Another day, another fall practice. The sun beamed down, draining every ounce of energy from me. The blinding fog from my rec-specs obstructed my vision. Fatigue began to take its toll. Mistakes and mental errors soon followed. The struggles I faced as a young football player allowed feelings of doubt and fear to swell in my mind.
With my sophomore season at Ravenwood High School coming to a close, I began to question my future in football. Do I truly love this game? Should I walk away? Can I compete at the next level? Can I push through the struggles and allow the game to become the catalyst for something greater? It wasn’t until after my junior season that I found those answers.
Some soul searching led me to the realization that, despite my struggles, I couldn’t see the next phase of my life without football in it. However, as a “Zero Star” recruit, I knew it was going to take persistence and assistance to get the attention of coaches. I was ready to start my recruiting process but had no idea where to begin.
That’s when I discovered Next College Student Athlete (NCSA).
NCSA gave me the tools I needed to get noticed by coaches and choose the right school. I caught the attention of several FCS schools, which prompted my own research and several on-campus visits. I liked several schools, but ultimately chose the University of Central Arkansas (UCA). The combination of UCA’s program, players, coaches, campus and academics, made the decision a no-brainer for me.
Choosing UCA was one of the most impactful decisions I’ve made in my life. I urge all athletes to treat their college search with the utmost importance and caution. The excitement and anxiety of the recruiting process can cloud your judgment. The recruiting world can be an arena of deception filled with smooth talkers, deceivers and dream-sellers. It’s up to you to pick the school that truly fits who you are and who you want to become.
Like many young athletes transitioning from high school to the collegiate level, I needed time to develop. I was still incredibly raw as a player. I was a redshirt my freshman year, and while I know now it was the best decision for my growth, it frustrated me at the time. I wanted to play. However, I needed time to grow and mature. I needed time to gain weight. I needed time to refine my technique.
To achieve these goals, surrounding myself with the right people was critical. I was blessed to have a coach that not only cared about my development as a player but also as a man. Dan Augustine was my defensive line coach throughout my time at UCA. From a wide-eyed true freshman to a four-time All-Conference player and all-time sack record holder, Coach Augustine was there for me. He pushed me far beyond my self-perceived limits to a place where I grew exponentially. He kept me accountable on and off the field and regularly stressed the importance of academics. I’m forever grateful for the impact he’s had on my life.
I was fortunate to be around teammates whose passion for the game and competitive drive rivaled and surpassed my own. Being in that environment challenged me to compete every day. I was surrounded by talented, hardworking players who always kept me on my toes. Complacency was never an option.
From the moment I stood at the crossroads during my sophomore year in high school to the day I left UCA as a senior, my football journey was unforgettable. After college, I found myself on the brink of accomplishing a childhood dream: becoming a professional athlete. My NFL draft process drew similarities to my college recruiting process. I was an “under the radar” prospect from a small school. I was looking to prove I belonged among the best in the world. This process would once again test my dedication and drive for the sport. It forced me to work harder than ever before.
In April 2016, I was selected in the 7th round of the NFL draft by the Jacksonville Jaguars. I had to wait through 225 selections before my named was called. When Jacksonville picked me, I thought to myself, “I’m here! I’ve made it!” Little did I know, I would face obstacles that I never could have imagined. Less than two weeks after I was drafted, I tore my Achilles tendon. That sobering injury brought me down from the “high” of being drafted. I never had more than a strain or sprain before, so the thought of rehabbing a torn Achilles tendon seemed daunting. My recovery was an 11-month grind that challenged me mentally, physically and spiritually.
I returned to football in August 2017, only to be released by Jacksonville in September. I immediately entered a world of uncertainty, otherwise known as NFL Free Agency. Week after week, I traveled to teams’ facilities to workout for their coaches and scouts. And week after week, I would leave without a job. This went on for over a month until finally, I was signed to the Atlanta Falcons practice squad in October 2017. The excitement was short lived. I was released two weeks later.
After I landed back in free agency, those feelings of doubt and fear began to creep back into my mind. Would I get another shot at my dream? Those thoughts were quickly erased when the Miami Dolphins invited me to workout in December 2017. Following the workout, the Dolphins signed me to their practice squad and I haven’t looked back since.
In January 2018, The Dolphins signed me to a futures contract. Following the 2018 training camp, I was waived but then signed to Miami’s practice squad. Three weeks into the regular season, I was called up to the 53-man roster, where I remained for the rest of the season. I played in six games and recorded my first regular season sack.
When I made the decision to play college football, the goal of playing in the NFL was not something I had even considered. My journey has been full of more ups and downs than I can count, all of them leading me to this point. NCSA allowed me to find UCA, which in turn molded me into the man I am today
Finding the right school can, quite literally, change your life. The people you allow in your life will greatly influence who you become. I don’t know who I’d be or where I’d be without the experiences I had at UCA and the people who came into my life during my time there. I have NCSA to thank for that.
I am the embodiment of the phrase: “If you can ball, they will find you.” I didn’t win awards in high school. I didn’t receive any recognition for my play. I even lost valuable playing time from my junior to senior year. But I had a burning desire to play at the next level and the drive to get there. I had the grades, talent, and unbeknownst to me, a source full of untapped potential. I firmly believe there are many athletes in every sport who fit this same description. They simply need the means to be discovered by the right school. NCSA can provide that opportunity, just like they did for me.
To any high school athlete who aspires to play at the next level—never set a limit on how far you can go. Every player’s journey is different. You’ll face obstacles and it won’t be easy. If the feelings of self-doubt and uncertainty creep into your mind, it’s up to you to overcome them. You may have to put in more work than others or get assistance to find the right opportunity and place for you. Don’t be afraid to take initiative and take that first step. Your journey awaits.
– Jonathan Woodard
University of Central Arkansas (UCA)