The NFL Draft is an exciting time for players coming out of College, hoping to hear their names called and the next chapter of their lives unfold. For free agent running back Akiel Smalley, it’s the opening of a new window of opportunity. A window that he simply doesn’t want to miss.
Smalley first turned heads by reaching out to the Eagles on social media, looking for a shot to prove his worth at rookie minicamp..and with teams needing to bolster their 90-man roster, it’s the perfect time.
Allow me to be great for my hometown… please bring me into mini camp on a tryout bases…. #tryoutAkiel
— Akiel Smalley (@AkielSmalley) May 3, 2017
The tweet began to pick up a lot of traction. Fans began rushing to support the Philadelphia native, who grew up bleeding green.
“It was just tremendous.” Smalley told me when asked what it was like to live in the City of Brotherly Love. I live in the DC area now and it doesn’t compare. Bleeding green is true, through and through. It was amazing watching Randall Cunningham, Ricky Watters. I felt like I’ve not only always been watching them play, but studying. I love the Philly area.”
Football flowed deep into his veins, but after attending Gar-Field Senior High School, situated in Woodbridge, Virginia, Smalley didn’t take the traditional path to the pros by committing to a college to play Football. Instead, he went down a very different route.
“I didn’t play college football. I ended up playing semi-pro football in 2010 and people were saying “you’re not going to make it from there”. Smalley explained. The type of person I am, I kept doing what I was doing and ended up playing in a Championship game against someone who ended up coaching a professional football team. After that, I had my first professional arena tryout.”
The road itself was unconventional..but so were the paths of Kurt Warner and Warren Moon..and in the mind of Akiel Smalley, making the pro’s isn’t just a pipe-dream..it’s a vision. One that he sees everyday.
“A lot of times it’s a person saying to me “you can’t do it”. It just hasn’t been done. They can’t see it. It’s not a dream, it’s a vision. I can’t fault them for not having the vision because they can’t see things the way I’ve seen it play out. I envisioned myself winning a giveaway for a skateboard at a concert, and I actually got it. Every vision I’ve had has come to pass. I’ve seen myself standing in the tunnel waiting to come out. I keep that in my head every time I get down on myself or even at the top of my game.”
Playing for the York Capitals, Smalley was able to see a completely different side of Football..a side that would later contrast playing at the semi-professional level.
“I played two seasons with York before the league folded. It was amazing. Arena Football is very high pace. It’s a smaller field, indoors, there’s no wind or anything so you don’t catch that nice nice breeze coming through. There’s not outdoor turf, it’s just like a carpet. It’s a lot tougher on the body, I give praise to people who have been playing it a long time.”
“The main difference was being pampered a little bit. Compared to the semi pro world where you’re getting dressed in the parking lot and you’re at a park or high school where you don’t have access to a locker room, or don’t have trainers giving you access to the muscle stem, it was a big change.”
It’s clear that the differences off the field are startling. But what about on the field? Well, the 5’8, 208 lbs, back picked up some very useful traits there too.
“Pass blocking, working with the linemen. It’s big in the NFL to have a running back who can pass block and be comfortable having that relationship with the linemen.”
His attitude to pass blocking sums up a lot about his character. Smalley isn’t just a running back trying to make the pros, or a stereotypical athlete. His drive for greatness and motivation to make his vision become a reality bleeds far beyond the midnight green jerseys.
“I stepped back into the semi pro world to stay fresh, safe and healthy. I’m not able to be a football player 24//7. I’m a Navy civilian, that’s my full time job. I’ve been doing that for a number of years now. I was traveling two hours to York PA, just for practice twice a week, two hours there, two hours back.”
“For Training Camp in my second season of arena football, it was the same distance but closer to Philadelphia. There was a Winter storm coming and I was sick at the time. It was optional, Training camp was the minicamp before the real camp starts..but for me I had to be there, to be above the curve. There’s always someone trying to outdo you for that same spot. I braved it, took my time getting up there, but I made it. I fought through the Drills, drove back and just had to make an impact on the coaches.”
With NFL rosters filling, Smalley has been doing everything in his power to take that next step in his career, battling a full time job with the Navy in the process.
“I’ve had tryouts with some CFL teams. I worked out with the Winnipeg Blue Bombers who showed interest, but I’ve tried out for as many teams as possible within the last year and a half. If I can get another chance to get out there again, I gotta do what I have to do.”
The one setback that Smalley faces, is actually his most inspiring asset. His age. At 33-years old, many would simply say he’s too old to compete in the NFL. But his immediate response to this certainly sends the right message.
“I’m actually 33. I compare myself to a Tyre that’s been sitting on a shelf. Just because that Tyre has been sitting there for a while, I don’t have that NFL tyre wear. I’m not an NFL running back that’s been getting banged up since 20-years old. I compare myself to a 24-year old, 25-year old if that.”
With age comes experience..and with experience comes learning. One of the big changes of the last ten years or so has been the impact of the internet..and more importantly, social media. Something that isn’t lost on Smalley.
“I’m able to get out information and my highlights to teams and players in the NFL quicker. I don’t have to send it off and wait. You see the view count go up and it’s just being able to connect with people, a question here, support here, or a critic there. It’s just been amazing.”
The work never stops for the running back, who even now is still competing at the semi professional level, hoping that one team gives him the opportunity he craves.
“I’m actually in season now. Whether it’s a spring team or Summer, fall team. I’m always trying to get my film and I’m blessed with a team now that stats are kept track of. I’m not just a college player who gets to train, I have other obligations, like a professional who has to play football and take care of home. There’s a lot that I mirror of a professional and conduct myself in that way.”
Smalley won the hearts of Philadelphia fans yesterday with his tweet to the Eagles, asking for a tryout. It’s been done before..people holding signs out side of practices, aspiring bands throwing mixtapes on stage at the concert of their favorite artists, hoping that it lands in the right place. Luck is when hard work and preparation meets opportunity. There may be nobody better prepared than Akiel Smalley. So, the ball is in the court of the Philadelphia Eagles..but one thing is for sure, Akiel Smalley won’t stop until he reaches the endzone of Lincoln Financial Field.