The top player in Division III football was almost overlooked at the University of Wisconsin's Pro Day.
Running back Justin Beaver of Wisconsin-Whitewater had just a few minutes to warm up after the Wisconsin players had gone through their paces in front of pro scouts and coaches. Some of those spectators weren't even aware that some Division III players were going to perform for them as well that day and started packing up to leave.
And then Justin Beaver ran the 40-yard dash in 4.41 seconds. That run would have placed him as the fifth-fastest running back at the NFL Scouting Combine in Indianapolis if he had been invited and had duplicated the feat there.
After seeing him run, scouts decided to stick around and see what else he could do.
His 3.96-second 20-yard shuttle time was better than any of the Combine backs. And his 24 bench reps would have put him in the top ten among running backs in that category. Beaver, who had set a Division III single-season rushing record with 2,455 yards and was key to his team winning a national championship, definitely had the scouts' attention.
The 5-foot-8, 196-pound running back will likely get an opportunity to make a roster either as a late-round pick or an undrafted free agent, and that's all he's looking for — a chance. And then he'll take it from there. Because as you'll see in this exclusive interview, he's already overcome some difficult situations to be the top talent among his peers in Division III. And he's ready to show the NFL that he can make an impact at the professional level as well.
Ed Thompson: How big of a factor do you think your pro day numbers played with team reps that day?
Justin Beaver: I think it was huge. I don't think at the Division III level you get as much publicity as you need, so I feel that putting up big numbers in front of scouts wasn't just something I had to do — it was a must. I knew I had one chance at it and everything worked out perfectly.
Thompson: How do you handle the pressure of that? Because obviously you're right, it was your one big moment and there was an
awful lot riding on it.
Beaver: I don't think it could have gone any better. You're out there and you have like 15 minutes of warm-up and they wanted to get us going, the scouts wanted to leave. So we had one shot at the shuttle, one shot at the vertical, and that was it. I don't think the pressure could have been any higher. But I also don't think it could have worked out any better.
Thompson: Talk some more about that. Scouts wanted to leave. In other words, since this was at Wisconsin's pro day, they had watched a lot of the other Wisconsin athletes and you guys were sort of the tail end?
Beaver: That's exactly what happened. We had a D-III conference pro day and a lot of scouts didn't really know about. So we just got the forty going right when the Wisconsin guys were done. They stuck around, saw some good times and decided to stay for the rest of it.
Thompson: Who came over to talk to you after you put up those numbers?
Beaver: A scout from the Patriots came after some information and a scout for the Colts did the same. After that a lot of the guys went through my agent and were asking for information, phone numbers, and tape. Then I sat down with the guy from the Patriots and the Colts and take a Wonderlic and a personality test, and just answered some questions from them. They were just trying to find out who I am and whether I'm a good person in society. They asked if I've ever gotten tickets or injuries. Basically, everything about me.
(AP Photo/Sam Dean)
Thompson: For fans who have never seen you play, describe yourself as a running back and what you think makes you successful out there on the field.
Beaver: It's definitely my heart. I feel like I don't give up in any situation and I try to get every inch I can. My biggest asset is a lot of speed, like that 4.41. Even at my height, you can see with my bench press that I have the strength and the power to be effective with my runs and blocks.
Thompson: How can you contribute as a special teams player during your rookie season?
Beaver: I think I can make a great gunner. I think I can play on kickoffs just because of my speed. We call it the kamikaze — there's different names for it. Anyway I can get on the field, I think I can contribute just by showing my heart for the game and my skill.
Thompson: Talk about the type of offense your team ran, especially during your 2007 run to the national championship. Is it a pro-style offense? What primarily are you guys running out there?
Beaver: We ran the zone offense. Basically all linemen ran a zone scheme and blocked one guy up to another. They ran to a certain spot and then holes open up completely opposite B-gap (between the guards and tackles). It was just a pro-style offense, kind of like the Packers running-wise.
Thompson: How much of your success comes from your instincts and vision versus the time you spend breaking down film?
Beaver: I think it's pretty equal. I love film and I watch film a lot. I learned that from high school where my coach was big on watching film and learning from it. Then I feel like my vision is extremely good just because of the zone offense, where you've got to find the hole and read your blocks before they happen to find where the hole is going to be.
Thompson: I saw a quote from your head coach who said that when it comes to Justin Beaver, it's your whole package, your work ethic, and how you overcome things. Tell us what he's seen you do during your collegiate career that would bring out that kind of reaction from him.
Beaver: I think I push people extremely hard. I push myself even harder. I learned at a young age that hard work pays off. Get into the tough situation with family things, this year and previous years, that's where you've seen me push through tough situations. I came out on top when people saw me get told I couldn't do stuff. That made me do everything I could do to get it done — and I do get it done.
Thompson: You rushed for a Division III single-season record 2,455 yards, finishing 11th all-time with 6,584 career yards. Did you always have NFL aspirations, and if so, did you ever consider transferring to at least a Division II school to try and boost your visibility with scouts?
Beaver: I've always had NFL aspirations and a lot of people ask that. My family realized those dreams when I was a little kid playing football in the backyard. My best friend went to Whitewater the high school year before me, and that pushed me to go to Whitewater. After my sophomore year I had a pretty good year and thought about transferring, but I never really pulled the trigger on it. I stayed at Whitewater and figured that if I get a chance at some point, I know I can take advantage of that chance.
Thompson: During your freshman year you had some injuries, and in October, 2006 you had shoulder surgery where they had to put in a plate that was later removed. Talk about your injury history and what scouts wanted to know about them.
Beaver: All through high school I never got hurt. But my freshman year I feel like my training was wrong and I had some hamstring problems. The injury to my collarbone was a freak injury where I got tackled on the last run of a record-breaking game. I didn't have to make the decision to have the surgery to get my collarbone fixed, but I decided to so I could be back for the playoffs and make a run at another national title. It's been perfectly fine ever since, not a problem with the shoulder, not a problem with the hamstrings. I'm injury free and it feels great.
Thompson: Did you go the route of the shoulder plate because you wanted to get back quickly or was that just the routine decision for that type of injury?
Beaver: Exactly, I wanted to get back quickly. I heard probably eight to nine weeks without surgery and four to five weeks with surgery, so I definitely took the decision to have surgery.
Thompson: And you only missed five games, is that right?
Beaver: Yes, that's correct.
(AP Photo/Steve Helber)
Thompson: How did that feel when you went back out there right after having that plate out? Were you the least bit tentative at all when you took that first pop?
Beaver: The funny thing is I had to sign a waiver to go back because the doctor didn't think I was ready yet. But there was a huge playoff game and I don't think I could have sat out of that. It was definitely kind of weird with that first pop, but after that first hit I knew everything was going to be fine.
Thompson: For your 2007 you won the Gagliardi Trophy as the Most Outstanding Player in Division III, the Max Sparger Scholar-Athlete Award, your third first-team Division III All-American honor, and you capped off your career by leading your team to a 2007 win in your third Stag Bowl national championship appearance. What are you most proud of when you look back at that impressive college career?
Beaver: I definitely would say the scholar-athlete award, which isn't the biggest award. But it shows that I do well in school and that I'm a smart person along with doing well in football. At a non-scholarship school you're playing football for the love of the game. You're not playing it because you're getting paid or because you have to. You're playing it because you love the game itself.
Thompson: Last year Wisconsin-Whitewater turned out another star to the NFL ranks, Derek Stanley, who was picked in the seventh round by the Rams. Has that given you more hope you'll be suiting up for a training camp this summer?
Beaver: Yeah, it's given me some hope along with the fact that I got to ask Derek how he got to this point, what he did, how he reacted to situations. The biggest thing was to don't get down, every day is different, but to take it in stride and keep your head up.
Thompson: What do you enjoy doing off the field when you're not thinking and playing football?
Beaver: I think the biggest thing I like to do is hang out with friends and relax. I play videogames here and there. I'm kind of a normal college student that hangs out with friends and family.
Thompson: Anything that you think people would be surprised to learn about you?
Beaver: That I'm a pretty low-key guy. A lot of people, at least around here, feel like I go out a lot and that I'm a big football star, but I'm definitely just a low-key guy that stays home a lot and maybe goes out for dinner with some close family and friends. I'm definitely not the crazy person that a lot of football players are thought of as.
Thompson: I saw you've credited your childhood experiences, with your grandparents playing a major role in your development, as being responsible for making you who you are today. Talk about those life experiences and how they've impacted how you see the world and people around you.
Beaver: My grandparents have been there since I was a little guy. They took me in when I was three or four years old, when my parents were too young to raise me and were having problems. I feel like dealing with the family difficulties when I was young, and even still today with my father passing away when I was a senior and my mom having trouble getting life going, have really made me be a better person. It made me grow up faster and understand life sooner. I realized through my grandparents that hard work is definitely where you want to be, watching them strive every day to make a great living and work so hard to get where they are.
Thompson: What kind of work did you see your grandparents do while you were growing up?
Beaver: My grandma worked in a factory every day and my grandpa worked in construction and drove a truck as well. Both of them worked 50-60 hours a week.
Thompson: And that's where you picked up a lot of your work ethic?
Beaver: That's definitely how I feel I picked that up. I watched them wake up at 5 a.m. every day after watching them having just gone to bed at 11 o'clock the night before.
Thompson: How did growing up in a community of 1,100 people in Palmyra, Wisconsin shape who you are?
Beaver: I think it definitely made me realize that people know what you do. You can't be a bad person in society and get away with it. A lot of my friends shifted into that role of being a bad person and going down the wrong path, and they showed me that that's not who I want to be. I want to make my grandparents and that community proud.
Thompson: What's the most important thing you want to convey to NFL teams?
Beaver: My biggest thing that I want to say is that I just need one chance. I showed that on my Pro Day where I had one chance and made the best of it. I'll do the same in a camp. I'll work hard and try to outwork everybody there. That's been my motto my whole time. I just need one chance at it.
A member of the Pro Football Writers of America and the Football Writers Association of America, Ed Thompson's player interviews and NFL features are published across the Scout.com network and at FOXSports.com. You can contact him by email through this link.