From D-II walk-on to NFL Draft's worst-kept secret, the odyssey of 'Baby Gronk'
Self-professed 'late-bloomer' Adam Shaheen knows the NFL is another challenge he can overcome
Adam Shaheen is about two weeks away from completing one of the more stunning transformations in all of college football, going from a scrawny freshman whom no school outside of Division III wanted to recruit at all for football to a walk-on tight end at tiny Division II Ashland to one of the premier prospects for the 2017 NFL Draft.
The journey was winding and arduous, including transferring schools, giving up basketball for football and putting on about 70 pounds of mass to become an elite tight end. And if not for a big-time college football game Shaheen decided to attend on a whim as a fan three-and-a-half years ago, it might not all have been possible.
At the time, Shaheen was a freshman basketball player at Division II Pittsburgh at Johnstown, the school that gave him the best scholarship aid out of high school in Galena, Ohio, where he was a multi-sport standout. And by the fourth quarter of a fairly epic game between Ohio State and Wisconsin in Columbus in the fall of 2013 (the Buckeyes persevered, 31-24), Shaheen was intent on altering course as soon as possible and finding a school anywhere that was willing to let him return to the gridiron.
"Just sitting there watching that game, I was like, man, I want to play football again," Shaheen said from yet another airport as yet another NFL team brought him in for what has become a never-ending procession of pre-draft visits. "I don't care about (scholarship) money, I'll walk on and take care of that when I get there. The feeling kind of festered over my first year playing (college) basketball, and at the end of it -- it wasn't like I didn't enjoy basketball, and I had a great relationship with my coach and teammates, and I still hang out with them today -- but It was just that I really wanted to play football. I needed to play football."
The concept of ever being recruited by the Big Ten schools Shaheen was watching – Ohio State and Wisconsin – was beyond comprehension at the time. Shaheen figures he may have been 6-foot-4, 200 pounds back then. And now, in the spring of 2017, with the draft two weeks away, Shaheen is poised to be selected higher than many of those five-star prep stars who actually played in the Ohio State game he attended as a fan.
Shaheen could hear his name called very early in the second round – and most certainly somewhere on the second day of the draft. He has quickly gained the attention of general managers with his rare size, frame, speed and athleticism (he's known as "Baby Gronk" in the scouting community), and he's made miraculous gains in a relatively small period of time.
"He's a rising star," said a high-ranking official from one NFL club. "He's a great kid, easy to like, and you can't ignore his size and ability. We really like him."
That exec said his team had a late second-round/early third-round grade on the tight end. Another exec said he expected Shaheen to be gone in the second round for sure. Even in what's a very deep and talented pool of college tight ends, at 6-foot-6, 278 pounds, Shaheen stands out, regardless of the level of competition he faced in college.
Just as was the case when Shaheen was trying to attract the attention of college programs when in high school, his options of playing football once in college were limited, too. Pittsburgh at Johnstown was interested in for hoops only.
"I was a really late bloomer," Shaheen said.
Shaheen reached out to his high school football coach after his freshman year of college to see what options might be out there, and he steered Shaheen to Old Dominion University and Ashland University, a Division II school in Ohio that participates in the Great Lakes Intercollegiate Athletic Conference. There wasn't going to be much scholarship money involved initially, if any -- Ashland had originally recruited Shaheen to play hoops -- and Shaheen figures at the time he may have maxed out at 210 pounds.
"As soon as I went on my visit to Ashland in the middle of May I got my transfer release form," Shaheen said. "They have great facilities and I liked it there. They said I was going to play tight end, and not receiver, so I knew I was going to have to put on weight, and a semester later I had the (scholarship) money and we got it rolling."
Shaheen played very sparingly in 2014, catching just two passes for 85 yards all season in what amounted to a redshirt year as he focused on adding body mass. That was quite a process in and of itself.
"I took a ton of whey protein and a ton of supplements," Shaheen said. "It wasn't like a quick gain, either. It's not like I was pounding McDoubles at McDonald's. It was slow and it took the whole two-and-a-half years to get where I am and I was eating clean."
In 2015 Shaheen become a starter and caught 70 passes (an all-time Division II record for tight ends) with 10 touchdowns; last season he caught 57 balls, with 16 of them going for touchdowns, becoming a two-time AFCA All-American in the process. By the early part of his senior season the NFL was becoming aware of his existence, but to say he emerged from compete anonymity in the college football world is not hyperbole.
"I knew after my sophomore season that I had the size, just looking around at other tight ends, and I was up to about 250 by then, and I thought I had the athleticism to play pro," Shaheen said. "But I really honestly wasn't thinking about the NFL until the scouts started showing up last year, and then it was like, 'Hey, man, this is a real possibility.' But for me it was just about playing and getting out on the field and having fun playing football."
Shaheen's agent, Brian Mackler, had no idea who the tight end was not that long ago, hearing about him as a tip from a veteran national scout that there was a legit future pro tight end at Ashland. Mackler, who represents Shaheen along with Jim Ivler, polled some GMs at the time and none had any idea who the kid was, but after asking client Matt Judon, who played linebacker in that conference and had a nice rookie season with the Ravens in 2016, and hearing rave reviews, Mackler soon was eager to sign him.
Shaheen's stock has soared since clubs have spent time with him, from the combine on, and Shaheen has drawn so much interest there simply hasn't been sufficient time to visit and work out for all the teams interested in seeing more of him. His speed, quickness and acceleration are all superb for someone of his size, his footwork and ability to use his body to shield the ball and box-out defenders is top notch (his basketball background helps). He has exceptional hands and hand-eye coordination, and is a willing blocker.
"I took a ton of whey protein and a ton of supplements. It wasn't like a quick gain, either. It's not like I was pounding McDoubles at McDonald's. It was slow and it took the whole two-and-a-half years to get where I am and I was eating clean."-- Adam Shaheen
Hence, the Baby Gronk moniker. So, it's no surprise which current tight end Shaheen enjoys watching play the most.
"I really like Rob Gronkowski -- the way he runs after the catch, I like to run the same way," Shaheen said. "And apart from that, he's a good blocker. I wouldn't say that I'm the best blocker, but I'm not afraid to put my hat on somebody and get after him a little bit."
The number of teams that like him in the second round are too many to list -- the 49ers, Jets, Bears, Jaguars, Rams, Saints are just a few teams that make sense. He had to beg his father to stop sending his press clippings and mock draft projects his way as this process has unfolded and Shaheen's stock has continued to soar. He doesn't want to set his expectations too high, and is trying to focus on the daily task at hand, meeting teams and preparing to play football for a living. Shaheen is content to have a small party with his family during draft weekend, and doesn't want to get caught up in the hoopla.
In the meantime he continues to navigate a relentless travel schedule, which included a 14-hour layover in Atlanta recently where he spent the night in the airport, and some brutal days and delays due to weather. Soon he will be back on Ashland's campus continuing his studies -- he took on an audacious 16 credits this semester with his professors allowing him to take his classwork on the road with him. The most probing questions for him these days, however, come from NFL decision-makers, and not his instructors, with the biggest knock on Shaheen being the level of competition he faced in college and how far removed those Division II opponents are from what is ahead on Sundays.
"I just tell the teams pretty much all the same thing," Shaheen said. "I know that's definitely a challenge, but I think I've done what I had to do to get into this position, and I don't think the NFL is a challenge I can't overcome once I get there."
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