‘People will want to root for Beaver'

Record-setting RB Justin Beaver of UW-Whitewater, the best player in Division III last season, will try to win a roster spot at rookie camp this weekend. PackerReport.com's Steve Lawrence introduces you to him.

It's not often an underdog story includes one of college football's all-time rushing leaders who can run the 40 in 4.45 seconds.

Packers fans, let me introduce you to Justin Beaver.

If you love underdogs — and Packers fans do — you'll love Beaver.

He was raised by his grandparents since he was 3 months old because his parents were young and had some issues. His father was killed in an altercation when he was a junior in high school. Instead of seeing those setbacks as obstacles or using them as excuses, he says they've made him stronger.

He was overlooked by the big schools, so he settled on Division III Wisconsin-Whitewater. When he wasn't running past or through the opposition or winning Division III's equivalent of the Heisman Trophy or earning academic all-America honors with his 3.51 grade-point average, Beaver says he's just "the average college athlete."

It's not often Mr. Modesty ranks 10th on the NCAA all-divisions rushing list, ahead of former Heisman Trophy winners like Ron Dayne and Ricky Williams.

Oh, and the native of Palmyra, Wis. — located in southeastern Wisconsin — is a lifelong Packers fan.

"Of course. Living in Wisconsin, you can't not root for them. They've got a great tradition, great fans and a great atmosphere," he said in a telephone interview on Tuesday.

Lance Leipold was hired in January 2007 to replace retiring Whitewater legend Bob Berezowitz as coach. He has nothing but praise for Beaver, and not just because Beaver helped Leipold win the national championship in his first season as the Warhawks' coach.

"It's a great feel-good story, but the NFL is a business, and Justin knows that going in," Leipold said on Wednesday. "The biggest thing, for me personally, is I got a chance to meet Justin the person before Justin the player for my first eight months here. He's a quality young man. If this doesn't work out, it doesn't change anything about Justin the person.

"He just wants to explore this to its fullest, and if it doesn't work out, then Justin will turn the page to the next part of his life as a teacher, and he'll make a difference doing that."

Of course, the Packers aren't giving Beaver a chance just because he's a good guy. There are a lot of good guys in college sports, but few have as glittering a resume.

Beaver rushed for 253 yards and a touchdown as the Warhawks upset Mount Union — which had won 37 consecutive games and beat Beaver's Warhawks in the title game the previous two seasons — for the championship at the Amos Alonzo Stagg Bowl. That gave him the Division III single-season rushing record with 2,455. That broke the old record, set by Beaver with with 2,420 in 2005.

He finished his career with 6,584 yards, and he might have made a run at the Division III record (7,353 by R.J. Bowers at Grove City College in Pennsylvania from 1997 to 2000) had he not missed five games with a broken collarbone during his junior season. He holds practically every Whitewater rushing record, including single-season (24) and career (44) touchdowns.

Yet, he went undrafted. Wasn't even offered one of the 400 or so contracts that go to undrafted free agents, either.

The problem? The competition, for one. Division III is a long way from the Big Ten or Southeastern Conference. The other problem? Beaver is 5-foot-8, though a sturdy and powerful 195 pounds.

Beaver thought he might get drafted, or at least be awarded a free-agent contract, especially after impressing a group of scouts that included Packers GM Ted Thompson. He worked out at the end of the University of Wisconsin's pro day in March. The scouts were leaving after the Badgers were done working out. Then, Beaver got their attention when he ripped off his superb 40-yard dash.

His name, however, was not called on draft day. Instead, he'll be in Green Bay on Friday as an invite for the Packers' rookie orientation practices that will feature the nine draft picks, 13 undrafted rookies who have been signed to contracts and a bunch of other invitees.

He wasn't disappointed after getting slighted in the draft. Not after the Packers called him on Sunday evening.

"When I went into it, it's always in the back of your mind that you might not get drafted," Beaver said. "But, I live by the philosophy that everything happens for a reason. This is a perfect opportunity."

Perfect, indeed.

He comes to a team with one proven NFL commodity at running back: starter Ryan Grant. The Packers got practically nothing out of their backups, and they didn't draft a running back last weekend. Plus, he knows the framework of the Packers' offense.

"They run the zone offense, which is what I ran in college, so that ought to be a big factor," Beaver said. "The terminology might be different, but I know the steps and the tempo."

Beaver says he's in the best shape, mentally and physically, of his life, and is ready for the ultimate challenge of his football career. With 78 players on the Packers' roster, there's only two open spots. The odds are stacked against him. The odds have been stacked against him since he was born, though, and he continues to come out on top.

"He's an outstanding Division III football players who has overcome the odds his whole life, whether it's his family situation to his size to whatever," Leipold said. "Sometimes in this state, we like those feel-good stories. No matter how long he has a chance to stay there, people will want to root for him because he's a quality person, on and off the field. If he makes it, people will find out what people around here have known for a long time."

Beaver is hoping his football career doesn't end when the rookie camp ends on Sunday. Like every other Wisconsin kid, the record-breaking running back has been dreaming of this opportunity for years.

"The biggest thing is my effort," Beaver said. "I'll try to outwork everybody there. That's worked out my whole life. It's hard for a team to not sign you or not want you if you're giving more effort than everybody else."

How can you not root for somebody like that?

Steve Lawrence is a frequent contributor to PackerReport.com. E-mail him at steve_lawrence_packers@yahoo.com

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