Journey from hooper to NFL is no slam dunk

When Andre Kelly gently broke the news that he didn’t intend to play football as a sophomore, his high school coach worried that he might be making a mistake.

Brian Gray tried to make sure Kelly understood how much he would be walking away from if he focused exclusively on basketball.

Kelly was the rare athlete with immense potential in two sports. During football season, he was a tight end with the size and strength to open a hole for a running back yet possessed the sure hands and agility to shed a linebacker and pluck passes out of the air. Then over the winter he morphed into a broad-shouldered power forward nimble enough to lead a fast break and make plays in the open floor.

By the end of Kelly’s freshman year at Lincoln High School in Stockton, Calif., college football and basketball coaches were already showing interest. Gray envisioned Kelly attracting an array of high-major Division I scholarship offers if he stuck with football, which is why it was difficult for him to accept Kelly’s decision not to keep playing.

“My whole deal was to make sure that Andre was making an informed decision,” Gray told Yahoo Sports. “He didn’t have to stop playing football to play basketball. He could have done both and excelled at both. When a kid who was that talented was entertaining the decision to walk away, I just wanted to make sure that he was completely sure and his parents were completely sure.”

Eight years ago, Kelly didn’t waver a bit in his decision to walk away from football and see how far basketball could take him. Now, the former Cal and UC Santa Barbara hooper looks back at that choice with a tinge of regret.

Since his final college basketball season ended last month with UC Santa Barbara’s first-round NCAA tournament loss to Baylor, Kelly has been running routes, catching passes, pushing blocking sleds and bulking up in the weight room. The 6-foot-9, 260-pound aspiring tight end is hoping to showcase enough raw talent to persuade an NFL team to take a flier on him as an undrafted free agent and to develop him on its practice squad.

“My mentality is why not give it a shot?” Kelly told Yahoo Sports. “It’s definitely a crazy ride going from shooting a basketball every day to getting back on the football field, but I love both sports and I feel like I have nothing to lose.”

NFL front offices have long been willing to place low-risk, high-upside bets on college basketball players who have scarcely played football but have physical traits that fit a certain position. The most common transition is the power forward-to-tight end evolution that Kelly is attempting.

The success of the likes of Marcus Pollard, Antonio Gates and Jimmy Graham has sent NFL scouts to college basketball games in search of malleable athletes who possess the size, physicality and explosiveness of a prototypical tight end.

“From a business standpoint, I look at it as a really low-risk proposition for NFL teams,” said Denver Broncos tight end Chris Manhertz, a former Canisius basketball player now entering his eighth NFL season. “You’re not going to put a lot of money into these types of players at first. The worst thing that can happen is they don’t improve fast enough, they take up a roster spot for a couple weeks and you cut them, but if someone pans out, you might have the next Antonio Gates or Jimmy Graham.”

While at the University of Miami, Jimmy Graham played four seasons of basketball and only one season of football. The Saints drafted him in the third round of the 2010 draft, and Graham would go on to five Pro Bowl seasons. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

While at the University of Miami, Jimmy Graham played four seasons of basketball and only one season of football. The Saints drafted him in the third round of the 2010 draft, and Graham would go on to five Pro Bowl seasons. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

Finding diamonds in the rough

Over the last decade, at least 19 power forwards have worked out at tight end for an NFL team. Some quickly washed out of the league, and even the most successful have blossomed into NFL journeymen, not superstars.

Erik Swoope had never played a down of organized football in 2014 when the Denver Broncos called to ask whether the University of Miami forward had interest in scheduling a workout before the upcoming NFL draft. Swoope started four games with the Indianapolis Colts in 2016 and appeared poised to break out the following year, but knee injuries dulled his physical gifts and derailed his career.

Rico Gathers received more interest from NFL scouts than NBA ones despite starting 62 games for Baylor’s men’s basketball team and graduating as the program’s all-time leading rebounder. The 2016 Dallas Cowboys sixth-round pick didn’t improve quickly enough at tight end during his first three-plus NFL seasons for the team to justify extending the experiment any longer.

Carson Williams, a former Kentucky Mr. Basketball in high school, signed as an undrafted free agent with the Las Vegas Raiders in April 2021 despite not having played football since middle school. The Raiders released the former Western Kentucky forward just over a month later, explaining to Williams that he wasn’t far enough along to handle taking reps in training camp or playing in the preseason.

“I was far from a finished product,” Williams admitted. “I had a lot more to learn. I feel like I have all the physical tools and athleticism to be successful at this, but what it comes down to is lack of repetitions and not knowing the game well enough.”

Ask the NFL’s fraternity of former college basketball players how the league discovered them, and their tales differ wildly.

Some find their way onto a team’s radar via a coach or agent with a connection to an NFL front office. For example, Mo Alie-Cox conducted a workout in front of scouts from 30 of the league’s 32 teams in April 2017 after the former VCU basketball player’s agent spread the word that his client was interested in pursuing professional football.

Others learn at the end of their basketball careers that NFL teams were scouting them without their knowledge. The Colts discovered Swoope when director of college scouting T.J. McCreight challenged his scouts to scour college basketball for prospects they could envision playing in pads on Sundays.

Some of the savviest NFL front offices keep tabs on college basketball players who were once football standouts in high school.

The Minnesota Vikings became aware that Saint Mary’s standout Rob Jones was a two-sport star at San Francisco’s Archbishop Riordan High who tallied 33 catches for 399 yards and seven touchdowns as a senior. As Jones was preparing for workouts with NBA teams in 2012 after his senior season at Saint Mary’s, the Vikings contacted his agent and said they thought the 6-foot-6, 230-pound forward was pursuing the wrong sport.

“The Vikings wanted me to try out and potentially join their practice squad,” said Jones, now an assistant basketball coach at the University of Hawaii. “It was an awesome opportunity, but I was so close to achieving my goal of reaching the NBA that I wanted to go through with that. If it was any other circumstance, I would have taken that offer.”

A difficult transition

Basketball players who do try to switch to tight end often describe it as the toughest challenge they’ve ever attempted.

The physical aspect alone weeds out some — the precise route running, the ability to create separation, the sure hands in traffic, the willingness to deliver a key block on a 290-pound pass rusher or to withstand a linebacker’s punishing hit over the middle. Then there’s the mental hurdle of trying to learn the nuances of a sport they’ve barely played — or in rare cases barely watched.

Chris Manhertz grew up in the Bronx, where hoops is practically a religion. The bruising 6-foot-6 forward was always an accomplished basketball player, so he never gave football so much as a passing thought.

When former Canisius basketball coach Jim Baron urged the Buffalo Bills to offer him a tryout, Manhertz was the ultimate blank canvas. The closest he’d come to playing football before was Madden video games. He didn’t know how to read a defense, how to learn a playbook, even the names of all the positions.

“That’s how foreign it was to me,” Manhertz said with a laugh.

Manhertz first worked out for the Bills in April 2014. They told him he was too raw and to come try out again after the season. He added some muscle, did some football-specific training and earned a roster spot … only to be cut in training camp.

It wasn’t until September 2016 that Manhertz made his NFL debut with New Orleans and it wasn’t until the following year in Carolina that he began to carve out a long-term role as a run blocking specialist. Manhertz said that early in his NFL career he often fell into the trap of comparing himself to fellow tight ends who had played the position their whole life.

“I got frustrated because I lost sight of the fact that you aren’t competing with them,” Manhertz said. “Your biggest competition is yesterday’s version of you. You have to focus on getting 1% better every day and staying on an upward trajectory. That constant improvement gives a team hope this project may pan out.”

Re-learning the position

Kelly’s first chance to showcase his talents to NFL decision makers came earlier this month. A friend who knew someone in the San Francisco 49ers front office helped Kelly land an invitation to the franchise’s April 13 pro day for local prospects.

A few days after UCSB’s basketball season ended in the NCAA tournament last month, Kelly direct messaged a Stockton football trainer and asked for help preparing for the 49ers pro day. Vince Carter clicked on Kelly’s profile to learn more about him and made a surprising discovery.

Carter laughs when he recalls thinking, “Wait a minute! You’re a basketball player!”

Surprised but undaunted, Carter asked how long Kelly had to get ready. When Kelly said they had 15 days, Carter inwardly winced but said, “Alright, let’s start tomorrow.”

Over the course of the 15-day crash course, it was Kelly’s hands that impressed Carter most. One day, a local junior college quarterback zipped 100 passes at Kelly. The basketball player caught all but one of them.

“He’s so long and his hands are just so good that even if he runs a bad route he can make up for it,” Carter said. “Even if it’s a ball out of his area, he knows how to get it.”

When he wasn’t working out with Carter, Kelly recruited his dad or friends from high school to throw balls to him. He even resorted to hopping a pair of fences one Sunday in order to get onto Lincoln High’s football field.

“Any way I could get work in, that’s what I was trying to do,” Kelly said.

Kelly didn’t have long to impress the 49ers during the pro day, but he made the most of the opportunities he had during tight end drills. While he admits he could have made sharper cuts and gotten out of his breaks a little faster, he says he didn’t drop a single pass.

With his athletic career at a crossroads, Kelly says he intends to train for both basketball and football the next few months while he waits to see what professional opportunities materialize. He also will soon add a master’s degree from UCSB to his undergraduate degree from Cal, giving him even more options beyond athletics.

Kelly says he draws inspiration from guys like Pollard, Gates and Graham who have already done what he is attempting to do.

“Just to see that it’s possible, to see that there are people who have come before me and who have been successful, it’s definitely encouraging,” he said. “I’m not too sure where my future lies right now, but I’m going to keep working. If I get a call, I’ll be ready to go.”

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