|Undra Hendrix's trip from Hardin-Simmons to Laredo, Texas, was not overly long.|
By Adam Turer
Helsinki, Finland and Laredo, Texas have few things in common. For two Division III All-Americans, these distant and distinct locales share one thing: hope.
After earning second team All-America honors following their senior seasons in 2012, the itch to put the pads back on never fully went away. When they were not offered any free agent contracts following the NFL draft, they kept working out and looking for the right opportunity to come their way. Each player recently embarked on a new, and adventurous, phase of his football career.
Former Hardin-Simmons defensive lineman Undra Hendrix signed with the Laredo Rattlesnakes on June 6. Former North Carolina Wesleyan cornerback and return man Dwayne Hollis signed with the Helsinki Roosters on July 3. In signing to play in lesser known leagues, each player was taking a leap of faith.
“I just wanted to continue my playing career, and I also saw it as a chance to showcase my skills to the NFL and CFL and AFL1,” said Hendrix. “I just am blessed and fortunate to still be playing.”
Hendrix is a Irving, Texas, native. The move to the small town on the Texas-Mexico border was a change for Hendrix, but not as much of a culture shock as Hollis is experiencing. Newport News, Va. and Helsinki are approximately 4,691 miles apart. It was his unrelenting passion for football that led Hollis to a new continent.
“Well, at the end of the day I love football, so why not go play in Europe and experience something new that most people won't be able to do in their lifetime,” said Hollis. “I want to and still know I have the talent to play in America and Canada and in order to do that they don't want to see guys sitting out a year or two.”
|Dwayne Hollis was named the
team MVP for his first game in Finland. He had 82 yards receiving
and a TD.
Hollis turned down earlier offers from teams in Germany and American indoor football leagues. He stayed in shape by working out at his high school with a friend who played for Old Dominion University, in case another opportunity to play came along.
Hollis understands that there are many players who take circuitous routes to professional leagues in North America.
“You never know what road you may have to take to get to the next level, but just keep persevering through the hard times,” said Hollis. “Many people are wishing they were in my shoes, which I never take for granted.”
Both players are bringing the work ethic they developed in Division III to their new teams. Their teammates have various levels of experience. Some played Division I college football, a few had NFL or CFL experience, and many of Hollis’ teammates have played in Europe their entire careers. Even if these opportunities do not lead directly to better opportunities for Hendrix or Hollis, they can represent and draw attention to Division III, creating opportunities at home and abroad for future Division III alums.
“At HSU we didn’t have lazy moments, so I instilled that into my teammates and that has made a difference,” said Hendrix, whose team has won three straight games since he joined the lineup. “We had great coaches at HSU and they instilled me with a great work ethic that I have brought down to Laredo and now I have opened people’s eyes to HSU.”
The Rattlesnakes play for the Lone Star Football League championship on Saturday, July 13. It might not compare to a Stagg Bowl, but playing a football game with a title on the line or making a big play to help his team is still enough to keep these players going.
“Getting another quarterback sack felt so great,” said Hendrix.”I was overjoyed with emotion because it was a blessing that I had another opportunity to make a sack.”
There are numerous football leagues on nearly every continent. Some come with little more than an opportunity to play the game they love. Some leagues offer a chance for local fame. The Rattlesnakes are the most popular football team in Laredo, said Hendrix. The Roosters play in the Finnish “Maple League,” which is the highest level of American football in Finland. For those seniors about to play their final Division III season, but do not want to play their final season of football, there are plenty of options out there.
“I wasn’t promised a pro ball contract but by the grace of God I did and I’m taking advantage of it,” said Hendrix. “I always knew I would play again so I just worked on technique in the offseason so that way when I had another opportunity I would make the most of it. Sometimes doubt came in, but when that happened I pushed myself harder to make it.”
There is inherent risk that comes with playing for a startup team like the Rattlesnakes. The LSFL has not been the most stable league, with several teams folding within the league’s first two years. Hendrix misses being away from his girlfriend and infant son, but plans to return to them following this weekend’s championship game. Hollis is playing on a team with more stability, as the Roosters have been around since 1980. But, he has even more homesickness to contend with, thousands of miles from his family, friends, and girlfriend.
“I miss playing in front of family and friends, but it felt great being able to do it again,” said Hollis. “I guess God had a different plan and path for me and I’m okay with that.”
Plenty of players, including former Division III players, have taken unconventional paths to the NFL or CFL. Hendrix and Hollis hope to someday be added to that list. Just putting on the pads again has them feeling optimistic about their chances.
“I know my road has just begun and I will be in the NFL one day,” said Hendrix. “I just pray and hope that a team is impressed with me and brings me in so I can showcase my talent.”