If you’ve ever watched a Rocky movie and cheered the ‘Italian Stallion’ back onto his feet after his legs have been buckled for what looked like the final time, or you’ve wondered how in the heck a guy so talented as Jeremy Lin can fly underneath the radar of so many NBA teams for so long, you’re going to love the story of undrafted free agent quarterback Dan Di Lella.
Entering his senior year as the University at Albany’s backup signal-caller, Di Lella had spent the previous season looking on in dismay as his team crashed to finish rock bottom of the Northeast Conference. And when the coaching staff decided later that year to try and resolve the situation by installing a run-heavy option offense, it would probably have been fair for him to have abandoned his quietly cherished dream of one day making it into the NFL.
But as the football world was about to learn, quitting on the job is not the Di Lella way of getting things done. So instead of silently fading into the background and focusing his attention on a career in marketing, he decided instead to show the Great Danes coaching staff that their solution was already suited-up and just waiting for the chance to turn their team around.
This is how he put things: “When I got the opportunity I showed them what I was about, they liked what they saw and in the end it all worked out”.
However, while it may be true that things most definitely worked out, what Di Lella omits to mention is that they worked out in such a way that under their new leader Albany rocketed to the Conference Championship. Maybe it also slipped his mind that in propelling his team from bottom-to-top he smashed seven school records (including ‘season passing yards’ and ‘season touchdowns’) and at the same time helped himself to the overall award for NEC Offensive Player of the Year along with seven other major accolades.
Suddenly the name of the previously unknown kid from Neshanic Station, NJ began appearing on charts that littered desktops belonging to professional football scouts, and prior to this year’s NFL Draft, ESPN prediction guru Mel Kiper stated his belief that the 23-year-old would be taken in the seventh round. But for reasons that Di Lella has tried desperately hard to understand, the call just never came.
“I think the smaller school thing is a bit of a pain and the fact that I only came onto a lot of people’s radar quite late also comes into it,” he explained. “ But I always try and look at things from different perspectives, and from a GM’s point of view I guess it’s always easier to sign the guy who did well at a big school because if it doesn’t work out then at least you can fall back on saying that any team would have taken him.”
Refusing to let disappointment get the better of him, Di Lella made some calls and soon found himself refining his game even further under the watchful gaze of two vastly experienced retired NFL quarterbacks: ex-New York Jet Chad Pennington, and Joe Flacco’s former mentor Scott Brunner. So perhaps it is less than surprising that when the call from the big league did finally come it was Pennington’s former team that was on the other end of the line with an invitation to their rookie camp in Florham Park, NJ.
Di Lella picks up the story: “It was a good experience and after the disappointment of missing out in the draft, I thought I had a good shot at getting signed with the team. I knew Mark [Sanchez] and Bart [Scott] from working out with them previously, so I felt pretty relaxed around the place.”
But sadly for the former Great Dane, once again he was about to be taken as a hostage to fortune, and despite being told by offensive coordinator Tony Sparano that “the technical problems that were seen on film were cleaned up” and “you belong in an NFL camp,” on the final day of the gathering, another figure from the Jets coaching staff loomed large. Di Lella was the right guy in the right place at the wrong time.
“After the whole tryout process was over Rex Ryan pulled me to the side and said: ‘Hey, I’m just gonna tell you straight up that this isn’t an ideal situation for you right now. I absolutely think that you have what it takes to play in the NFL but based on three days of seeing you, we can’t sign you over guys [quarterbacks Matt Simms and GJ Kinne] that we’ve been following for years.’”
Ryan added that the rookie had “done a great job running the offense” and then left Di Lella with a direct contact number so that he could personally vouch for him when other teams came calling.
This time around there was no hiding from the disappointment: “It’s great that an NFL coach has that kind of confidence in me, but it’s pretty cold comfort when you’re walking out of the door without a contract.”
“For the coach to pull me aside and personally let me know that I’d done a good job – that was a great feeling, but when I got home I was like: ‘You can say I’m the greatest quarterback in the world, but if I’m not being retained, well it tastes a little bittersweet.’”
Now, several weeks after the conclusion of the rookie camp Di Lella and, presumably, also Coach Ryan, are both left scratching their heads as to why they are still waiting for somebody to enquire about the cannon-armed kid from Albany. So as the calendar pages flip from spring into summer all options remain open. Well, maybe all except one.
“I know that I’m in the best shape of my life right now, and it’s a little frustrating that I’m only going to be able to prove what I can do when somebody gives me the chance to pull on one of their uniforms. I know that I have the ability to surprise people and overcome adversity, so I’m just going to stay optimistic.
“It’s going to make somebody look really smart if they give me a chance.”
Nobody can know whether or not anybody might be smart enough to offer that chance, but what can be said for certain is that irrespective of what fortune may hold in stall for him over the next few months, Daniel Thomas Di Lella will not go quietly into the night.