College football players have a 1.5 percent chance of making it to the NFL, according to studies done by the NCAA.
Seniors Nick Shafnisky and LaQuan Lambert both hope to defy those odds by the end of this summer.
Coming from a small FCS school like Lehigh, the chances of reaching the NFL are even slimmer compared to the general odds. In the past 30 years, Lehigh football has produced a total of seven NFL players, with only two of them being selected in the NFL draft.
The last Lehigh player picked in the NFL Draft was Will Rackley, ’11. Rackley was selected in the third round of the 2011 NFL draft by the Jacksonville Jaguars and played three seasons before retiring because of concussions.
Although he was an outlier compared to the average Patriot League NFL hopeful because he was a highly-touted prospect, Rackley knows what it’s like to try to prove one’s worth coming from a small school.
“You have to take advantage of every single opportunity you get,” Rackley said. “Opportunities could be slim, to be quite honest. So any time a team is watching, you have to perform your best. You may not get another shot.”
After helping secure Lehigh’s 11th Patriot League title and an FCS playoff berth, Shafnisky and Lambert quickly shifted their focus to the next task at hand. While Shafnisky had his sights set on making a run at the NFL, Lambert had no intentions of playing football professionally.
Lambert had two options on his mind following the season. He could either pursue a job in real estate or aim for another degree in graduate school. A career in athletics didn’t appeal to Lambert at the time, but it was strength and conditioning coaches Eric Markovcy and Dominic Carlineo who convinced him he should pursue an NFL career, especially with his stature and physical tools.
“After speaking with (Markovcy) and (Carlineo), I came to the realization that I was granted God-given abilities,” Lambert said. “I would be selling myself short if I didn’t at least give my childhood dream a chance.”
Lambert’s mindset changed and he found himself training five times a week in anticipation of his first NFL workout opportunity. His chance came when he received an invite to a regional combine hosted by the Washington Redskins. He was one of 148 players invited to the event, but he still managed to stand out among the group.
Lambert was satisfied with his performance at the combine, as were multiple evaluators. Standing at 6 feet 1 inch and 215 pounds, Lambert displayed his 4.5-second speed in the 40-yard dash, showing no ill effects of his ACL injury suffered in 2015. Lambert believes his athleticism is up to par with the standard for an NFL player, and his former quarterback Shafnisky agrees.
“He’s been the biggest freak athlete in the weight room since I’ve been here,” Shafnisky said. “He has records at Lehigh (in the weight room) that will last for a long time. He was pound-for-pound the strongest guy, and I think he opened a lot of eyes (in his workout).”
Like Lambert, Shafnisky impressed scouts with his physical traits as a quarterback in drills, but it was his field work as a safety that caught the eye of some NFL personnel while he was at his Pro Day at Villanova University on Monday. Shafnisky hasn’t played a down of defense since high school, but he’s willing to make the transition for the sake of reaching his dream.
“I’ll run down on kickoffs, I’ll block a punt, I’ll even hold a football (on field goal attempts),” Shafnisky said. “Whatever it is, I’ll do it. It’s the league.”
Shafnisky has been working on his footwork and hips every day to adjust to the safety position. He’s been assisted by junior Quentin Jones, who started 10 games at safety for Lehigh in the 2015 season. Teams have told Shafnisky that he’s listed as a utility, a player that’ll be used on special teams, defense and could serve as an emergency quarterback. Shafnisky also added that he’ll need to get accustomed to tackling again.
Both seniors have backup plans if their NFL aspirations don’t work out. Shafnisky has already been offered a contract from the Winnipeg Blue Bombers, a team in the Canadian Football League, to play quarterback, so regardless of what happens, he’ll likely be playing professional football next year. Lambert says the CFL route is a possibility, but he’ll think about attending graduate school in the United Kingdom or beginning a real estate career in Philadelphia.
If Shafnisky and Lambert do end suiting up on football’s grandest stage, Rackley said it’ll be an experience like no other.
“It’s a surreal feeling and a dream come true, especially coming from a small school like Lehigh,” Rackley said. “Making the adjustment from playing in the Patriot League to playing guys you were just watching on TV was pretty cool.”
Shafnisky and Lambert both acknowledged that the transition to NFL competition will be difficult. There will be a maturation process in every aspect of the game, but it won’t have an effect on their approaches and mindsets.
“Yeah, some of them are going to be bigger and some of them are going to be faster,” Shafnisky said. “But football is way more than that.”