|James Okike had a breakout year for Wesley in 2015. In 2016, he was forced to sit out because of academics.
2015 photo by Steve Frommell, d3photography.com
By Adam Turer
|Dakota Nelson had to earn his way back onto the field for Manchester after two off-field transregssions.
Manchester athletics photo
In Division III, we play for the love of the game. Like any love, it can be taken for granted, then taken away.
Three former All-Region players spent 2016 on the sidelines. One was actually on the sidelines after a transfer that did not translate to playing time. The other two were away from their team, suffering the consequences of their poor decisions.
Now, all three are back and making an immediate impact on their respective programs. More importantly, they now have a greater appreciation for the opportunities they’ve been given. They will not be taking the 2017 season for granted.
Everyone remembers Joe Callahan’s record-breaking senior season at Wesley in 2015. The current Green Bay Packer had high expectations entering that season, which ended in a national quarterfinal loss to eventual champion Mount Union. Callahan’s favorite target that year was an unsung junior who entered the season with just six career receptions.
James Okike burst onto the scene in a big way. He caught 79 passes for 1,426 yards and 19 touchdowns en route to first team All-Region and honorable mention All-American honors. Okike was poised to follow up on that with an even bigger senior campaign, helping break in Wesley’s new starting quarterback in 2016. Then, he lost focus.
After finding out shortly before the season that he was academically ineligible, Okike spent the 2016 season back home in Pennsylvania. He took online course while staying in shape by training with his brother, a boxer. He never once wavered in his determination to return to the Wolverines.
“We all make mistakes,” said Okike. “I made mine. Now I’m bouncing back and on track to get my degree this spring.”
The criminal justice major stayed in touch with coach Mike Drass, who placed the responsibility on his star wide receiver.
“He told me, ‘You know what you have to do,’ and he was right,” said Okike. “You’ve got to balance two types of work: football work and classwork. But you’ve got to balance class more than football.”
Dakota Nelson was an impact player from the moment he set foot on Manchester’s campus. He earned All-Region honors as both a freshman and sophomore for his return skills. He led the nation in all-purpose yards in 2014 with 235.9 per game. He was also the Spartans’ leading receiver. Then, he let all of his success go to his head.
In a three-day span in 2015, he was charged with operating a vehicle while under the influence, then accused of plagiarizing a portion of a paper he turned in. His transgressions got him kicked out of Manchester for the duration of the 2015 school year.
“I thought I was invincible and untouchable. My head was bigger than you could think,” admitted Nelson. “I’ve been playing football since I was four or five years old. It was basically a routine in my life. I’ve never had something like that taken away from me. It was all because of the actions I’ve made.”
Nelson reapplied and was admitted back to school in 2016, but by then the Spartans had a new coaching staff. Rookie head coach Nate Jensen wanted Nelson to prove that his priorities were in order before allowing him back on the team. That’s when Nelson broke down in the coach’s office.
“I’m a totally different person now,” said Nelson. “I just flipped the switch. I took school and football for granted before.”
He spent the 2016 season cheering for his former teammates, including his younger brother and Spartans starting safety, Dillon. Once he was readmitted to the program, he attacked each day with a passion that is unusual even among Division III student-athletes. Now, Nelson relishes waking up for 8:00 a.m. classes, then getting hit by linebackers at practice in the afternoon. The sports management major earned a 3.3 grade point average in 2016.
“That’s one of the reasons we made him captain. He has such a strong passion for the game of football. He doesn’t take any day for granted,” said Jensen. “Whatever it takes to make the team better, he’s willing to do. He is one of those guys that you want to show every incoming guy that this is what you can be like, from academics, to on the field, to social life, and everything we want in a Manchester Spartan.”
After nearly two years away from the game, Nelson returned as if he hadn’t missed a day. Through two games, he has passed for a touchdown, caught a touchdown pass, and returned a kickoff 93 yards for a score. The senior captain is averaging 220 all-purpose yards per game. More importantly, he is on track to graduate this spring.
“When I first left, I felt that it was over, that I would never touch a football again, or go to college and get my degree,” he said. “I really want that degree more than football. That was really hard.”
Malik Pressley didn’t make any bad choices, or find himself in trouble. He was just trying to take his game to the next level.
After two spectacular seasons at FDU-Florham, the All-Region receiver decided to transfer to Mount Union. He appeared in just three games and accumulated zero stats for the Purple Raiders before transferring back to the Devils this spring. The New Jersey native has no regrets, but was hungry to get back on the field and contribute.
|Malik Pressley didn't have the success he had hoped for in transferring to Mount Union.
FDU-Florham 2015 file photo
“I don’t like to live with regret in my life. I saw an opportunity. Mount Union is a great program, they taught me a lot out there, the coaching staff and teammates were great. I don’t regret it at all,” said Pressley. “Even though I didn’t see the field out there, I was always willing to learn and always kept a positive attitude. Whatever I learned out there, I hope I can share with my teammates to make us better.”
The Devils won just five games during Pressley’s first two seasons, during which he accumulated 167 receptions for 1,969 yards and 25 touchdowns. It was a difficult conversation with coach Brian Surace, but Pressley wanted to take his chance. It was another difficult conversation when he decided he wanted return to New Jersey.
“He had the respect of the rest of the team. We talked to the team about our feelings as a staff and asked players if they were OK with it. There wasn’t any dissension,” said Surace. “Obviously, he’s a tremendous football player, but they respect him as a teammate. That’s the most important thing. If he didn’t have the respect of his teammates coming back, it would have been different.”
For many players, such an experience would be humbling. But Pressley was already humble, despite all of his success at FDU-Florham. In his first game back, he set the program record for career receptions and is now three touchdowns away from another record. That’s not why he came back.
“That’s Malik. He gets along with everybody. Having the success he had here, you wouldn’t know it by the way he acted,” said Surace. “That really gained the respect of his teammates. He wants to please his teammates, the coaching staff, the program, all of those things.”
In his first game back in a Devils uniform, Pressley caught 16 passes for 271 yards and three touchdowns. That included a fade route that appeared certain to head out of bounds before Pressley tipped it in the air with one hand then hauled it in with both feet in the end zone, a play that reminded everyone at FDU what a special player they were missing in 2016.
“I’m just glad to be back. FDU just felt more like home to me,” said Pressley. “My coaches helped me get back on the field and get up to speed. I don’t want anything to be given; I want everything to be earned.”
The hardest part for all three players was being away from their teammates. Those bonds are something that they cherish, something that they don’t want others to risk losing.
“I told my teammates to manage time outside of football so they can enjoy all four years and enjoy the experience,” said Okike.
“The best part about football is camp, getting to know the new guys,” said Nelson. “I love talking football with coaches. I’m having so much fun now. I love it.”
“My teammates are excited to see me do well. When I came back, it was exciting,” said Pressley. “I love every guy here. It feels good to be back on the field. I’m just glad to be back at FDU, a place I love.”
Their love for their teammates, the game, and their program will not be taken for granted in 2017.
As part of my attempt to rekindle a love for football, I’ll be reaching out to players all season long to give them space to explain why they love the game. This week is Loras linebacker Mark Tilkes, who came back for a fifth year to lead the Duhawks.
I fell in love with football the first time I put on pads in fifth grade. No other aspect of my life gives me the feeling that playing football does.
I still love football for a variety of reasons. The first reason is that I love the amount of intensity, discipline, and perseverance the game requires to be successful. This game truly turns boys into men. Secondly, I love the bond I have with my brothers in the program, whether it’s coaches, staff members, or the boys lining up next to you. I play the game I love because of my teammates. I came back for an extra year of eligibility for my teammates. This sport requires every man to do their own specific job to be successful, and I enjoy being a leader for my team. Lastly, I still love football for the same reason I fell in love with it. There is no greater euphoria than winning a college football game with your brothers. The atmosphere, making big plays, and being able to be as crazy and enthusiastic as I want is what keeps me motivated.
If you or someone you know would like to be featured in Players’ Corner this year, please reach out to me at any time.
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There are so many worthy stories to be told and I can’t find them all on my own. Please share with me those stories that make you passionate about Division III football. If you have suggestions for next week's column, please reach out to me on Twitter at @adamturer or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Thanks for reading!