With every name called, the light grew dimmer and dimmer for Illinois linebacker Nathan Bussey. A player who improved by leaps and bounds in 2010, Bussey had hopes of playing at the next level. With the 243rd pick in the 2011 NFL Draft, the New Orleans Saints made his dream come true.
"It was amazing," Bussey shared afterward. I watched the entire draft until my phone rang, and when the Saints went on the clock for the 243rd pick, my phone started ringing. I had a lot of people at my house, and I was telling everyone to quiet down because I just knew this had to be the call I was waiting for.
Luckily it was a call from the New Orleans Saints, and they wanted to pick me with the next pick they had on the board. It was instantly a celebration. It was a big accomplishment for me. I've come a long way."
Despite being picked near the very end of the draft, Bussey watched the entire draft from the first pick on Thursday night. While he didn't expect to go in the early rounds, he wanted to support friends and teammates who heard their names called early.
"I just watched because I wanted to see my fellow teammates that I grew up with from different schools and congratulate them when they got picked. But it was a very overwhelming process watching 242 picks go by. It was an amazing feeling when my phone rang. It was overwhelming, but it all paid off in the end."
Bussey didn't discount the possibility he could go undrafted. He and his agent considered that scenario, but Bussey had a feeling Saturday morning that it wouldn't be necessary.
"I received a call from my agent. We spoke about what we'd do in case a team didn't pick me. We woke up with a good feeling today that it could be a good day for me to go. I just left it at that, and once the call came through it was a blessing."
Was he worried when only about ten spots remained? Bussey didn't think so. In fact, he had a gut feeling that once the Saints made the first of their two seventh round selections, he could likely hear his name called.
"I did. When their first pick came up and they took a defensive end, I said, ‘They have one more pick this round.' So I gathered my family around and said, ‘This could be it.'
"So we prayed together, and as soon as the Saints went on the clock my phone rang. I already knew it was that time. My phone hadn't rung all day. It was the best call and the best news of my life."
Another blessing for Bussey is that he is not only a draftee, but he is also reunited with college teammate Martez Wilson. The two were a productive duo at linebacker for Illinois this past year, and he looks forward to the potential future the two have together in the Big Easy. Add in former Illini linebacker Danny Clark, and the Black and Gold is starting to have an Orange and Blue tint.
"It's going to be amazing playing with Martez again. We played side by side the last couple years at Illinois, and I consider him one of my brothers. We're real close, and we stay in touch. By playing inside with Danny Clark, it's going to be amazing to get to play around another fellow Illini."
Bussey wasn't a full-time linebacker in college until his senior year, so a lot of people questioned how his experience would translate to the NFL. A strong senior year helped convince the Saints he could get the job done. However, it may be the skills Bussey displayed his first three years as a special teams ace that prove the most useful to him at first.
"It's amazing because everybody always thought that I wasn't going to be an NFL prospect. There was speculation about me just being a special teams guy, which I have no problem with.
"Special teams is the way I was going to get my foot in the door. It's a team that I like, and I'm glad to be a part of it. Being on special teams really helped me in this process.
A lot of the speculation was that I wouldn't be able to play outside linebacker at the next level. By them drafting me, it was just another accomplishment because it proves I'm worthy to be playing at the next level.
"Special teams will be my core work. It's not a problem because I'm willing to go in there and do whatever the coaches need me to do."
Having seen fellow Washington, D.C., teammates Vontae Davis (Dolphins) and Arrelious Benn (Buccaneers) be selected to the NFL, he hoped to join them when his time came. With that phone call, the dream became reality.
"Those guys always told me that with my work ethic that I'd be at the next level with them. I'm working hard toward it, and by me being picked, I'm on the same level as those guys. My dream came true, as well as what they always told me."
Still trying to fully grasp the reality that he was chosen to play in the NFL, Bussey was most eager to immerse himself into the Saints's culture and be around some of the faces of the Saints franchise.
"The first thing that came to my mind was just being a New Orleans Saint and playing under Coach (Sean) Payton, Coach Greg Williams, and Coach McMahon (Greg, former Illini coach). By going in and playing with a guy like Jonathan Vilma, that will be a special opportunity, especially when I get to meet him.
"I thought about all of the things that will help me get the best of me. Being around Pierre Thomas, Reggie Bush, and especially Drew Brees."
One of the added bonuses of going to the Saints is that Bussey becomes part of a team that won a Super Bowl just two years ago. Bussey says he's long been a follower of the Saints's program, and he wants to come in and help the team do what it takes to get back on top.
"It means a lot because I actually watched them when they went to the Super Bowl that year, as well as the year before. Just to be a part of an organization like the Saints, coming in as a rookie, I'm willing to do whatever I can to ignite another flame so we can hopefully be get back on the same path to hopefully play in another Super Bowl soon."
Bussey has a heart-felt love of the University of Illinois, and those feelings are reciprocated by appreciative Illini fans. He will always have supportive fans following his progress as a professional football player.