By Callum Borchers
On Sept. 16, 2005, Mount Union's Pierre Garcon made the most spectacular catch of his career. He was tripped by an Otterbein defensive back on a post route, but as he fell, he reached back and made a one-handed grab.
“It was so amazing that the official didn't even notice that he caught it,” said Purple Raiders quarterback Greg Micheli. “There was a penalty, and it didn't even count.”
The Raiders went 43-2 during his career, and his Ohio Athletic Conference-record 47 touchdown receptions helped earn a pair of Stagg Bowl plaques.
The on-field resume Garcon touts is just as impressive as his NFL-caliber physique. At 6-1, he is tall enough to avoid the “undersized” label, and with a rippling 205-pound frame that Micheli calls “pretty built,” he is a bona fide specimen.
He is also fast … really fast. Garcon has already proven
his speed on the track. He was the second leg of Mount Union's 2006
national champion 4×100 meter relay team that posted the
third fastest time in Division III championship history.
Still, D-III records and championships are not enough to convince NFL scouts to put a small-school player on their draft boards. For Garcon to reach the NFL, he must prove that domination at Mount Union has prepared him to play with the best in the world.
“He's got a chance,” said Ithaca coach Mike Welch, who coached against Garcon twice. “But it's a whole ‘nother league up there.”
The ultimate test
The “About Me” section of Pierre Garcon's Facebook profile reads, “All day, every day, I stay reppin' that 561!” Those three digits are the area code of his native Palm Beach County.
“I think he probably feels like he has something to prove,” said Micheli. “As much as he's out there for himself, he's out there for Mount Union and all of Division III.”
The first opportunity to represent his roots came Feb. 2 in the Texas vs. the Nation Bowl. Matched up against defensive backs from the Big 12 and SEC, Garcon caught a team-leading three passes for 23 yards. He also went sideline to sideline on a 62-yard punt return for a touchdown. The performance helped him to compare his skills to those of more high-profile players.
“It helps you out a lot, shows you how good you are or how bad you are and where you stack up,” he said.
But Texas vs. the Nation was only a warmup. Garcon's ultimate test is the combine, a grueling four-day audition that includes medical examinations, interviews, psychological tests and workouts. Among the 55 wide receivers and 335 total invitees, he was the lone Division III prospect.
To prepare for the Combine, Garcon hired Columbus, Ohio-based agent Brad Cicala. He decided to leave Mount Union, two semesters from a communications degree, to train full-time with Cicala and a host of NFL prospects in Atlanta.
“We work out for about three hours, take a break,” said Garcon. “Then lift, take a break and do it all over again the next day.”
His mere participation at the Combine, let alone his success there, indicates that he is a legitimate draft prospect. A selection committee comprised of the directors of National Football Scouting, Inc. and BLESTO and members of almost every NFL player personnel department vote on which players to invite. Many D-I players with professional aspirations do not make the cut, so it is exceptional for a D-III standout to earn a trip to Indy.
While Wonderlic scores and 40-yard dash times get the most press coverage, the Combine, officially the National Invitational Camp, has made medical examination its top priority since its inception in 1982. In fact, there are no workouts until the fourth and final day.
Participants must bring copies of all X-rays, MRIs and CT scans performed in the previous year along with doctors' interpretations. They must also provide complete records of written surgical or test notes.
Between medical exams and personality questionnaires, every draft prospect takes the infamous Wonderlic, a 50-question, 12-minute test designed to measure intelligence and speed of thought. The average score is 21, and only one perfect score has been recorded in the history of predraft assessment — Harvard punter/wide receiver Pat McInally aced the test in 1975.
When workout day finally arrives, players perform a series of standard physical exercises, which includes the 225-pound bench press, vertical jump, 40-yard dash, 20-yard shuttle and 3-cone drill. There is also a set of position-specific skills drills. Wide receivers must demonstrate their ability to adjust to a ball thrown over the shoulder, tap both feet along the sideline and catch rapid-fire passes. They also run six types of routes: quick slant, out, in, curl, go, and corner post. All passes are thrown by quarterbacks who are also being assessed.
While some refuse to participate in select events (usually players who believe they will be faster on familiar surfaces at their colleges' pro days), Combine organizers write on their Web site, “Rarely does a player decline the invitation to attend as it would significantly impact his future in the NFL.”
Garcon hopes attendance will have a positive impact on his NFL future.
“I'm excited because I already know what I can do,” he said. “I think I'll impress a lot of people at the Combine, and I think that'll help me out a lot.”
He adds that he has heard draft projections as high as the fourth round and as low as off the board entirely. If he is selected or signed as a free agent, Garcon knows that like it was at Mount Union, getting there is not enough.
“You can get in the NFL and get kicked out the same year,” he said. “Getting in and staying is the goal.”
Improbable as Garcon's NFL dream may be, he would not be the first Division III star to continue his career on Sundays. The total number of D-III players who have been on a league roster at one time or another is impossible to measure, but according to D3football.com, there were eight at start of the 2007 season.
Most of them hardly ever see a snap, but coaches and general managers wouldn't waste time and money if all they ever got were scout team players. When clubs sign a D-III prospect, they are hoping he will be the second coming of London Fletcher.
The veteran linebacker has led his team in tackles for nine straight seasons and has started 120 consecutive games. He excelled in two sports at Villa Angela-St. Joseph High School in Cleveland, and when it came time to choose, he picked hardwood over grass. But after three semesters of basketball at St. Francis University in Pennsylvania, he transferred to John Carroll and made the switch to football.
There, he amassed a school-record 202 tackles as a senior and was named Division III national linebacker of the year. Still, the 5-10 Fletcher went undrafted in 1998. The St. Louis Rams took a chance and signed him as a free agent. By the end of the season, he was a starter and a year later, he was the leading tackler on the Super Bowl championship team.
Fletcher's surprising prowess and longevity has caused NFL franchises to mine college football's lower ranks in search of gems. The most recent beneficiary of his success is former Whitworth tight end Michael Allan, who was chosen in the seventh round of last year's NFL Draft by the Kansas City Chiefs. Like, Garcon, Allan was the only D-III invite to the Combine.
“It was a bit overwhelming just because you're getting poked and prodded for four straight days,” Allan said. “We were up at 6 a.m. and didn't get to bed until midnight. It was like nothing I've ever been through before.”
Before 2005, there was nothing on Allan's resume that suggested NFL potential. The tall, scrawny wide receiver didn't draw clipboards to the stands.
“I got no looks. The only D-I team that actually sent me anything was Boise State,” he said. “They asked me for a tape, and I sent one in but never heard back. I guess they weren't too impressed.”
He redshirted as a freshman at Whitworth, then played in only seven games as a special teamer for the 4-6 Pirates. But Allan grew from 6-4 to 6-6 and gradually bulked up from 185 to 255 pounds. He moved to tight end and after three seasons as a starter, he was Whitworth's single-season and career touchdowns leader and a two-time D3football.com All-American.
After so much time as an afterthought, Allan couldn't truly celebrate his draft selection until he survived training camp.
“Being drafted is almost a false sense of security,” he said. “Once you see people start dropping like flies, you always feel like you're on the bubble. When they finally switched my number (from 47 to 81), it was a huge relief because I knew they wanted to keep me around.”
The 24-year-old with a degree in journalism described his transition from Division III to the NFL in a blog on the Chiefs' Web site. He swooned over new luxuries like free equipment and spacious coach buses and likened his first experience at Arrowhead Stadium to that of Rudy Ruettiger in the Notre Dame locker room.
“It certainly saved me some money and more importantly, foot aches,” he wrote. “I wore the same pair of shoes my last two years (in college) and not for superstitious reasons.”
An exciting, uncertain future
When asked what he would do if he were not pursuing an NFL career, Pierre Garcon was taken aback.
“I don't know,” he said. “Something in sports. Maybe sports management or coaching.”
It is difficult to imagine failure in the midst of a dream, but the possibility always exists, even for someone like Allan, who is where Garcon wants to be a year from now. Allan spent his entire rookie season on the Chiefs' practice squad and never saw game action — dreams that come true are not perfect either.
But he says he has no regrets, and he remains in awe of the fact that unlike his classmates, he does not have a 9:00 to 5:00 job. He plays football for a living.
For Garcon, who calls football, “The only thing I've ever felt good at,” playing for a living would be a fairy tale ending.
Micheli said, “You can't play football forever.”
He is right, but some get to play longer than others.