Story by Josh Koop
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Most men who are on National Football League rosters come from big colleges with large budgets and amazing multi-million dollar facilities. Yet, sometimes you see a player make the league from a smaller school. Brian Leonhardt did not get drafted when he completed his college career here at Bemidji State University. The phone call telling him that he would be drafted never came in April of 2013.
Leonhardt played high school football at Spring Lake Park in Blaine, Minnesota. He was a senior captain who was named all-conference and earned all-state accolades in 2007. He then came to Bemidji State and made an immediate contribution as a redshirt freshman, where he led BSU in receptions with 24 and also hauled in 7 touchdowns. He was named an All-NSIC honorable mention after his freshman campaign. Leonhardt’s sophomore season netted him All-NSIC First Team honors when he was second on BSU with 28 receptions and 3 touchdowns. Overall Leonhardt accumulated 112 career receptions in 43 career games at Bemidji State University. Along with those receptions came 1,431 yards and 15 touchdowns. Leonhardt was named captain of the BSU football team for his senior year. The Business Administration major also was a on the track and field team as a thrower, where he placed third at the NSIC Indoor Championships and fourth at the Outdoor Championships.
When Leonhardt was signed to the Oakland Raiders practice squad, for the 2013 season he gained an opportunity to practice against NFL players daily and get better. According to sbnation.com NFL practice squads, often known as the “scout team” were comprised of up to 8 players. These 8 players practice with their NFL teams during the week, but are not allowed to play on game day. These 8 players are paid by the week and can be signed by any other NFL team during the season as long as they are put on the active roster. Leonhardt spent his first post college football season on the Raiders practice squad. He would lace up his shoes and put on his pads during the week and go try to help his teammates try and get ready for their next opponent. The key for guys on practice squads is that the coaches of those teams get to know the players, which gives them an edge to try and gain an active roster job the next season, to earn it in training camp.
Talk to almost any NFL player, and training camp is usually mentioned as one of the biggest mental obstacles. The 2014 Oakland Raider training camp was a big one for Leonhardt. Last season when Leonhardt was trying to make a name for himself it was tough because he was buried on the depth chart. That might have been the case this year before two tight ends – that were technically ahead of Leonhardt before and during training camp this season – went down with injuries. This allowed Leonhardt to jump to the second spot on the tight end depth chart. The job was nowhere near his, and talks of bringing in a free agent to shore up the tight end position was rumored all throughout training camp and preseason. Leonhardt received playing time in all four preseason games, which is usually looked upon as a good sign. As the old adage goes “if a coach doesn’t talk to you or doesn’t give you the opportunity to play, they have already given up on you.”
The first preseason game of this season was a special one for number 87, as it was played in Minnesota at TCF Bank Stadium at the University of Minnesota campus. Getting to play in your home state is something most professionals don’t get to experience. Leonhardt even caught a pass during the game, which is somewhat rare for him, as he is more of a blocking tight end then a receiving one. He made one other catch in the preseason, which was in the neighbor state of Wisconsin at Lambeau Field, which was also an exciting moment. Leonhardt tweeted “Two years ago I was at Lambeau in the stands. Now I’m on the field. #blessed” (@BrianLeonhardt).
Bemidji State Football is not known for sending kids to the NFL, with the last player playing a snap in the NFL from BSU being running back Al Wolden, who played 3 games for the Chicago Bears in 1987. Only two Beavers have ever been drafted by the NFL; Dean Widseth played tackle and was a Chicago Bears draft pick back in 1946 and tight end John Redebaugh was drafted by the Cleveland Browns in 1970. Under current head coach Jeff Tesch, no player has gone on to play in the NFL. That is, until 3 P.M central time on August 30th, 2014 when Leonhardt’s phone did not ring. No one called to tell him he was cut from the roster. He was finalized for the regular season.
This time around not getting the phone call was a great sign.