Najeal Young didn’t know an NFL career could be in his future when he visited Kansas City last month with the Texas Wesleyan men’s basketball team.
Young, whose first name is pronounced “Nigel,” was more focused on winning an NAIA Tournament title. Young and the Rams did just that, beating Life (Ga.) University for the championship.
Young averaged 16.8 points and 9.6 rebounds over five games in the tournament, and caught the eye of Kansas City Chiefs pro scouting assistant Randy Ball.
“I was shocked,” Young said. “I was blown away. I was like, ‘Wow. This can be something I can get back into and transition back into.’ I was blown away by the opportunity.”
Young isn’t expected to be drafted by an NFL team this week, but could find himself with an organization as an undrafted free agent hours afterward.
The NFL is a talent-hungry, borderline talent-starved, industry, and college basketball players have made successful transitions into the league as tight ends. Players such as Tony Gonzalez and Antonio Gates and Jimmy Graham have done so, and Young is hoping to follow in their footsteps.
The Dallas Cowboys even have a similar project going on with former Baylor standout Rico Gathers.
“If those guys made it, I’m confident that I can, too,” said Young, who is 6 foot 5, 225 pounds. “I have no doubt in my ability to learn and grow and compete. That’s the biggest thing that I enjoy is competing.
“Being a professional athlete is a blessing, so knowing I have an opportunity to be a professional is a blessing.”
Young grew up in the Milwaukee area, playing football and basketball at West Allis Central High School. He pursued basketball in college with stints at Lincoln (Ill.) College and University of Illinois Chicago before spending his final year of eligibility at Texas Wesleyan.
Young, 23, hasn’t put on football pads in about seven years, but is eager to get back into the game. He played wide receiver in high school and is ready to become a tight end.
“I’ve been focused on football since the day that the Chiefs called me,” Young said. “It’s been different on my body, working things I haven’t worked before like my quad muscles. That’s probably been the biggest change, but it’s been great.
“I’ve fallen back in love with the game.”
Young has been working out with the Texas Wesleyan football coaches of late, and has put himself in the best possible position early in his NFL pursuit.
He signed with agent Jordan Woy, who has been in the industry for more than 30 years and represents players such as Cowboys kicker Dan Bailey. Woy is reaching out to teams and letting them know what an intriguing prospect Young could be.
“Good athlete, good size and he should be on the radar,” Woy said. “He’s a very interesting kid for a team to sign and see how he develops. It’s just a matter if someone sees enough in him to do that. He’s got the tools to try and turn him into a tight end.
“But there’s no magic wand, so we’ll see what happens. It’s fun working with a guy like this because he’s a little bit of an outsider. Hopefully, someone takes a shot with him.”
Gil Brandt, former vice president of player personnel with the Dallas Cowboys who now works for the NFL, certainly believes a team should at least give Young an extended look. Brandt recalled how well the Cowboys used to do with former basketball players back in the day.
Cornell Green was a standout forward at Utah State who never played a down of college football, and went on to have a 13-year career as a defensive back with the Cowboys, 1962-74.
Percy Howard played college hoops at Austin Peay State University before joining the Cowboys as a wide receiver and scoring a touchdown in Super Bowl X.
“The Dallas Cowboys established a great rapport with college basketball coaches, and we always asked if they had any players on their team that might be potential football players,” Brandt said. “Same thing here. [Young] is special. He wants to play football and he’s got to go someplace where the coaches have an understanding of what he’s going to be two years from now.
“He’s the kind of guy who after the draft is over, teams have a rookie weekend and they’ll bring him in and see what he’s like. He’s very actively pursuing this. I feel certain that somebody will bring him in as an undrafted free agent.”
Getting his foot in the door is all Young is hoping for right now. Football is his future. Basketball is a thing of the past, and he’ll gladly walk away as a national champion.
“No better way to go out. We finished up the best team in the country,” Young said. “If this is the end [of my basketball career], I can say I went out with a bang.”