Almost from the moment Sacramento State senior Darnell Sankey first donned shoulder pads as a high school junior in San Jose, his dream shifted from dunking in the NBA to chasing down running backs in the NFL.
“I had been playing basketball my whole life, but as soon as I started playing football, I had that mindset, that goal that I wanted to play in the NFL,” Sankey said. “I know people back then looked at it as far-fetched because I wasn’t getting any (college scholarship) offers, any looks.”
Now Sankey is one of the nation’s top Football Championship Subdivision linebackers and a potential NFL draft pick. But four years ago, he was headed for a Bay Area community college until Sac State made a last-minute scholarship offer. It was his only offer from a four-year school.
For UC Davis quarterback Ben Scott, it was only after an inspiring sophomore season in which he threw 27 touchdown passes on a star-powered Vanden High of Fairfield team that he began to think there might be football life after high school.
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But even after a breakthrough sophomore season last year at UCD, once an NFL quarterback factory, Scott says pro football is still off his radar.
“I’ve never thought about the NFL (in high school) or now,” said Scott, a Big Sky Conference honorable mention pick last season. “I came to UC Davis for the education – it’s the eighth-best public school in the nation – and a chance to play college football every day and to do it in California. If the NFL happens, then it happens.”
Like Sankey, Scott accepted the only scholarship offer he received from a four-year school.
While Sac State and UCD aren’t pipelines to professional football, occasionally a former Hornet or Aggie reaches the NFL, the Canadian Football League or the Arena Football League.
Most of the athletes are one bad performance or injury from having to turn in their playbook.
Despite the long-shot odds, Sac State coach Jody Sears and UC Davis coach Ron Gould encourage their players to dream big.
Maybe they can become the next John Gesek, Daimon Shelton, Ken O’Brien or Rolf Benirschke, Causeway Classic graduates who went on to long, productive NFL careers.
Though Sears and Gould never played pro football, they understand what drives their players, even those who were viewed as a tad too slow or too small to get scholarship offers from major college programs.
“We’ve all been there; we’ve all had that dream,” said Sears, a former Washington State wide receiver. “When we were younger, we all wanted to play in the NFL. I love it that a lot of our players have the dream.”
Gould, a former Wichita State and Oregon defensive back, said he meets with every player before the season to discuss his goals and aspirations.
“For a lot of our young men, they want to go and play as far as they can,” Gould said. “One thing I do as head coach is to tell them where they’re at, show them what they need to do to try to get there and let the chips fall where they may.”
Three former Sac State players – Miami Dolphins quarterback McLeod Bethel-Thompson, Baltimore Ravens wide receiver DeAndre Carter and Denver Broncos linebacker Todd Davis – are on NFL rosters. Two other former Hornets, quarterback Ricky Ray of the Toronto Argonauts and defensive back Brandon Smith of the Calgary Stampeders, have had long careers in the CFL.
Two former UCD players are in the NFL: eight-year tight end Daniel Fells with the New York Giants and second-year punter Colton Schmidt with the Buffalo Bills. Another, wide receiver Bakari Grant, plays for the CFL’s Hamilton Tiger Cats.
All have one thing in common: They were undrafted.
Sankey could become the first Hornet drafted by an NFL team since offensive tackle Marko Cavka (sixth round, New York Jets) in 2004. UCD hasn’t had a player drafted since quarterback J.T. O’Sullivan in 2002. The former Jesuit High star was taken in the sixth round by the New Orleans Saints and played 17 games for 11 teams during a nine-year NFL career.
Gould thinks he has a few potential next-level players on his current UC Davis roster, most notably junior punter Colby Wadman.
“We have a few players in the NFL, and we are going to have a few more,” Gould said. “If you are good enough to play in the NFL, scouts are going to find you, and you are going to play.”
Gould and Sears said it doesn’t hurt recruiting when a former player makes an NFL roster.
“When you are battling FBS schools for players, I think it does matter,” Gould said. “The young men are starting to see nowadays that if you are good enough to play in the NFL, the rest doesn’t matter.”
UCD once was a Division II mighty mite when it came to sending quarterbacks into the NFL.
Between Mike Moroski’s selection by the Atlanta Falcons in 1979 to O’Sullivan’s selection in 2002, four other Aggies were drafted by NFL teams: O’Brien (first round by the New York Jets) in 1983, Scott Barry (49ers) in 1985, Jeff Bridewell (St. Louis Cardinals) in 1991 and Kevin Daft (Tennessee Titans) in 1999.
Khari Jones and Mark Grieb had distinguished careers in the CFL and Arena League, respectively, while former UCD coach Bob Biggs quarterbacked briefly in the CFL and World Football League.
Daft is now the Aggies’ offensive coordinator, but Scott says his coach isn’t much for reminiscing about playing for four NFL teams, two NFL Europe squads and two Arena Football clubs.
“A lot of (Daft’s) coaching (advice) is based on what he wished he would have known when he was playing (in college),” Scott said. “He’ll tell us during a drill, ‘I wish I would have known to slide this way or read a certain coverage this way.’ It’s a lot about fundamentals, drill work and reads. He’s a smart guy and has a wealth of knowledge that he shares with us.”
Sankey said he has soaked in everything that his coaches have taught him during his four seasons at Sac State. While his passion to play in the NFL remains strong, he’s prepared for the realization that a pro career might not work out.
“When I used to tell people I want to play in the NFL, I’d hear, ‘What’s your backup plan?’” said Sankey, who is on the FCS Defensive Player of the Year watch list. “I’m going to graduate in the spring with a degree in communications. I feel blessed that I’ve been among the 1 percent who has gotten to play on scholarship in D-I. I’m grateful for that, and I’m taking full advantage.”
Life after college
These former Sacramento State and UC Davis stars are playing professionally:
- QB McLeod Bethel-Thompson (Sac State), Dolphins
- WR DeAndre Carter (Sac State), Ravens
- LB Todd Davis (Sac State), Broncos
- TE Daniel Fells (UC Davis), Giants
- P Colton Schmidt (UC Davis), Bills
- WR Bakari Grant (UC Davis), Hamilton
- QB Ricky Ray (Sac State), Toronto
- DB Brandon Smith (Sac State), Calgary
- WR Chase Deadder (Sac State), Arizona
- DB Osagie Odiase (Sac State), Portland
Paving the way
Ten former Hornets and Aggies who played professionally (five from each school):
PK Rolf Benirschke (UC Davis): Third all-time in field goals (146) and fourth in scoring (766) for the San Diego Chargers (1977-86) despite battling ulcerative colitis. He’s a member of Chargers’ Hall of Fame.
OL John Gesek (Sac State): Tenth-round draft pick of the Los Angeles Raiders in 1987, Gesek started for the Dallas Cowboys in back-to-back Super Bowl victories. Played 123 games in nine seasons, finishing his career with the Washington Redskins.
QB Khari Jones (UC Davis): Former Center High star played nine seasons in the Canadian Football League. Led all quarterbacks in the CFL or NFL with 107 touchdown passes from 2000 to 2002. He was named the CFL Player of the Year in 2001 with Winnipeg Blue Bombers.
CB Lorenzo Lynch (Sac State): Played 11 seasons (1987-97) with the Chicago Bears, St. Louis/Arizona Cardinals and Oakland Raiders. Had 17 career interceptions, returning two for touchdowns. Uncle of Seattle Seahawks running back Marshawn Lynch.
DE Casey Merrill (UC Davis): Fifth-round draft pick by the Cincinnati Bengals in 1979, he also played for the Green Bay Packers, New York Giants and New Orleans Saints. He was the NFL’s first designated pass rusher to line up on the defensive front and at linebacker.
QB Ken O’Brien (UC Davis): Only Aggie or Hornet to be drafted in the first round (24th overall in 1983). Passed for 128 touchdowns and more than 25,000 yards during 11-year NFL career, all but one with the New York Jets. He was the AFC Player of the Year in 1985.
QB J.T. O’Sullivan (UC Davis): New Orleans Saints’ sixth-round pick in 2002 to start a nine-year career in which the former Jesuit High star played for 11 teams. He also led NFL Europe’s Frankfurt Galaxy to two World Bowl title game appearances.
C Lonie Paxton (Sac State): Spent 12 seasons in the NFL (2000-11), winning three Super Bowl rings with the New England Patriots as a long snapper. Most remembered for making a snow angel in the end zone after Adam Vinatieri’s 23-yard overtime field goal in AFC playoff win over the Oakland Raiders during 2001 season.
QB Ricky Ray (Sac State): Still playing for the Toronto Argonauts at 35, Ray holds several CFL passing records. Won Grey Cup championships with Edmonton Eskimos in 2003 and 2005, and Toronto in 2012. Ray, the Grey Cup MVP in 2005, was named East Division’s top player in 2013 and 2014.
RB Charles Roberts (Sac State): After a record-breaking career for Hornets, the 5-foot-6 Roberts played most of his eight CFL seasons, beginning in 2001, for the Winnipeg Blue Bombers and rushed for 10,285 career yards. He was a seven-time CFL All-Star and is a member of both the league and Blue Bomber Hall of Fame.