Keeping NFL dreams alive: Indoor football offers stage for Rattlers, others

Shadrach Thornton showed top skills as a running back at North Carolina State. He hopes his time with the Arizona Rattlers will catch the NFL’s attention. (Photo by Brett Carlsen/Getty Images)

MESA – The odds of a college athlete making it to the NFL are slimmer than ever. In 2016, just 1.5 percent of college football players were drafted by the league, a 2017 NCAA study revealed.

But what happens to standouts that do not make it to the NFL?

At this time of year, many are lining up to play indoor football.

The Arizona Rattlers are one of six Indoor Football League teams. They used to be part of the Arena Football League, which has four teams. Other smaller leagues exist including the eight-team Fan Controlled Football League, which will debut next year and allow fans to call plays.

The Rattlers use a scouting and recruiting process that helps them sign undrafted free agents, recently cut players and athletes looking to prove themselves to NFL teams.

“We start with who’s getting released from the NFL,” coach Kevin Guy said. “So we’ll go through the cut list and see who’s available and who’s on the street. Sometimes you have to go back a year or two because when they first get cut when they come out of college they’re not mentally ready to transition to this league.”

More than 125 players have played in both the Arena Football League and the NFL. This list includes Kurt Warner, a Super Bowl-winner and NFL MVP, who spent his first few years after college playing for the Iowa Barnstormers. He played in three Super Bowls during his NFL career and was named league MVP twice, including his rookie season in 1999. Warner was inducted into the Arena Football Hall of Fame in 2011 and the Pro Football Hall of Fame last year. He was also listed No. 12 on a list of the 20 Best Arena Football Players of All-Time.

A huge part of Warner’s story is his job working as a supermarket stock boy between playing at Northern Iowa and for the Barnstormers. One of the Rattlers players has followed almost the same path that the Hall of Famer did. After his dismissal from N.C. State — for several arrests related to moped use and several team suspensions — Shadrach Thornton moved to Canada to tryout for the Ottawa Redblacks but instead ended up taking on another job.

“When I was in Canada, I was working at a grocery store for about a year and some change,” the Rattlers running back said. “I’d be back there catching eggs and doing everything. Just working on little stuff I can. They’d see me all the time and be like, ‘You’re kind of not supposed to be here, man.’ ”

Thornton has shown where he is supposed to be, for the time being.

There has always been an abundance of talent at the indoor football level and even some of the best players never get their NFL shot. The player who was ranked No. 1 on the list of Best Arena Football Players of All-Time never played a single down in the NFL. “Touchdown” Eddie Brown once scored nine touchdowns in a game while playing for the Albany and Indiana Firebirds of the AFL from 1994-2003. Brown totaled over 300 receiving touchdowns during his illustrious career and is often referred to as the greatest of all time. His son, Antonio, is regarded as one of the best receivers in the NFL and has collected numerous NFL records during his first eight seasons for the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Although it is not very common, some players who earn a shot in the NFL after going far past expectations at the indoor level have great success at the highest level. Guy’s recruiting process is how the Rattlers ended up with a roster filled with former Division I players who are looking to put together good film so that they can earn another shot at the next level.

The most recent player to make the transition from the IFL to the NFL is wide receiver/tight end Nick Truesdell. Truesdell signed with the Minnesota Vikings in March 2017 and was a member of their practice squad late last season.

The Rattlers roster is filled with former Division I standouts who have had tryouts with, or have played on, an NFL team. Guy’s depth chart includes Thornton, Baylor defensive end and career sack-leader Chris McCallister and Texas A&M alum Arkeith Brown, the longest-tenured Rattlers player.

What brought these players to the IFL? Thornton was signed by the Raiders in 2013 after being dismissed from the Wolfpack football team and going undrafted. McCallister was signed by the Texans a year later after also going undrafted. Brown participated in the New Orleans Saints rookie minicamp on a tryout basis before the 2009 season. All three have competed against players at the top level and left feeling evenly matched while admitting that they might not have been mentally prepared for that level.

“To be completely honest, I just feel like I wasn’t ready as a person to handle that responsibility,” Thornton said. “The world didn’t give it to me. I didn’t give it to myself. I didn’t put the work in necessary to be where I was. I just relied on talent and talent only takes you so far. … I’m not even here for the money, I’m here for the game. If it was for the money, I probably wouldn’t be here.”

“In the NFL, it’s really a mental game,” McCallister said. “You have to get in your playbook, you have to study and do the things off of the field that it takes to perform on the field. I just have so much knowledge about it now that I didn’t have going into it. I think I would be a lot better for the opportunity now if I’m given another one.”

Before McCallister and any of his teammates may earn an another NFL tryout, they must prove they can exceed expectations in the IFL.

So far, the former Division I stars have led their team to an 8-1 record and all three players are having productive seasons. Thornton has rushed for six touchdowns on only 46 rushes while McCallister has racked up 7.5 tackles for loss and two sacks. Meanwhile, the 31-year old Brown leads the team in tackles and interceptions. With four games to go in the regular season, what kind of goals are these players setting for themselves?

“I want to do something unheard of,” Thornton said. “I want the 1,000 rushing (yards) if possible. I want at least over 500 (yards) receiving. I just want to do everything that I can. I want them to use me in every facet of the game as possible and the numbers will handle themselves if I handle mine.”

McCallister took his expectations a step higher.

“I’m trying to be defensive MVP,” he said. “That’s my No. 1 goal and whatever it takes to get that is what I’m going for.”

On the other hand, Brown seemed to relay what all of the players think on one specific topic: Why continue to play after all this time?

That one’s easy: The love of the game.

“I’m just blessed to be able to make plays for my team,” he said. “I just love playing the game. I enjoy coming out here and being with my teammates, being around the coaches and being around the fans.”

The Rattlers are hoping all three players can continue their strong seasons so that they can make it back to the United Bowl. After spending 25 years in the Arena Football League, the Rattlers won the championship in their IFL debut year. Brown has been a part of three championship teams in Arizona as he has helped build an arena football dynasty.

Although the love of the game still carries all of the players, Thornton and McCallister are hoping that their contributions toward the team’s success will help fulfill their ultimate goal: make it back to the NFL.

Not long after Thornton left the N.C. State football team in 2015, he received a phone call from an Arizona Cardinals regional scout. The conversation did not last long and the content was brief. The scout only had one piece of advice to give Thornton to show that the NFL would still be watching.

“He told me to keep squatting.”

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