Posted by Bryan Fischer
Today’s NFC Championship game between Green Bay and Chicago pits two great rivals and many of the NFL’s best players against each other. Although some were all-world recruits coming out of high school, most were not. Just listen to the players when they announce their alma maters, mixed in with the USC’s and Florida’s are Abilene Christian and a few directional schools.
B.J. Raji was a two-star, 6-foot-2, 295 pound defensive tackle from Washington Township (NJ) in the class of 2004. His only other offers were from Rutgers and Wisconsin and he selected Boston College shortly after his official visit there. An anchor for the Eagles defense, he was a third-team AP All-American and first-team All-ACC pick his senior year. The Packers selected him ninth overall in the 2009 NFL Draft.
Packers starting quarterback Aaron Rodgers was jealous of Raji’s offer list. After having zero Division I offers out of high school in Oroville, CA, Rodgers went to Butte Junior College. Cal coach Jeff Tedford noticed Rodgers while recruiting a tight end at Butte and eventually turned him into one of the most productive quarterbacks in Cal history. After some thought he could be the overall number one pick in 2005, he slid to Green Bay with the 24th overall pick and the rest is (fairly recent) history.
Despite having a famous last name, Clay Matthews was an unranked linebacker in the class of 2004 coming out of high school. He walked-on at USC and used the weight room to transform himself. He eventually received a scholarship in 2006 and was part of a fearsome front seven at USC in 2009 that was one of the best defenses in college football. The Packers grabbed Matthews with the 26th pick in 2009 and he will likely end up as the NFL’s defensive player of the year.
Similar stories are abound on the Bears as well. Brian Urlacher was actually a wide receiver coming out of high school and only held offers from New Mexico and New Mexico State. After heading to New Mexico, head coach Dennis Franchione flipped Urlacher to linebacker and he eventually led the nation in tackles his junior year. Selected ninth overall in 2000, the seven time Pro-Bowler has been a mainstay on the Bears and one of the most recognizable defenders in the league.
Unlike the aforementioned players, Julius Peppers might be the player with the most hype coming out of high school and college. A Parade All-American coming out of South Nash Senior High (NC), Peppers went on to finish second on the all-time sacks list at North Carolina and won the Bednarik and Lombardi Awards. The second overall pick in 2002, Peppers was the NFL’s Defensive Rookie of the Year and hasn’t looked back since.
Numerous other players took off-the-beaten paths to get to the NFC Championship game though. Bears running back Matt Forte was a two-star back who went to Tulane. Starting tackle J’Marcus Webb was a top recruit from the Dallas-area who signed with Texas. He eventually transferred to a junior college before finishing up at West Texas A&M. Devin Hester was a five-star corner who took his talents to ‘The U’ and had great success there. The Packers A.J. Hawk was a three-star linebacker from Centerville (OH) who eventually became one of the best Ohio State linebackers in recent memory and a first round pick.
As many of these players will tell you, it’s not about where you start, it is how hard you work and how you finish. A win today and another in a few weeks and any star ratings they may have had in high school will just look funny while they're holding up the Lombardi Trophy.