Xavier Fulton overcame shoulder surgery and a frustrating senior season to achieve his dream of playing professional football when Tampa Bay selected him Sunday. His selection was the culmination of a life-long dream.
"It's an amazing feeling getting a chance to play professional football. It's been a dream of mine for a very long time now."
Fulton's story is all the more interesting because a major knee surgery almost ended his dream prematurely. Recruited as a defensive end, Xavier tore his anterior cruciate knee ligament in the Penn State game his sophomore year. A lengthy recovery period and complications caused him to lose speed and dexterity.
Eventually, it forced him to accept a position change. Unable to compete on the defensive line, Xavier was asked to try left tackle on offense. He hadn't played the position since high school. When he made the change, he had no thought of becoming a professional on the offensive side of the ball.
"I had no idea at all. I just knew I'd been sitting out of football for a year, and I wanted to get back and help my team out as much as I could."
The rest, as they say, is history. Given a new lease on life, Fulton discovered he had the quickness and agility to excel at the all-important left tackle spot. Without the experience normally required of offensive linemen, he helped Illinois earn a spot in the Rose Bowl and helped pave the way for running back Rashard Mendenhall to become an All-American and NFL 1st round draft pick.
Fulton's shoulder was already weak as he began his senior season last fall, but a major injury required off-season surgery.
"I had a surgery on my right shoulder. I injured it against Iowa. It's coming along pretty good. I'll be nine weeks out of surgery this coming Tuesday. Rehab's going pretty smooth."
Some pro teams undoubtedly passed on Fulton because he is not yet healthy enough to show them his best game. But Tampa Bay did its homework and decided he was worth the risk.
"I'd talked to Tampa Bay on the phone a couple times. I interviewed with them at the Senior Bowl and at the Combine, so I've talked to their representatives on several different occasions."
Fulton had no interest in the first day of the draft.
"I heard three to five (round) from my agent. So I was just relaxing yesterday. I didn't watch the draft at all."
When the draft proceeded into the fifth round Sunday, Xavier grew weary of the suspense.
"Today I was really nervous actually. I got a call after I turned the draft off. I was watching regular TV when they called me up and asked if I'd like to play in Tampa Bay. I said, 'Awesome!'"
Some players are more demonstrative than others when they receive the good news. Xavier falls into the latter category.
"I was just in my room with my door closed, sitting with my girl friend. I didn't jump up or anything, but I was pretty excited."
The Homewood-Flossmoor product doesn't know much about Tampa Bay yet, but he is eager to compete.
"Not a whole lot. I know they've got a pretty good offensive line from what I hear."
Fulton recently celebrated a birthday. He also came down with a flu that has wiped him out. But he won't let that interfere with his family celebration.
"They sent me to the hospital yesterday to get checked out. I had a lot of trouble swallowing. But I'll figure something out. I've got to eat some of my dad's ribs right now."