Graduating to the pros: Two athletes look to continue careers after Lafayette

The first time senior Matt Smalley’s phone rang this past Wednesday afternoon he silenced it and continued describing the two NFL pro days he attended in March. The second time the Lafayette cornerback’s phone rang, he answered — the Chicago Bears were asking for him.

Smalley, a standout for the Lafayette football program, was recently invited to three NFL Rookie Mini Camps, and attended his first just yesterday with the New York Giants.

“It’s always been my dream since I was a child,” said Smalley, who earned All-Patriot League First-Team honors every year of his college career.  “I’ve been talking about playing football and playing at NFL level since I started playing football.”

Since the completion of his final season at Lafayette, Smalley has worked out for several NFL teams. He was invited to an Eagles Pro Camp in April, and will be attending a Washington Redskins Rookie Mini Camp next week, in addition to the Giants camp yesterday. The Redskins camp conflicts with the Bears camp, so he won’t be able to travel to Chicago.

According to Smalley, scouts began coming to various games during his senior season after noticing his talent last spring during Junior Day. Early in March, the cornerback attended two pro days at Temple University, and was then invited to respective training events.

When Smalley traveled to his hometown of Philadelphia a few weeks ago for the Eagles pro camp, he wasn’t sure what to expect. According to Smalley, the camp was strictly for local stars. The recruits were shown film, and then sent through various workouts for their positions. Smalley was tested as both a defensive back and punt receiver.

“I actually saw Ross out there,” said Smalley of the 2015 Lafayette grad Ross Scheuerman, who was actually just released from the Eagles. “When we were in the weight room stretching, he was just finishing his workout. We sat and talked for a while. He said it’s good, that he likes the lifestyle.”

Scheuerman, a stand-out running back for Lafayette, has bounced around the NFL for the past year after returning from an Achilles injury during a short stint with the Pittsburgh Steelers.

“He told me about some of his experiences at Green Bay and Pittsburgh,” said Smalley, who finished the 2015 season with 44 tackles. “So it was good to talk to him and catch up with him and get some of his advice for going through this process.”

According to Smalley, not many Patriot League players pursue NFL dreams. Other than Scheuerman, Blake Costanzo, who graduated in 2006, is the only other player in recent history to make it to the NFL from Lafayette, Smalley said. The New York Jets signed him as an undrafted free agent in 2006.

As the process continues, and Smalley awaits decisions, the soon-to-be-graduate remains hopeful.

“I’m just excited to be playing football again to be honest,” said Smalley, who was actually cut from his high school freshman squad. “I’m excited to get an opportunity to play in the NFL, it’s what I always wanted. All I ever asked for was an opportunity and I have it now.”

Smalley isn’t the only Lafayette athlete looking to pursue a professional career post-graduation. Senior Ben Freeland, center for the 2015-16 basketball team, recently signed with a Euroleague agent.

“It’s been a goal, or a dream of mine since I was young,” said Freeland, who started in 13 of the 28 games he saw during his senior season. “I like to travel and I always knew I wasn’t going to be good enough for the NBA. It’s funny because some of my teammates are like, ‘You’re the only one in the senior class still trying to play and you barely played in college.’ I’m like, ‘Yeah, your point?’ So, it’s been funny. The teammates have been supporting me obviously, but they’ve just been giving me a hard time about the whole process.”

According to Freeland, teammate Billy Murphy was also offered an opportunity to play overseas  — for the Australian Football League — but has decided to remain in the States and pursue a career in sales.

After Freeland attended a showcase for small schools in Virginia in mid-April and looked at the rosters of different teams in Europe, he realized his 6’10” stature would definitely be an advantage in the recruiting process.

Leaders of the 2015 Patriot League championship team, alumni Seth Hinrichs and Dan Trist, both currently play overseas. According to Freeland, Hinrichs encouraged his former teammate to reach out to as many teams as possible over the next few months.

The Euroleague is still finishing their post seasons, so any offers won’t be made until between June 15 and Sept. 1. Freeland plans to return home to San Fransisco this summer to train, and continue his summer job as a zip line tour guide while his agent markets his talents.

“At this point it’s just a waiting game,” Freeland said.