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Ryan Schraeder, the starting right offensive tackle for the Atlanta Falcons, signed a five-year, $33million contract extension Nov.21. A reporter joked with Schraeder, "That takes care of the student loan debt from college, right?"

"Yep, it's paid off," Schraeder said.

"It's gone."

No, seriously, an NFL player had student loan debt?

"Yeah, I'm not kidding, it was about $20,000," said Schraeder, who played at Butler Community College in El Dorado, Kan., and then at DivisionII Valdosta State in Georgia. "That was another reason I had to make this team after college."

The small-school player with student loan debt is in stark contrast to the lavish NFL lifestyle most people envision.

Not every player had their college years covered, and if they get cut by an NFL team, well, they go home and get a job.

Schraeder is not alone.

Offensive lineman Ali Marpet of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, wide receiver Brittan Golden of the Arizona Cardinals and wide receiver Taylor Gabriel of the Falcons are among those who did not go to a DivisionI powerhouse or even a DivisionI midmajor.

They made their way up from DivisionII or DivisionIII, and while some had tuition and books paid for, all had to have money for incidentals and living expenses. They took out student loans.

"I just paid mine off, $40,000," said Golden, who played at West Texas A&M in Canyon, Texas. "My wife's debt is next."

"I have about $25,000. Working on it," said Gabriel, who went to Abilene Christian in Texas from 2009 to 2014 and earned a degree in information systems.

When he was at the Senior Bowl in 2015, Marpet said his student loan debt from Hobart, a DivisionIII school in New York that does not offer scholarships, was more than $50,000.

'Still have that chip'

Schraeder has come further than most. He did not play football at Maize High School, northwest of Wichita. He was too small (5-7, 140 pounds).

It was during his senior year in high school that he started to grow. "It hurt really bad," said Schraeder, who grew to 6-4, 180 pounds during his last year in high school. "When my chest hurt, I thought there might be something wrong with me. My dad told me it was growing pains. He went through the same thing.

"I went through that goofy stage, too; no coordination. My body was trying to keep up."

After high school, Schraeder worked driving a delivery truck for Indian Hills Meat & Poultry. He made $8 an hour slinging meat and decided he wanted to go to college. Schraeder enrolled in Butler Community College as a student, not as a football player. He kept growing. Then he went to Kansas State, but again just as a student. He kept growing.

When Schraeder wouldn't stop growing and he got back some of the athleticism he had while playing baseball and basketball in high school, the football light came on. Hey, maybe ...

Schraeder went back to Butler, a junior college football powerhouse, but this time as a student-athlete. In 2010, he was 6-7, 307 pounds and blocking for quarterback Zach Mettenberger, who went on to LSU and the Pittsburgh Steelers. Schraeder was named a junior college All-American as a tackle. He went to Valdosta State for his junior and senior seasons (2011, 2012) and was an All-American there, too.

The NFL sent scouts to south Georgia throughout the 2012 season, but Schraeder wasn't drafted in 2013. "It really pissed me off," Schraeder said. His body had grown, and so had his debt. The $8 an hour job was not going to get him out of the hole.

A grudge is the key ingredient in the elixir that propels small-school players in the NFL, and Schraeder mixed up a batch in April2013 and stewed in it. The Falcons signed Schraeder as an undrafted free agent, and he arrived for rookie minicamp and took out his anger on draft picks.

"You come from a small school, you have to stand out from the guys who went to the big schools," Schraeder said. "I knew I was raw, so you have to have that fire every day. I still have that chip on my shoulder."

Pat Hill, who was Schraeder's offensive line coach with the Falcons in 2013, coached 15 years at Fresno State and had 75 players make the NFL. Fresno State recruited the two-star, one-star or no-star high school player, guys such as Schraeder. Hill spotted him right away.

"He wanted to be coached. He loved football; he was a tough son of a bitch," Hill said. "I coach the fundamentals, and he wanted to learn the fundamentals, too."

By 2014, Schraeder was full time in the NFL.

He is 28, and there was a benefit of not going through the DivisionI grind. "My legs feel like I'm in the early 20s," he said. "It's an advantage."

Making it work

Schraeder's Atlanta teammate Gabriel not only went to a small school (Abilene Christian), he also was small (5-8).

"I get that look all the time when they ask me where I played in college," Gabriel said. "You played where?"

Gabriel wasn't even an invited free agent to an NFL camp after college. His path was something more inglorious: a plain old, show-up and show-what-you-got tryout. He stuck with the Cleveland Browns for two seasons.

Then Gabriel had his football career dropped in a dry well Sept.4. He was cut by the Browns, the winless Browns. If you get sent to the street by the Browns, you're done, right?

Gabriel wasn't done. The Falcons claimed him off waivers. Gabriel had a dramatic breakout with the Falcons on Sunday with two touchdowns in a 38-19 victory against the Cardinals. His student loan debt suddenly looks more manageable.

"You always have a grudge coming from the small school," Gabriel said.

When he was asked about his college debt, he smiled and said, "I'm blessed with this opportunity."

Golden signed as an undrafted free agent with the Chicago Bears in April2012. He was cut in August and went to Amarillo, Texas, to work at a friend's car detailing shop. He washed cars, polished them, made them shine and worked out with debt over his head.

So he got $8 an hour?

"No, man, I think it was $8.50," Golden said.

In December2012, he squeezed back into the NFL as part of the Jacksonville Jaguars practice squad for the last three weeks of the season. He bounced back to the Bears in 2013, got cut, was picked up by the Cardinals and has stuck as kick returner, punt-team gunner and receiver.

"A lot of the small-school guys you see make it have this want in their eyes. You can just see it," said Golden, who is 28 and has a wife and a 4-year-old child. "It's all we want; it's all we have. Maybe we fight harder; I like to think we do fight harder because we have more to prove."

Golden said his wife has a biology degree and a degree from a culinary school. The NFL paycheck helps with both of their school debt.

"I had to make football work," he said.

The NFL needs its folk heroes from small schools, Schraeder said. It gives the NFL its populist feel, because some players are nagged by debt they built up to keep their dreams alive.

The next time you see a spirited NFL practice in training camp, it is probably some kid from DivisionII, DivisionIII or the NAIA stirring it up to get noticed and then get a check.

"This is why the NFL is so cool," Schraeder said. "Guys from the small schools come in and make rosters all the time because they have to. It's not easy, but it can be done. It's real cool when it happens."

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December 2, 2016


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