‘It’s not about talent, it’s about availability’: Shawn Poindexter’s journey from Arizona to USFL

Shawn Poindexter had a standout career at Arizona. Here he catches a touchdown pass over Arizona State defensive back Kobe Williams. (Photo by Ralph Freso/Getty Images)

PHOENIX – It was a routine play in a 2019 NFL preseason game. One second, Shawn Poindexter was holding his block in the backfield during a punt. The next, the 6-foot-5 receiver was on the ground, green turf jammed into his gray facemask, pain and confusion jamming his mind.

“It was crazy,” his brother Justin Poindexter said. “I just saw him drop. It looked like somebody in the stands had sniped him.”

The injury occurred while Poindexter, an undrafted free agent for the San Francisco 49ers, was playing on special teams as he battled for a roster spot.

The former University of Arizona standout had found some initial NFL success and potentially was weeks away from realizing his dream of making an NFL roster – or, at the least, a practice squad – when he tore his ACL on that hot August night in Denver.

Almost three years later, Poindexter and other football players who have experienced similar setbacks find themselves in Alabama, but not in Mobile, where the upper-echelon of soon-to-be draftees showcase themselves at the Reese’s Senior Bowl.

Instead, he is 250 miles north in Birmingham, auditioning for what he hopes will lead to a second chance at the NFL.

The kickoff of the revamped United States Football League, a secondary professional league aimed at rehabbing the careers of players, is a month away. Poindexter was a 13th-round draft pick of the New Orleans Breakers, which, like the other seven teams in the USFL, will play all its games in Birmingham to cut costs.

All teams use the names of the original members of the first USFL from 1983 though ’85, although the leagues are not affiliated. Just as these squads are summoning memories of the old days, Poindexter is attempting to conjure memories of his former self in the league’s modern version.

The Centennial days

The Poindexter household is a roughly five-minute walk from Centennial High School in Peoria. By the time the four brothers – Kyle, Justin, Shawn and Ryan, in that order – were in middle school, their parents, Darnell and Dana, had separated. But the family remained close.

They had come a long way from the two-bedroom apartment in Glendale where the brothers once shared a room. Darnell’s house was a short stride from the school and became a popular hangout for the boys and their friends.

“His house was the after-school house,” said Poindexter’s friend Tre’von Grant. “Sometimes we would have like, 15 kids up in there just doing nothing, no TV on, no AC on, just living, doing our thing. It was a healthy house, though, for sure.”

From hoops to street hockey, the Poindexter boys, separated by just five years, were driven by sports. They played in organized leagues and for school teams, but pickup games were frequent.

“Everything we did, we did together,” Justin Poindexter said.

Shawn, tall and curly-headed, played peewee football in middle school, and his height and athleticism made him a natural basketball talent. He lived in a football and basketball family, but his physical prowess found its greatest expression on the volleyball court.

In the early 2010s, privately backed club teams and tournaments did not have the stranglehold on the sport that they do today, so Shawn Poindexter played exclusively for Centennial. By his sophomore year, he was playing on the varsity team.

“Every year, he came in from the summer and it looked like he grew four or five inches,” said Cari Bauer, his volleyball coach.

Bauer, who’s still at Centennial and has been coaching for over 30 years, knew she had a special talent in Poindexter. There was no shortage of skilled players at Centennial, but his measurables were elite, and Bauer knew she would have to get him to the next level.

“By his senior year, he was hitting balls over blocks,” Bauer said. “It could be kind of dangerous for teams if they weren’t that good.”

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Volleyball was his passion, and it came easily to him, but football did not ignite that same desire, even if it offered him the greatest future.

Centennial coaches were not happy with his commitment level. At one point, even Bauer questioned whether he was ready to put in the work that a Division I program in any sport would command.

She recalled a story, a funny one in hindsight, that described a teenage Poindexter joking his way through the early days of high school.

Varsity volleyball players are often required to help officiate sophomore or junior varsity games as line judges. One day, Poindexter was nowhere to be found for the JV game.

Bauer figured Poindexter and his buddies were at the girls’ softball game outside, so she fired off a curt text telling him to come back inside and tend to his duties. After a few minutes, her phone buzzed with a text from Poindexter.

“Error 2471”

She fired off multiple responses, confused, asking if he was receiving her texts.

“Error 2471”

Finally Poindexter busted into the gym, howling with laughter over the prank he had just pulled on his coach.

“That’s when I finally realized he’s just making this up,” Bauer said.

Bauer chuckled as she told the story, but she added that it was typical behavior for Poindexter. It was clear his responsibilities on the court and on the field were not suffocating his puckish teenage nature. She described it as “typical 15-year-old behavior,” which was important because Poindexter wasn’t expected to be typical on the court or field.

“Maybe he just didn’t have the push behind him (that assures him), you know, ‘There’s something greater for you if you get through this,’” Bauer said.

Bauer committed herself to provide that push, and the two established a bond, one that they are grateful for today.

As the two grew closer, Poindexter grew more alienated from the gridiron. He skipped his junior season, much to the disappointment of his brother Justin.

“I always say, if we would have had (Shawn) on the field his junior year, me and him would have a ring,” Justin said.

By his senior year in 2012, Grant, who had been Shawn’s JV quarterback, had transferred back to Centennial. They were best friends, with Poindexter even spending a week once at Grant’s house.

“It really is the quarterback-receiver best-friend thing,” Grant said.

Encouraged by Grant, Poindexter gave football another shot.

The chemistry between Grant and Poindexter (21 receptions, 396 yards receiving) was clear, with the two connecting for seven touchdowns on the season en route to the the state championship game.

Poindexter says the title game is the main thing he remembers from his high school career, but for all the wrong reasons.

Centennial failed to score a touchdown in the 27-3 loss to Ironwood Ridge. Shawn, like his brother Justin, graduated without a ring, but grateful for the experience.

“I got an opportunity to play at the highest level,” said Poindexter, who earned a free trip to football’s mecca in 2012 after his seven-on-seven team won a competition at State Farm Stadium before his senior year.

“I got to stand on the sideline at a Super Bowl, so I can’t complain,” he said.

Change of direction

For a brief time, Poindexter believed he had taken his last snaps on the football field. During his senior year, he received far more interest from colleges for volleyball than football, and he decided to take advantage of the opportunity.

Among the most interested was California Baptist in Riverdale, where he chose to continue his volleyball career. His decision initially was greeted with hostility.

Grant remembered vividly when Poindexter told him about his college decision while they were hanging out one afternoon.

“Even with him not being a huge football talent out of high school, we knew that was not the way to go.” Grant said. “We honestly got into a little argument, and that was the last of (the conversation).”

Poindexter had the support of Bauer, and the unconditional love of his family, but Grant was not alone in his criticism of the decision.

“I always wanted him to play football because I knew going up against some of these tallest receivers is a really tough task,” Justin said. “You can have all the athletic ability in the world, (but) if you’re covering a guy who is 6-foot-5 and can jump just as high as you can, that ball is going to be in a place where you, as a defender, just can’t get to it.

“But of course, I supported the volleyball thing as well.”

Poindexter enrolled at Cal Baptist over the summer, but things quickly went awry. Bauer said it was because of “unkept promises” from the university. Poindexter said he couldn’t shake football from his mind. He knew what being a professional football player would entail, physically and financially. In short, he wanted to play sports beyond college, and football provided that avenue.

Maybe it was that memory of being on the sidelines of a Super Bowl. Maybe it was just plain curiosity.

Before he ever played in a game for Cal Baptist, he un-enrolled. He took two years off from organized sports before choosing football at Glendale Community College in 2015.

“A lot of guys don’t want to go to the juco level because they think they’re too good for it, or have a lot of pride or whatever the case may be,” Poindexter said. “I think that’s what I struggled with at first, but now looking back on it, I would be further in my journey playing football now had I made that decision earlier.”

At GCC, Poindexter gave the casual viewer no reason to believe he hadn’t played competitive ball in two years. He led all receivers in the Arizona Community College Athletic Conference with seven touchdowns, and finished in the top-five in most other statistics.

After suffering an injury with the San Francisco 49ers in a preseason game, wide receiver Shawn Poindexter was carted off the field. That moment played a role in his eventual journey to the USFL. (Photo by Dustin Bradford/Getty Images)

GCC was fun, and he made lasting relationships, Poindexter recalled. But he knew junior college ball was a stepping stone and not a landing pad. The less time spent there, the better.

As a born-and-raised Arizonan, Poindexter’s top-two choices for division-one schools were Arizona and Arizona State, which he said were “close enough where I can be at home, but far enough where I can grow and become my own man.”

However, even after a rather strong fall, the in-state calls weren’t coming. Marshall University in West Virginia made an offer, which Poindexter verbally accepted.

Bauer was thrilled to see Poindexter finally getting his big break.

“Thank God for juco football,” she said.

His dream stayed alive.

On Feb. 2, 2016, the day before National Signing Day, Poindexter was running late to class at GCC. That day, an exam was on the agenda in biology, a course in which Poindexter was struggling.

Poindexter’s phone buzzed as he rode shotgun next to his father.

Calling was Charlie Ragle, Arizona’s tight ends and special teams coach. Just in the nick of time, an offer from the Wildcats was on the table.

“Me and my dad just kind of stopped in the middle of the road for a couple seconds,” Poindexter said. “We had to gather our thoughts, you know? We were super excited and super happy, a dream come true for sure.”

Fortunately, Shawn had a good relationship with his biology professor. So when Arizona coach Rich Rodriguez followed up with a call during the exam, Poindexter was allowed to step out and meet his new coach over the phone.

Marshall, like Cal Baptist, was in the rearview mirror.

In fall 2016, Poindexter took his first Division I football snaps more than three years after graduating from high school.

In Tucson, Poindexter was expected to make an immediate impact. At his size, the Wildcats instantly had a red zone threat with above-average blocking abilities.

His role would have to change, though. At Centennial and GCC, Poindexter was the go-to passing threat. In a Division I program, he would be in an offense that needed to spread the wealth.

“I just didn’t see the ball that much,” Poindexter said. “It was a tough situation. I really had to check my ego at the door. I’m a starter, I started (nearly) every single game, and I look across the (Pac-12) conference, and I am not getting (as many) balls.”

He knew he could block and catch, but he needed to improve on his separation and route-running skills. He felt like he could have improved with more repetitions.

Injury bugs in his first year didn’t help. A twisted ankle here, and another one there prevented Poindexter from truly finding his groove in 2016.

By 2017, his junior season, Poindexter’s character growth showed. He was elected game captain five times, something he credits to his positive attitude and punctuality. He had come a long way from the half-committed teenager skipping out on his volleyball duties.

“I think just that individual time helped him grow,” Grant said. “It’s (like) night-and-day to be honest.”

That year, he scored his first NCAA touchdown, and started all 13 games as the Wildcats finished 7-6 with a 38-35 loss to Purdue in the Foster Farms Bowl. Poindexter hauled in a touchdown and had 71 receiving yards in the bowl game.

Weeks later, Rodriguez was fired amid sexual harassment allegations stemming from incidents within the program’s offices. The coach who had signed Poindexter was gone.

A ‘blessing coming in’

Poindexter decided to stick around, and was happy to hear Rodriguez’s replacement was considered to be another offensive guru when former Texas A&M coach Kevin Sumlin was named in January of 2018.

Among many things, Sumlin is famous for his early 2010s teams with quarterback Johnny Manziel and receiver Mike Evans. Evans, who has become an NFL champion and Pro Bowler, is nearly identical in size and stature to Poindexter.

“(Sumlin) was truly a blessing coming in,” Poindexter said. “I was appreciative of how they looked to me to be an answer in their offense, even if we didn’t win too many games.”

Poindexter spent 2018 becoming an NFL prospect. His 11 touchdowns tied an Arizona single-season record, and he led the team with 759 yards receiving. Defensive backs and linebackers feared his blocking ability, too, and he named honorable mention All-Pac-12.

Suddenly, NFL analysts had him on draft boards.

Poindexter largely credits his success to his work ethic, as well as Arizona’s offensive schemes under Sumlin and offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone.

To bring things full circle, Mazzone now is his offensive coordinator with the Breakers. It’s safe to assume Poindexter’s breakout senior season and connection to Mazzone had something to do with New Orleans’ interest.

The Wildcats finished 5-7 and missed out on a bowl game during Poindexter’s senior season, and it was time to make the transition to professional football.

Questions about Poindexter’s playmaking abilities kept him off the NFL Draft stage despite a strong performance at the NFL Combine. Poindexter was not one of the 254 players selected in the 2019 draft.

Undrafted rookies usually get another shot as free agents, and there still was some interest in Poindexter, including from the Niners.

Although San Francisco selected receivers Deebo Samuel and Jalen Hurd in that 2019 draft, an opportunity is an opportunity and Poindexter took it.

He excitedly called Bauer and his family. After three schools and two sports, he was a professional athlete.

At the same time, the San Francisco coaches were maturing into one of the most revered coaching staffs in the NFL, largely because of coach Kyle Shanahan, who also calls the plays.

Former Pro-Bowlers Miles Austin and Wes Welker tuned up Poindexter’s mechanics and his release, while Shanahan, passing-game coordinator Mike LaFleur and offensive coordinator Mike McDaniel (now Miami’s head coach) opened his eyes to the schematics of the offense and the game in general.

“Multiple times, (the coaches) sat me down and said ‘Shawn you – when you’re healthy – are a starter in this league. You’re going to make a lot of money in this league,’” he recalled.

More importantly, he started to understand the game on a macro level. Football became clearer than ever.

“I now am looking at football from the perspective of Kyle Shanahan’s offense,” Poindexter said. “I see things differently. I see the field differently. I see mistakes in other people’s offenses just because of how detailed (those coaches) are.”

Just when things had started to click, he blew out his knee in preseason. For undrafted free agents, a preseason injury is the kiss of death, and ultimately can be career ending.

For Poindexter, another season off from football looked like a curse, even with an injured-list designation keeping him on the payroll.

He doesn’t talk much about the next year-or-so of rehabilitation, but those close to him know that he did not accept that the injury meant an end to his football career. It just meant going back to the drawing board.

“When I would call to check in on him, (I could) hear it in his voice that he’s just hungry,” Justin said.

He began rehabbing, chugging away at an excruciating process that Bauer would call “making your own break.”

“For him to stay down and loyal to the work, the rehab and that stuff, that sucks,” Grant said. “That’s tough, man. That shows me everything I need to know.”

The recovery process went well, and by preseason camp in 2020 he was back in the Bay Area for workouts. With the depth chart stacked at wide receiver after the addition of former Arizona State standout Brandon Aiyuk, the 49ers had no room to include Poindexter on the 53-man roster for the regular season.

After a short practice squad stint, Poindexter was released again.

Feeling his career was far from over, he continued to work on his game behind the scenes over the next year. Maybe it was the stubbornness that Grant said he and Poindexter share.

In 2021, rumors of a reconstituted USFL rumbled through the football community. Poindexter monitored the situation.

His connections in the NFL were pretty much limited to San Francisco, but at the end of the 2021 season, that changed. The 49ers lost in the NFC Championship game to their division-rival, the Los Angeles Rams. That would be the last game that the clique of coaches adored by Poindexter would be together.

Austin and LaFleur both made upward transitions (at least title-wise) with the Jets, while McDaniel was named head coach in Miami and brought along Welker. Poindexter wondered whether any of his former mentors could swing a roster spot for him in 2022.

Those hopes never materialized, and Poindexter was advised by his agent to strongly consider the USFL. By this point it had been over three years since Poindexter last strapped on the helmet and shoulder pads in an official capacity.

The last thing coaches could see on his film was the injury.

The next chapter

There’s a lot on Shawn Poindexter’s mind as he eats his chicken, tilapia and mac-and-cheese dinner at the Birmingham Sheraton. Later, there might be an impromptu walk-through with Kyle Sloter, his quarterback, now that they have their own copy of the playbook.

For now, he’s thankful.

He misses his fiancee, Madison, whom he described as the best thing that ever happened to him. Their wedding is scheduled for July, although a potential NFL training camp appearance could throw a wrench into that plan. Grant will be his best man.

He misses his French bulldog, Chewie, and Madison’s English bulldog, Obi. He is thankful for his family and his faith, and that he has a quarterback to throw him passes.

Lastly, he is thankful for his personal growth over the wild ride of his athletic career. He remembers the 15-year-old who would dig his heels in, and laughs about it. Bauer shares the same sentiment.

“(In high school) I was the one giving him the tough love,” she said. “Now, he is that voice of reason for me sometimes. That’s the cool story.”

She added, “He remembers where he came from. He impacted me as much as he can say I impacted him. I’m just anxious to get to see him do more.”

The road will not end in Birmingham, Poindexter is certain.

“I definitely believe that, Lord willing, I stay healthy,” he said. “It’s not about talent, it’s about availability. Once I can put on tape and show I’m healthy, I can make a difference anywhere.”

Kevin Redfern KEV-in RED-furn (he/him/his)
Sports Reporter, Phoenix

Kevin Redfern expects to graduate in December 2022 with a bachelor’s degree in sports journalism. Redfern, who has interned as a multimedia journalist for the Northern League, an amateur baseball league in the Midwest, is working for the Phoenix sports bureau.

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