If you've never heard of Bemidji State (MN), don't fret; neither have most football fans. After all, in its 87-year history, this division II football program has sent just one player to the NFL. His name was Al Wolden and in 1986, he played three games with the Chicago Bears. Now, the school is placing their hopes in tight end Brian Leonhardt as their second NFL player.
Tight end is like the NFL's tweener position. No position mixes two fundamentally different ideas the way the tight end position does. A player must stand in and block like a 300-pound mauler on one play and then be asked to outrun linebackers and defensive backs with the speed, soft hands, and leaping ability of a wide receiver.
For Leonhardt, and many like him, he hadn't grown into his frame coming out of high school. He was a lanky 215 pounds and no division one school wanted him for football. He was a supreme athlete, however, as he had received several scholarship offers in both track and wrestling.
Can you think of two better peripheral sports for a tight end to excel than wrestling and track? To dominate with weight distribution, leverage, and body control is what wrestling and being a lineman is all about. Combine that with being a world class athlete in track and you pretty much have the perfect formula for a tight end.
Much like Raiders left tackle, Jared Veldheer, who chose in-state Hillsdale College (Michigan) over some larger schools, Leonhardt chose in-state Bemidji State because it was the only school who was interested in him as a football player. They also gave him a track scholarship. Also like Veldheer, Leonhardt excelled in the classroom as a two-time Academic All American (2011-12).
By his junior season, Leonhardt had grown into his frame and bulked up to more of a typical tight end size. Now, 6-5, 255 pounds, he had his best season as a junior when he led the team in receptions (35) and receiving yards (483). He was also a supreme blocker in both the run and the pass helping to guide the second best rushing attack (No. 13 nationally) and held to edge to make the Beavers 6th in the nation in sacks allowed (.91 sacks allowed per game). That season earned him a All-America honors.
He couldn't repeat or improve upon his junior season on the field, in large part because he injured his foot in the first game of the season which caused his production dip to 25 catches for 343 yards and 3 touchdowns.
Where he burst onto the scene as a real NFL prospect was the Texas vs The Nation game (the same All Star game Veldheer played in). In the game, Leonhardt had 4 catches for 62 yards and a touchdown to earn Offensive Most Valuable Player honors in a 24-13 Nation victory.
His performance prompted the Raiders to do some tape digging. His impressive combination of blocking, receiving, and special teams play attracted the attention of the Raiders as his former head Bemidji State football coach, Jeff Tesch said.
"Two weeks ago (Oakland) flew him in for a 5-hour interview, he didn't work out or do anything," Tesch told the Bemidji Pioneer. "It was something they saw in the video or in that all-star game that they liked. For a Division II player (to make it to the next level), you have to be a rock solid kid, no problems off the field, a good student, good character and Brian is all that."
After impressing the Raiders with his character in person, it came down to how impressed the team was in his tape.
"After the draft, (Oakland's) tight ends coach called me and said they were offering me a tryout," said Leonhardt. "The next day my agent called me and was like ‘Hey, they decided to sign you, you are now an Oakland Raider.' I went from not being the happiest camper on Saturday, to being in a pretty good mood on Sunday."
Usually when a team turns a tryout into a contract, it's because they fear another team will step in and steal that player away from them. This already happened to the Raiders this off-season. They had offered RPI quarterback Mike Hermann a tryout until the Chargers stepped in and offered him a contract. They liked Leonhardt enough to make sure they locked him up just to be certain.
Being signed to a contract as an undrafted free agent is an incredible advantage for someone like Leonhardt. Instead of three days to stand out against some 30 other NFL hopefuls vying for three or four camp spots, he will have all of training camp and preseason to compete with the other Raider tight ends under contract.
That tight end group is a large one for the Raiders including two of whom the team drafted this year. There were three tight ends on the squad prior to the draft - David Ausberry, Richard Gordon, and Mickey Shuler - and now it is the deepest single position on the team with six players competing for what will likely be three roster spots.
While the depth at the position could make it tough for Leonhardt, the lack of overall proven talent works in his favor. The leading receiver among them is Ausberry who has just 9 catches in two seasons. The two drafted rookies Nick Kasa, and Mychal Rivera were both chosen in the sixth round. So, he will have every opportunity to push for a roster spot.
A couple of interesting tidbits about Leonhardt is his warm-up music is "anything from AC/DC" so when he comes out of the tunnel for the first time at O.co, he won't need headphones as "Hell's Bells" and "Back in Black" have long been a big part of the Raiders' pregame music. The one person he said he would like to meet is Tom Hanks and as a Raider he may just get that chance -- Tom Hanks, being a Bay Area native and avid Raiders fan, can often be found on the Raiders' sideline for games.