All Nathan Brown needed was a chance, and he found one with a Division II program not far from his hometown.
Now, five years after showing up to play quarterback at Central Arkansas, Brown is closing in on an even bigger opportunity.
“You can look up and down NFL rosters and see small-school guys succeeding every week, so that’s something that I’ve got on my side,” Brown said.
“They’re going to find you and give you an opportunity if they think you deserve one.”
It seems like every spring, talented quarterbacks emerge from obscurity right before the NFL draft. Not many fans are familiar with Brown, but he’s one of several prolific passers from small programs who are hoping to hear their names called this weekend.
In addition to Brown, there’s Rhett Bomar of Sam Houston State, Mike Reilly of Central Washington and even Jason Boltus of Division III Hartwick. If recent history is any indication, at least one of these players could make an impact on Sunday afternoons.
“We’re all pursuing the same thing,” Brown said.
“We all have the same dream, and we all have the same problem at the same time. We come from a small school, so we’re all climbing that uphill battle.”
Still, these quarterbacks haven’t been overlooked. Brown estimates he’s had significant contact with about half the teams in the NFL.
It’s no longer a surprise when an unknown quarterback succeeds in the pros. Phil Simms came out of Morehead State and led the New York Giants to a Super Bowl title.
More recently, Joe Flacco (Delaware) was drafted in the first round by Baltimore last year. Tony Romo (Eastern Illinois) was undrafted in 2003, but he caught on with the Dallas Cowboys and the rest is history.
“I think what we see now is that people are throwing the ball so much more than ever before,” said Gil Brandt, an NFL scouting consultant and former personnel director for the Cowboys.
“It doesn’t make any difference where you’re at. If you’ve got a good arm and good accuracy, you’re going to be found today.”
Brown arrived at Central Arkansas amid little fanfare after a solid high school career in Arkansas. He started as a redshirt freshman in 2005, and the following year, the Bears moved up from Division II. They’re now in Division I’s Football Championship Subdivision.
Last season, Brown’s team finished atop the Southland Conference. He threw for over 10,000 yards and exactly 100 touchdowns at Central Arkansas — impressive numbers at any level.
After choosing Athletes First to represent him, Brown got a chance to work with Southern California’s Mark Sanchez, who along with Georgia’s Matthew Stafford is considered one of the top quarterbacks in the draft.
Brown was content with his showing at the NFL’s scouting combine in Indianapolis. He also played in the Senior Bowl, where he was able to test himself against top competition.
“It was my chance to prove that I belonged and prove that I could play with the big boys,” he said.
Boltus had a similar opportunity when he played in the Texas vs. The Nation All-Star Game. As a senior at Hartwick in Oneonta, N.Y., Boltus threw for 3,934 yards and 46 touchdowns in 10 games. He finished last season by throwing for seven TDs in a 70-68 loss to Brockport on Nov. 22 before an announced crowd of 812.
Then, while the nation’s top programs were focusing on bowls, Boltus began preparing for his future.
“I had a little more time than the Division I guys,” Boltus said.
Reilly’s season ended with a loss in the Division II playoffs Nov. 15. He’s hoping to follow in the footsteps of Jon Kitna, an NFL quarterback who went to Central Washington as well.
Bomar, of course, also switched schools. He was once Oklahoma’s starting quarterback but was dismissed from the Sooners for getting paid for work he didn’t do at a car dealership.
Bomar went to Sam Houston State, which plays in the same conference as Central Arkansas, and tried to salvage his pro prospects.
“I put up about a month ago, who I thought would be the top 100 picks,” Brandt said.
“I put Bomar in the top 100. I think I had him in the 70s, which is a second- or third-round pick.”
Brandt rates Bomar as the best of these four prospects, followed by Brown, Reilly and Boltus. He says Harvard’s Chris Pizzotti might belong in that class as well.
While playing in college, these quarterbacks receive little attention from the average fan — but afterward, they’re evaluated in much the same way as more celebrated prospects.
“I got the same exposure, did the same drills as Mark Sanchez or Matthew Stafford,” Reilly said.
“From the point of when the season ended, I haven’t had to do anything special.”
The wait is almost over now, but with this weekend’s draft approaching, Brown still isn’t sure what to expect. He knows teams have looked at him, but doesn’t have a sense of where he stands.
“That’s the hard part of this whole process for me,” he said.
“You don’t get instant feedback.”
He’ll be home in Arkansas with his family this weekend, waiting to hear his fate. He says he might not watch much of the draft — it’s too stressful — but for the most part, Brown sounds more grateful than worried.
“Wherever I go, whether it’s the third round or a free agent opportunity,” Brown said,
“I’ll be excited and be ready to attack full force and make some team happy.”