When playing football at a high level, the goal is to advance to the next level of competition. For Division I athletes, the next step tends to lead toward the NFL. But for Division II athletes, chances of getting looked at by an NFL squad are rare. Somehow, though, Cal (Pa.) has found a way to put players into the NFL.
Heading into the regular season, the Vulcans have three former players currently on NFL rosters — Rontez Miles (S, N.Y. Jets), Tommie Campbell (DB, Jacksonville) and Dewey McDonald (S, Indianapolis).
According to head football coach Mike Kellar, it all started back in the early 2000s.
“I believe it started several years back,” Kellar said. “We had a running back named Antoine Bagwell. He was the first difference-maker we had.”
Bagwell broke out of his shell as a running back for the Vulcans during the 2004 and 2005 seasons, running for 3,353 yards and 41 touchdowns between the two years. Those totals still hold second place in school history.
“All the scouts came through to see him,” recalled Kellar, who served as the team’s offensive coordinator during that year.
From that moment on, Kellar’s offense at Cal became known among the nation’s best at any level. In 2005, Cal averaged more than 460 yards of total offense and scored over 40 points a game. In 2006, Cal led the PSAC in offense and rushing. Then, in 2007, the Vulcans rushed for just less than 2,900 yards and posted over 5,000 yards of total offense for the first time in the program’s history.
“Along the way (scouts) realized the talent level at the school,” Kellar said. “We are also signing top-level talent (still). It’s an easy trip for scouts, right between Pitt and WVU. Once you have a few players like that, the more scouts you’re going to attract.”
And the more scouts you attract as a program, the more top-tier recruits you can bring in. If nothing else, Cal has had success with bringing in players who felt out of place at other schools.
When Kellar had a brief stint at Concord University, he brought receiver Thomas Mayo back with him. Mayo went from an All-Conference selection at Concord to an All-American at Cal, earning him a chance to have a brief NFL career. And when current defensive coordinator Mike Lopez left Fairmont State, he brought safety Dewey McDonald with him. McDonald went on to earn a contract with the Indianapolis Colts after last year’s draft.
“Never be satisfied with your game. If you gave a dream, set goals so can get to that dream,” McDonald said after signing with the Colts when asked about his journey from DII to the NFL. “You’re the only one who has the key to it.”
While Cal holds a reputation for off-the-field issues, Kellar said that recruiting hasn’t suffered. The head coach said it’s more about building relationships than overcoming stereotypes.
“The coaches and people in these Western PA high schools know us,” Kellar said. “They know what kind of people we are. They know how demanding we are of the kids they send us. Even after everything happened last year we had no problem recruiting. Once the parents came to campus and saw our facilities, met our academic support, talked to our strength staff and got to know our coaching staff, we were able to sign a good group of kids. We had more kids wanting to come to Cal than we had spots to take them.”
Why come to a program like Cal? The answer for these players is simple.
“I knew Cal had a great tradition of sending guys to the next level and, most importantly, winning football games and winning the PSAC,” said sophomore linebacker Luke Hrapchak, who chose to play for the Vulcans rather than numerous schools in his home state of West Virginia. “I knew it was the best situation for me to have a chance to get a ring and further my career if the opportunity comes.”
Since Kellar has been at Cal, offenses have flourished. But defenses have done just as well, the Vulcans having put two safeties into the NFL in back-to-back seasons in Miles and McDonald.
As a longtime member of the staff at Cal, Kellar said it hasn’t always been that way.
“It’s very rewarding (but) I remember what Cal’s reputation used to be in the coaching world,” he said. “Now to know that we get great talent, coach them and develop them and some go on to pro careers. I’m very proud of it. They win here, they grow here, they graduate here. Then they go and are productive members of society. I love seeing all the kids we coached. Not just the ones who have made it to the NFL.”
Kellar said that the Vulcans’ staff holds its players to a high standard and that some unfortunate events have taken place in the past regardless of the expectations that have been set by he and his staff. Still, Kellar said the program is succeeding in all facets.
“We’ve taken some bad press lately, but the truth is our success rate is really high. Our kids go to class, they compete in the weight room, they compete on the practice field,” the coach said. “Games are easy. Not everyone who comes to Cal can live up to those standards.Our program is very demanding both on and off the field. That not only gets them ready for the NFL but for their life.”
At the end of the day, members of the Cal football team know that they can potentially have a leg up when it comes to making it from DII to the pros, whether that be the NFL or another pro football league, while still getting a valuable education.
That fact gives the players added motivation, Hrapchak said.
“It’s a great feeling knowing there is a possibility to at least get a look at the next level,” the sophomore said. “Everything at Cal is professional and top of the line. It’s a great feeling knowing you’re a part of a program like that.”
Photo Credit: Cal Athletics