Hampton Fever: Five Pirates Treasured By The NFL

By Les Carpenter
Updated: April 22, 2007

HAMPTON, Va. — Sometime around Christmas, the letters began arriving.

Onrea Jones, a senior wide receiver at Hampton University, ignored his at first. The return address — NFL combine, Indianapolis, Indiana — was too prestigious for someone of his stature at a small Division I-AA school far off the map of most professional football teams.

Must be a form letter looking for standard information, Jones thought, before tossing it on a table with the rest of the mail. It wouldn’t be until later, when his mother took it upon herself to open the envelope and suggested to her son that the contents might be something he’d actually want to read, did Onrea Jones learn that with his invitation to the February combine, he had become a legitimate prospect for the NFL draft.

Soon the phone was ringing. Other Hampton teammates had letters, too. There was Justin Durant, the star linebacker, which wasn’t a surprise. He had drawn so much interest from scouts that they knew all along he’d be invited.

But then Marquay McDaniel, another wide receiver, and Travarous Bain, a cornerback who had transferred from Miami, had letters, as did running back Alonzo Coleman, and suddenly the reality hit them.

The NFL invites only the 335 players it thinks are the best candidates to play in its league to the combine every year. And tiny Hampton, a historically black college, sent five.

This is unheard of. A school such as Hampton might have a player invited to the combine every couple of years. Never in the 23-year history of the leaguewide combine, school officials said, had five players from a Division I-AA college attended the event. It almost was too much to absorb, even for the NFL teams that came to Indianapolis to watch the selected few work out.

“When we got there and they said Hampton had five guys here, we all said, ‘Whoa, what do they have at Hampton?’ ” Washington Redskins running backs coach Earnest Byner said. It’s a question everyone has been asking.

At the combine, someone looked at a list, counted names and realized Hampton had more players at the camp than Southern California — a statistic the Hampton players heard over and over again as they moved through the workouts.

Every time a scout approached one of them, usually with the salutation “Hey Hampton!” he offered this news as if he had been the first to discover it.

“You know you guys have more players here than USC?”

A Lot of Coaching

Asked last month to explain this phenomenon, the Hampton Five could not. They shrugged and smiled and waved their arms. “We just lucked out and had a good group, I guess,” McDaniel said.

Yet a few dozen yards away from where McDaniel was standing on the field of Hampton’s modest football stadium, at least part of the answer sat behind a desk in a blue cinder-block office.

Hampton Coach Joe Taylor has built a small empire over the past 15 years, even if most people don’t realize it and despite the fact his facilities are threadbare compared with the big schools. His office, for instance, is surprisingly similar to that of Craig T. Nelson on the television show “Coach.”

But Taylor, who grew up in the District, played football at Cardozo High and was an assistant coach at H.D. Woodson, has never minded his surroundings. He arrived in 1992 figuring he’d stay for five or six years before heading on to something bigger.

Then a strange thing happened. As the bigger places called, he found he couldn’t leave his players after assuring their parents that he’d take care of them. Five years turned to 10, then 12, and suddenly he had spent the better part of two decades at the place he figured would just be a stop.

Last year, Art Shell, an old friend, called wondering if he’d want a job with the Oakland Raiders, whom Shell was going to coach. Taylor considered the offer, pondered a real shot at the big time and declined. Several months later, Shell was out as Raiders coach and Taylor was in the middle of what might be the best story in this year’s draft.

Taylor is thrilled by the idea that five of his players might be drafted, but it also does not consume him. Nor do the three straight MEAC titles, the 31-7 MEAC record over the past five years or even the 0-3 record in the last three Division I-AA playoffs. At Hampton, everything is not about football. “We’re in a people business,” Taylor is fond of saying.

He asks a question — “What is the most critical area on the football field?” — and begins to run through the possibilities. Between the 40-yard lines? Inside the 5? On the goal line?

“Eddie Robinson said the most critical area of the field is between the ears,” he finally said, answering his own question by invoking the name of the revered Grambling coach who passed away April 3.

And so Taylor floods his players with inspiration. “They all think I majored in psychology,” he said with a laugh. Every week during the season, the game plan comes with three additional pages — a theme for the week, followed by a poem or a story that somehow supports that theme.

Behind his desk is a tall file cabinet filled with inspirational tales people have sent Taylor over the years. He stands and opens it and begins leafing through manila folders, pulling out everything from letters to Bible verses.

“You don’t reinvent the wheel, you just borrow spokes,” he said. Taylor talks a lot about his “blueprint” for success, which has as much to do with personal growth as it does with football.

The coaches and players spend a good amount of time talking about religion, mainly because Taylor tells them “they have to be right with the man upstairs” before they can be at peace with themselves.

“It’s a lesson of life,” Jones said of his coach’s approach. “It’s something that will help us everywhere. We’re not just better men, we’re better athletes.”

Jones has kept every handout Taylor has given him over the years, storing the sheets in a giant envelope at home. His favorite messages are about character, a subject the coach expounds upon a great deal. “Character is what the NFL scouts go by,” Jones said, almost hopefully.

But before you think Taylor’s program has little to do with football, there is this: Workouts are like boot camp. In the winter, after the season is over but before spring practice begins, Taylor demands the players rise at 5:30 a.m. for an outdoor conditioning program.

This draws the predictable measure of grumbling from players who are less than thrilled to be running sprints in an icy rain with the wind slicing off the Hampton River.

Still, Taylor thinks this builds the character he talks so much about. Ultimately, the players tend to agree. Several talk about the “hard work” they’ve put in as a reason for why they stand on the cusp of the NFL. When a visitor suggested to McDaniel that all football players say they work hard, he shook his head.

“We know guys at other schools who have been there, done that,” he said. “We tell them what we do and they say, ‘Wow, you guys do work hard.’ “

Yet in trying to understand how tiny Hampton could send five players to football’s biggest scouting festival, there also is this. Until four years ago, the team didn’t even have a strength and conditioning program.

This changed with the arrival of Shaun Huls, who had come from Nebraska’s vaunted training program. Huls and his assistant, Zach Nott, who stayed after Huls left last year, changed the weight room, added modern equipment and redesigned the workout routines to focus on concepts necessary in football, such as taking off from a dead stop and then stopping suddenly or changing direction.

“The ultimate goal is to make them better football players,” Nott said. “You play football with your feet on the ground, so you go through training with your feet on the ground.”

Nott also said that because of his own Nebraska ties, he can get his hands on the newest equipment and constantly is being exposed to new ways of looking at how the body works, all in the hopes of building better football players.

A Little Luck

Nonetheless, for all of Taylor’s sermons and Nott’s workouts, the coach says he is lucky. Most of Hampton’s best players wound up here by accident.

Durant, whose brother played quarterback at North Carolina, didn’t draw Division I-A interest mostly because he is 6 feet 2 and 230 pounds — small for a linebacker. Coleman’s brother, Jonathan, played for Taylor years ago at Virginia Union. Jones had been an Army brat when he was young, never staying long in any place, and seemed to go unnoticed by larger schools when he played in high school in nearby Williamsburg.

McDaniel, from Virginia Beach, said he had several Division I-A offers but couldn’t qualify academically and was left only with nearby Hampton. Bain, once a highly sought-after high school player, transferred from Miami before his junior year because the coaches there had decided to play older players ahead of him and he didn’t want to risk being ignored by the NFL.

Not that he had to worry. The NFL has noticed. Last month, nearly 20 assistants and scouts made their way down Interstate 64 for Hampton’s pro day, an annual workout all schools have for the professional scouts and coaches who want to come and watch. But at schools such as Hampton, no scouts or coaches usually want to come and watch.

This time was different. The hype was so large for Hampton’s pro day that some two dozen players attended from nearby colleges such as Richmond and James Madison, knowing it might be their best way to get noticed.

John Dorsey, the Green Bay Packers’ director of college scouting, said he normally would have gone to Virginia Tech’s pro day, held the same day, but he had “unanswered questions” about some of the Hampton players.

Byner had come to watch Coleman, a player he met at the combine and liked. “I don’t come [to pro days] often,” he said, a clear sign he was impressed enough with Coleman to take another look, even though the Redskins hardly would seem to have a need at running back.

Durant has generated by far the most interest. Linebackers coaches from the Carolina Panthers and Atlanta Falcons came to the pro day just to watch him run through light drills after the workout. Several other teams have requested private workouts, which is an indication he could jump to the third round of the draft.

Bain, whose 4.43-second time in the 40-yard dash was the 10th-best time among defensive backs at the combine, is considered to be a fifth- or sixth-round pick, while the other three figure to be seventh-round choices or undrafted free agent signings. A sixth player, cornerback Calvin Bannister, was not invited to the combine (much to the surprise of some players who were) but impressed scouts with a 39 1/2 -inch vertical leap at the pro day.

Over the years, Hampton has sent 24 players to the NFL, which is impressive for a Division I-AA school. But in six months, that number could jump by six.

And that is unfathomable. How that happened, no one really seems to know. “We were very fortunate to end up at the same place at the same time,” Bannister said.

Which seems as good an explanation as any.