kind of a thing where if I went to an Ivy League school I could still play professional football and get this great education. Or I could go to Ball State and not get the great education and potentially play professional football. So it was an easy decision.”
Formula for success
Lawrie’s decision was vindicated after his freshman season when Bulldog wide receiver Eric Johnson ’01 made a successful transition from Yale football to the professional ranks. Recruited only by Yale, Harvard, Columbia and Williams out of high school, Johnson was gifted, but slow for a wideout. At Yale, he overcame his slowness of foot with precise route-running, soft hands and a flair for the spectacular catch. But despite breaking nearly every Yale receiving record, NFL scouts were not initially interested.
“Eric did not meet the NFL’s physical criteria,” Siedlecki said. “When they came and looked at him as a junior, when they timed him and did everything, they basically said, ‘At the position he’s at, he’s not an NFL player.'”
Johnson, on the advice of his agent, Joe Linta, chose a new position, one he had never played at any level: tight end.
“I had a big frame, I was about 230, [and] pretty skinny at 230,” Johnson said. “So I knew I could probably put on some weight. And my speed wasn’t as good as NFL wide receivers. So I knew I could try to go in as a big, slower NFL wide receiver, or try to go in as a faster tight end. So that seemed like a much better option.”
In order to make it at tight end, Johnson would have to gain weight. But he still needed to lower his time in the 40-yard dash, which hung at around five seconds — too slow for the NFL, even for a tight end. After working out extensively with Dallas-based trainer Scott Pucek, Johnson was able to gain 25 pounds and lower his 40-yard time to 4.73 seconds. Still, only four scouts showed up for his Pro Day, with a few others visiting later, one at a time.
“I would have to keep running a 40 for each individual team,” Johnson said. “Which is not ideal for the player. But I had to, because I just didn’t have that option [not to run for each team].”
Because he had lowered his 40 time so dramatically, Johnson figured he would be invited to camp as a free agent by at least one team. But he did not expect to get selected. On draft day he sat by the phone, just in case. During the seventh and final round, the phone rang.
“About five minutes before I got drafted, Bill Walsh called me and said, ‘Hey, you want to play for the 49ers?'” Johnson said. “I was just in shock.”
Johnson and safety Than Merrill ’01 were drafted back-to-back in the seventh round. Merrill was selected by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers with the 223rd pick, with Johnson selected next by San Francisco. But unlike Merrill, who bounced around the league due to injury problems, Johnson’s success extended far beyond draft day.
As it turned out, Johnson had been coveted by the 49ers’ legendary former coach, Bill Walsh, who made the Yale wide receiver-cum-tight end his last selection as general manager before stepping down.
“It gave me some confidence just knowing that he had confidence to take a chance in me,” Johnson said. “It was just really exciting. [Walsh is] a legend of the game and I was his last pick. I knew I was someone that he had really studied, and he actually wanted.”
What transpired after would make Johnson, and Lawrie, feel even better. After being nervous about blocking at the start of training camp, Johnson soon learned that he could handle the NFL rush. Ever-confident in his receiving skills, Johnson got more and more playing time throughout San Francisco’s pre-season schedule. When starting tight end Greg Clark went down with a hamstring injury, Johnson realized he could not only make the team, but the starting lineup.
“I wanted to be one of the top two or three guys, and I realized that I could,” Johnson said. “I worked really hard — As I got closer to the season I realized I wanted to be the top guy, if Greg didn’t come back. So I just worked toward that, and it ended up working out really well, after that first game. In the first game I played a lot, switching in. They started me that second game.”
In a matter of months, he had gone from an Ivy League wide receiver to a starter at tight end in the NFL.
Lawrie found inspiration in his former teammate’s success.
“When he started playing a lot I saw that he could block at the next level,” Lawrie said. “He never blocked at Yale; they kind of taught him how to do that. That kind of showed me that I can do that. It was a big inspiration — for a guy that went from being a receiver to a tight end and made it at the next level.”
Johnson recently received a three-year contract extension with the 49ers.
“Having him go to the NFL and make such an impact really helped me in terms of having scouts come in here,” Lawrie added. “Because the 49ers kind of grabbed him and nobody really knew who he was. Scouts come in now [because] they don’t want to miss out on another prospect like that.”
While a large portion of the NFL’s 32 teams did not bother to come to Johnson’s workouts — including the 49ers, who selected him on the basis of film taken during the exercises — at least 20 teams were represented at Lawrie’s Pro Day Feb. 20, and several others have visited New Haven since. Lawrie was also invited to participate in the Blue-Gray All-Star Football Classic and the Las Vegas All-American Classic, talent showcases that largely feature players from Division I-A.
Not all Yale’s NFL hopefuls have shared Johnson’s success.
The last Yale player to compete in the Blue-Gray Classic was offensive lineman Marek Rubin ’99. But despite having an NFL-worthy frame — 6’7″, 320-lb — and the All-Star invitation, Rubin found transitioning to the pros more difficult than he had thought.
“A lot of the things that I loved about football at Yale, you don’t really see them that much in the pros,” said Rubin, who joined the Detroit Lions as a free agent. “The thing that I miss about the game is the camaraderie — In my experience in the pros, it’s not as solid as it was at Yale. You think you have an allegiance to this group of guys and then from one day to the next you get cut or fired — The way they fire you is they give you a call at about five o’clock in the morning — So what happens is a group of people go to sleep and in the morning certain of the people are gone. Nobody really talks about them. It’s almost as if they were never there.”
Rubin’s wake-up call came after the Lions’ second pre-season game in ’99. After a season in NFL Europe and two years playing in Germany’s semi-pro league, Rubin gave up football. He has started his own business and lives with his parents in New Jersey.
Rubin’s teammate, Adam Hernandez ’98, played two seasons in the NFL, spending time on the practice squads of Baltimore, Chicago and Atlanta. He also felt the sting of the league’s business mentality.
“The NFL is a tough place,” Hernandez said. “One of the things I didn’t anticipate coming out of college was the cultural difference between the two levels of play. In college, especially at a school like Yale or any Ivy League institution where you’re not under scholarship, you’re really just playing for, it sounds cliched, your love of the game — And all of a sudden you get the NFL, and it really is just a business. If you don’t perform, you’re going to get cut — The competition for spots definitely does not engender the sort of closeness you find on college teams.”
During his senior year, Hernandez applied to medical school and went to camp knowing he had that safety net.
“I was very thankful that I had this a backup plan, because I quickly realized how intensely competitive it was,” he said. “I don’t know if it’s to the detriment of Ivy League athletes going to the NFL, but people coming out of the Ivy League tend to have a lot of attractive options in terms of future careers that a lot of the other people playing in that league might not necessarily have. It’s definitely something that was on my mind pretty early on in the process, the fact that I had other options and wasn’t committed to this career path for success.”
Lawrie, a political science major, hopes to go to law school someday. But he insists that football is currently his sole focus.
Draft Day Cometh
Lawrie’s NFL odyssey is set to begin in the next 72 hours, that much is certain. What is uncertain is if and when he will be drafted.
As with his height, everyone seems to have a slightly different opinion on the matter.
“He’s going to wind up somewhere in the second day of the draft,” said Buddy Baker, Lawrie’s agent. “Whether it be as a fifth through seventh round draft pick, or as a free agent.”
All NFL scouts interviewed declined to comment on Lawrie’s draft position.
Mel Kiper, ESPN’s NFL Draft guru, told Russell Baxter, the network’s head of NFL research, that he believes Lawrie probably will not hear his name called on draft day. Though Kiper praised Lawrie’s size, he categorized his speed as a major concern.
Duane Brooks, Yale’s NFL liaison, has a more optimistic outlook.
“I expect him to be an end of the third, early fourth round draft pick, like nobody is really expecting,” he said. “[The scouts] are really nervous they’re going to miss out, because Eric Johnson has turned the table for everyone. Who would have thought that he’d be the starting tight end for San Francisco?”
Johnson, who is happy to have turned that table, feels Lawrie will enjoy a degree of success similar to his own.
“Just his size alone is something that’s going to catch their eye,” Johnson said. “And he’s got great receiving skills along with it. It’s a great combo. I’m excited to see what happens with him.”
That excitement is shared by the Yale football faithful, who will pay close attention to Sunday’s draft, just as they did in 2001. They know how talented Lawrie is. Before too long, should he follow in Johnson’s footsteps, the average football fan will too.