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Running back takes his chances in stride

‘Fastest man in the Ivy League’ looks to prove he can perform at the next level of play, the NFL

Playing in the National Football League is a common, if elusive, dream for many young athletes. Only 335 out of about 9,000 college players were invited to the 2014 NFL scouting combine, the pool from which drafts are selected, according to the NFL Players Association.

But running back John Spooney ’14 refuses to let these statistics tackle his dreams without a fight. He recently declared his intention to pursue an NFL roster sport, hiring an agent and embarking on an intensive training regimen in preparation for upcoming scout evaluations.

Spooney’s track record is impressive — literally. In his three years as a sprinter for the track and field team, he was a three-time Ivy League Heptagonal Outdoor Champion in the 100-meter dash and a two-time champion in the 200-meter dash. He even dropped football last year to focus on his track career, a decision he reversed with an illustrious return to the gridiron as a senior.

In football, Spooney has set multiple records as one of the top rushers in Brown’s history. Rushing for an average 130 yards per game, Spooney ranked fifth in the nation and first in the Ivy League. He is the seventh Bear ever to rush for at least 1,000 yards in one season and was the first Ivy running back to attain two runs of at least 90 yards in the same game, to name a few of his achievements.

Spooney was named New England Player of the Week and was one of two finalists for Ivy League Offensive Player of the Year.

Track may have helped Spooney “fine-tune his abilities,” said Christopher Nappi, the Bears’ assistant coach and running back coach. But Spooney demonstrated “obvious natural speed” even prior to his return to football, Nappi added.

“Just walking by him, you’d never know he’s considered the fastest man in the Ivy League,” he said. “But what (Spooney) has doesn’t just happen on God-given talent alone. He’s worked extremely hard to get where he is.”

Though observers of Spooney’s career are divided on his chances for getting drafted, coaches and teammates generally predict a positive trajectory for Spooney’s football future.

“He’s one of the most humble guys I’ve ever played the game with,” said receiver Jordan Evans ’14. “Along with his huge work ethic and overall athleticism and strength, I think he has the key ingredients to succeed at the next level.”

Frank Sheehan, offensive coordinator and offensive line coach, said Spooney “has nothing to lose and all to gain” in his push for the NFL. “He’s got what it takes to be a football player. (He’s) not just a college student who plays football,” Sheehan said.

Former quarterback Patrick Donnelly ’13.5 echoed this sentiment, adding that Spooney’s auspicious prospects are self-evident to “anyone who’s seen him play.”

Much of Spooney’s power lies in his speed, which often confounds defenders who don’t realize their miscalculations until it’s too late, Donnelly said.

“The angles they use to try to overtake him and the look of surprise and confusion on their faces when he’s so much further ahead than they think he should be” are testaments to Spooney’s potentially professional talent, Donnelly said.

But Nappi said he is not convinced that Spooney will be immediately drafted. “The kid is just now scratching the surface of what he can be, so I can see someone not wanting to risk a draft on him just yet,” he said.

Instead, a bid to a training camp would be a “no-brainer, win-win situation” for an NFL team, Nappi said. In an invitation-only camp filled with players of all experience levels, the “rawness” of Spooney’s talent could work to his advantage because coaches can still “mold him into what they want,” Nappi added.

“In that regard, I think someone will definitely take a shot on him,” he said.

Spooney offered a tentatively optimistic assessment of his own chances. While he said making a team would be “difficult,” he added that he believes his best chances lie in “really showing (his) effort.”

Though the Ivy League does not have a reputation for producing NFL draftees, the conference’s athletes are “starting to be taken a lot more seriously in terms of prospecting and scouting,” Sheehan said. He attributed this to the increase in financial aid available to athletes who might otherwise attend more traditionally sports-driven colleges.

The next pivotal step in the drafting process comes March 10, when Brown will host its annual Pro Day. Between 10 and 15 scouts will attend the event, Sheehan said.

Until then, Spooney is deep in training. But the prospective pro said the most difficult part of his preparation isn’t the grueling workouts. Rather, the challenge lies in preventing his uncertainty from shifting into the realm of doubt.

“Everything’s in limbo right now, and that makes it really hard to stay confident in what you’re doing,” he said. “I just have to trust the people around me that there’s no reason to disregard myself as being able to play in the NFL.”


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