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Marshall in the NFL

article by tim stephens
photography courtesy of the NFL and Marshall University

An inside look at former Thundering Herd stars now suiting up on Sundays in the hard hitting NFL

Their jerseys hang on the walls of Marshall’s facilities building, the last names stitched across their back, collectively serving as one of the Thundering Herd’s strongest recruiting tools.

Pennington. Moss. Chapman. Wade. Williams.

They represent Marshall’s players in the NFL, 16 in all. To put that in perspective, Marshall coaches of the 1980s took great pride in the fact that the Herd had one player – Minnesota Vikings cornerback Carl Lee – playing pro football. When MU had two players – wide receiver Mike Barber and tight end Sean Doctor – drafted in 1989, Herd fans were giddy.

Now, Marshall features more players on NFL rosters than does Southern California, North Carolina State, Georgia Tech, Oregon State, Purdue, Oklahoma State and dozens of other nationally-renowned programs.

There are grizzled veterans Troy Brown and Mike Bartrum, each entering their 11th season in the NFL ranks. There also are promising rookies Steve Sciullo and Byron Leftwich, both learning the pro game and trying to make an impact.

“I think it’s just phenomenal to see all these guys from Marshall in the league,” said Bartrum, a tight end and longsnapper with the Philadelphia Eagles. “It seems like every game we play there’s somebody on the other team from Marshall.”

Mike Bartrum

Bartrum is one of the most successful. Despite having just four catches, including three for touchdowns, in his career, Bartrum was named by the NFL’s coaches the best longsnapper in the league. That he spends most of his playing time peering upside down between his legs for a living doesn’t bother Bartrum, who has spent time with the Kansas City Chiefs, Green Bay Packers and New England Patriots.

“It’s a great way to make a living,” Bartrum said. “I feel very blessed.”

So does Brown, the Patriots premier wide receiver and a Pro Bowl player with a Super Bowl ring. Brown led New England with 97 catches for 890 yards and three touchdowns last season. Not bad for a player once considered too small and too slow. “I just keep working hard,” Brown said. “That’s all I can do.”

Brown, who has 418 catches for 4,860 yards and 20 touchdowns in his career, also stars on special teams. His punt return for a touchdown against Pittsburgh led the Patriots charge to the Super Bowl two years ago. Brown said he takes pride in his special teams skills, something of which he has plenty of company from MU alumni.

Troy Brown

Not only do Bartrum and Brown excel on special teams, so do three other ex-Herd standouts. Chris Massey is the longsnapper with the St. Louis Rams. J.R. Jenkins is the kicker with the Baltimore Ravens and Chris Hanson is an All-Pro punter with the Jacksonville Jaguars.

“Forget the quarterbacks. Marshall is known for its longsnappers,” Massey said, joking that he and Bartrum are more well-known than Chad Pennington and Jacksonville quarterback Byron Leftwich.

Chris Massey

Massey doubles as the Rams’ number two fullback, but his primary job is to snap the ball to the punter and to the holder for field goals and extra points. As with Bartrum, much of Massey’s view of the game is from upside down.

“The more you can do, the longer you’ll be around,” Massey said. “I came to Marshall University as a linebacker and took up longsnapping. That’s what got me to the NFL.”

J.R. Jenkins

How much J.R. Jenkins is on the field depends on how often his Ravens’ teammates score. Jenkins handles Baltimore’s kickoff duties and is the team’s long-distance field goal specialist. His ability to kick off into the end zone attracted the Ravens, who signed him after his stints with the Arena League’s Detroit Fury and NFL Europe’s Berlin Thunder.

Hanson was stellar last season, averaging 44.2 yards per punt and dropping 27 kicks inside the opponents’ 20-yard line to earn a spot in the Pro Bowl, football’s all-star game. The selection to the Pro Bowl was gratifying for a player once cut by the Cleveland Browns.

“It was a dream come true,” Hanson said.

Chris Hanson

Hanson is a teammate of Leftwich, who signed a five-year deal worth between $23 and $30 million. Leftwich, the seventh player selected in the 2003 draft, said he was thrilled to embark on an NFL career after a 19-day holdout while his contract was being negotiated by his agents.

“I didn’t know what the process would be like,” Leftwich said of the complicated contract negotiations. “If there was one thing I could go back and do over, that would be it. Now, I’m ready to learn and play football in the NFL.”

Byron Leftwich

Leftwich began his career behind veteran quarterback Mark Brunell. But four weeks into the season Brunell went down with an injury and Leftwich was quickly tapped as the starting quarterback.

Chad Pennington, Leftwich’s mentor while at Marshall, was outstanding last season as a New York Jet, completing 275 of 399 passes for 3,120 yards and 22 touchdowns, with just six interceptions. By season’s end he had one of the highest quarterback ratings in the league. Despite injuring his wrist in a preseason game this year, Pennington hopes to return to the lineup in November and lead the Jets to the playoffs once again. In the meantime, he has encouraged Leftwich to be patient.

Chad Pennington

“Byron and I have talked a lot,” said Pennington. “He’ll do a great job. There’s nothing that he can’t handle. He just needs to learn and be himself.”

Sciullo might make the biggest impact of any Marshall rookie. A fourth-round draft pick of the Indianapolis Colts, Sciullo (6-foot-5, 330 pounds) has won the starting job at right guard after spending his college career as a tackle.

Steve Scuillo

“I’ve heard nothing but good things about Steve,” said Mark McHale, Marshall’s offensive coordinator and Sciullo’s former line coach. “It sounds like he’s made an impression on them.”

Center John Wade left the Jacksonville Jaguars, where he spent his entire career, this season to join the world champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Wade said leaving Jacksonville was a difficult decision, but that the chance to sign with Tampa Bay was too enticing.

John Wade

“I liked Jacksonville,” Wade said. “It was hard to leave that community, but the opportunity to play for the Super Bowl champions was too good to turn down. I like this team and I think we have a good shot at winning it all again.”

Another former Herd blocker, Jason Starkey, backs up Frank Garcia as the Arizona Cardinals center. Starkey still sees considerable playing time.

Jason Starkey

Joining Starkey in Arizona is former Marshall wide receiver Nate Poole. Poole, who ranks third in Mid-American Conference history with 215 receptions as well as being the fourth most prolific wideout in Herd history, is back for a second season with the Cardinals. The speedster from Danville, Va. has one touchdown catch in the NFL and is hoping for more this season.

Nate Poole

Fans looking to see a former Herd player in person need drive just three hours to Cincinnati, where safety Rogers Beckett plays. Beckett was a second-round draft pick of the San Diego Chargers in 2000. When San Diego overhauled its defense in the offseason, releasing all four starting defensive backs, the Bengals jumped at the chance to sign Beckett, one of the league’s surest tacklers.

Rogers Beckett

“I’m happy to get the chance to play in Cincinnati,” Beckett said. “It’s good to be wanted.”

Chris Crocker is a rookie safety with the Cleveland Browns. A fifth-round draft pick, Crocker is already contributing in the secondary and on special teams.

Chris Crocker

Fans looking for the most former Herd players in one game should look to any contest involving Minnesota, where the team is rapidly becoming the Thundering Vikings. Not only does Minnesota feature All-Pro wide receiver Randy Moss, but former Herd running back Doug Chapman and defensive tackle Billy Lyon as well.

Randy Moss

Moss has scored 51 touchdowns in his first four seasons and is the most-dominant wide receiver in the game. The Vikings expect to use him deep more often this season.

Chapman is a back-up running back with the Vikings. “I’m ready to play,” said Chapman, who missed half of last season with an injury. “You have to be ready all the time because you never know when you’re going to be called on.”

Lyon signed with Minnesota in the off-season after playing the last two years with the Green Bay Packers. Lyon gives the Vikings versatility at end and tackle.

Billy Lyon

At the beginning of the preseason, Marshall had more than 20 former players vying for spots on NFL squads. By the time teams announced their final rosters, that number had dwindled to 16. But don’t be surprised to see some of those players suiting up on Sundays next season, as professional football is a fickle game. But one thing is certain – Marshall is fast becoming a fertile training ground for athletes wanting their shot at playing in the hard hitting NFL.

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