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Yellow Jackets in the NFL

Oct. 17, 2003

by Simit Shah

From pee wee football to BCS bowl games, anyone who has ever donned shoulder pads and strapped on a pair cleats has dreamed about playing professional football. That dream has come true for 14 former Georgia Tech players who are in the National Football League right now.

“You can’t compare it to anything,” stated Chris Young, a Denver Bronco who was a three-year starter at defensive back from 1999-01 and team captain at Tech. “It’s great to be in the NFL, but it’s a lot of hard work. It looks good and sounds good, but the reality is that you’re working 8 to 5 everyday.”

“It’s a very big change from college,” added the Minnesota Vikings’ Kelly Campbell, the most prolific receiver in school history. “The guys and coaches know so much more about the game. It’s all business, too. You have to prepare and be ready every day. In this league, you can come in with a team and leave the same day.”

While competition for roster spots is fierce, a number of Yellow Jackets have survived and thrived in the league.

The veteran of the contingent is Philadellphia Eagles’ defensive end Marco Coleman, who starred for the 1990 national championship team. The former two-time all-American is in his 12th pro season, recording 61.5 sacks while playing for five teams, including a Pro Bowl season with the Washington Redskins in 2000.

New York Giants running back Dorsey Levens is now in his 10th NFL season. An all-ACC selection his senior year, he rose to prominence as the Packers’ feature back during their triumphant run in the late 90’s.

Among the most successful former Tech players is Keith Brooking, who is in his sixth season with the Falcons after being picked 12th overall in the 1998 draft. Still Tech’s all-time leading tackler, Brooking has developed into one of the league’s premier middle linebackers, and he’s been selected to the Pro Bowl the last two seasons.

Another high draft pick, receiver Dez White (third round), is in his fourth year with the Chicago Bears. He has started every game this season and leads the team with 17 receptions for 260 yards.

The Buffalo Bills picked safety Travares Tillman in the second round in 2000, but injuries have limited his playing time the last two seasons. The Panthers claimed Tillman off waivers prior to the season but has yet to play him.

Return specialist Charlie Rogers was Seattle’s middle round pick in the 1999 draft. He’s now with his third NFL team, the Dolphins, averaging over 20 yards on kickoff returns and 10 yards on punt returns.

The odds of making a team as a low draft pick or undrafted free agent are slim, but several Jackets have been among the success stories.

Young, who was picked in the seventh round in 2002, spent a year on the Broncos practice squad and a summer in NFL Europe before making the active roster this year.

“It’s a tough road sometimes,” he said. “I’m playing mostly on special teams, and you just have to prove yourself each day and show the coaches you deserve to play.”

The Broncos starting safety is Nick Ferguson, originally a walk-on at Tech in the mid-90’s. He spent several seasons in the Canadian Football League and NFL Europe before making the Jets roster in 2000.

Campbell earned a roster spot with the Vikings as an undrafted free agent last season, and he’s solidified his role on the team this year, averaging 25.2 yards per catch through five games.

“I feel much more comfortable this year,” said Campbell, whose college teammate Nick Rogers is a Vikings linebacker. “I’ve learned a lot about the system and coaches. Things are starting to happen.”

Running back Joe Burns (Bills) and defensive end Felipe Claybrooks (Browns) among the other former Jackets that have made it several years in the league despite going undrafted.

The newest Jackets in the NFL are rookies Tony Hollings and Will Heller. Hollings, a running back with the Houston Texans, led the nation in rushing through four games last year before injuring his knee. Over the summer, he entered the supplemental draft and was picked by the Texans.

“It’s been a real roller coaster for me since last September, but I’m happy the way things have turned out,” he said. “You can’t change anything in the past, so you just have to keep moving forward. I’m just so happy to be where I am.”

Hollings, who says his knee is 100 percent again, has seen spot duty in four games, rushing for 60 yards on 12 carries.

“I’ve gotten limited playing time, but at Tech, I didn’t play until I was a junior,” he noted. “I just have to be patient and wait for an opportunity. I’ve only been playing tailback for one year, so I still have a lot to learn.”

While Hollings was a celebrated member of the 2002 team, Heller was a somewhat anonymous tight end on the Flats. The former walk-on caught only six passes as a senior, but his size and potential garnered the attention of pro scouts.

The world champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers signed the 6-6, 250-pounder as a free agent, and Heller earned a spot on the active roster during training camp.

“I’ve treated it a lot like college since I was a walk-on,” Heller said. “It’s that same mentality. You just try to go out there, work hard and make some plays. Hopefully, the coaches notice you and feel that you can make a contribution.”

The Dunwoody native made his first big contribution this past weekend against the Redskins. He caught a four-yard touchdown pass for his first pro reception.

“It’s been exciting,” he said. “I’m just looking for any chance to contribute and the opportunity was there. For my first catch to be a touchdown was a dream come true.”

While the Yellow Jacket alumni base in the NFL is far-flung, most still keep strong ties to Georgia Tech. They watch any game they can and keep up with the team via the Internet. Younger players like Hollings and Heller still speak frequently with current members of the team, as well as former teammates in the NFL.

Campbell said that having Rogers on the Vikings roster, as well as former coach George O’Leary on the coaching staff, made the transition to the NFL easier for him.

“Nick and I actually shared a place last year,” he said. “We were going through the same things, so it was good for both of us. Coach O’Leary was a real father figure for me while I was at Tech, so it’s been good for me to have him on the coaching staff.”

“Wherever I go, I’ll always be cheering on Georgia Tech,” added Young. “I’m still close to a lot of my teammates, especially Travares. I had a lot of good times there, and now I’m getting a chance to live my dream.”

JACKETS IN THE NFLKeith Brooking, LB, Atlanta FalconsJoe Burns, RB, Buffalo BillsKelly Campbell, WR, Minnesota VikingsFelipe Claybrooks, DE, Cleveland BrownsMarco Coleman, DE, Philadelphia EaglesNick Ferguson, DB, Denver BroncosWill Heller, TE, Tampa Bay BuccaneersTony Hollings, RB, Houston TexansDorsey Levens, RB, New York GiantsCharlie Rogers, WR, Miami DolphinsNick Rogers, LB, Minnesota VikingsTravares Tillman, DB, Carolina PanthersDez White, WR, Chicago BearsChris Young, DB, Denver Broncos

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