Courtesy Grand Valley State Athletics

A former drug addict turned sack master, a promising receiver who walked away from Clemson just before they won it all, a freak athlete from a tiny school and tinier hometown, and a British import who held his own in the SEC. The NFL is interested in all of them. Meet four prospects who have taken the most unusual paths to the draft

By Emily Kaplan
February 14, 2017

Alton Voss was a quarterback at the University of South Florida, a three-star recruit from nearby Gulf High. Redshirting as a freshman, he didn’t like the separation of scout team and starters. He attended lifts and study halls but never really felt present. “It was my first obstacle as an adult, and I didn’t know how to handle it, so I went through the motions,” Voss says. “I was 19. I had tunnel vision.” That was 2007.

Voss drank, then drank heavily. Weekend partying began on Thursdays, then moved up to Wednesdays. By spring ball he had incorporated Oxycodone into his repertoire. That summer he moved home to New Port Richey, Fla., commuting 45 minutes for practices, driving home each night to get high. And then he woke up one morning and decided he wanted to be a regular college student. He asked his coach for a meeting. “In 20 minutes,” he says, “I gave up a full ride.”

Voss then plunged into a harrowing spiral. A decade later he has resurfaced, miraculously, as an NFL prospect.

In The College Column, we have mostly covered top prospects from powerhouse programs. But each year leading up to the draft there are dozens of men that share the same dreams, with less linear paths. Few paths veer as dramatically as Alton Voss’s.

After leaving USF, Voss concocted a fake back injury. It was good enough for a pain management clinic, from which he received prescriptions for Oxycontin and Roxicodone. He tried returning to football twice. He enrolled at College of the Sequoias in California (that lasted a week) then Fort Scott Community College in Kansas (that lasted three weeks). At Fort Scott, Voss brought methadone—just enough so that he wouldn’t get dope sick. Suffering from withdrawal, physically, he could not rebound. He overslept and missed meetings. The coach finally said, “I like you, but I need to let you go.”

“I was probably slipping into a depression,” Voss says. “Some days I just wanted to get high and escape my reality. Other times I wanted to get back on track. I just couldn’t.”

Once, Voss wrapped string around his arm and shot crack in a Walmart parking lot. In 2011 he almost overdosed. He quit pills, quit crack and decided he would only smoke marijuana. He enrolled at a community college in Florida. A few months later he had a manic episode. In the middle of class Voss had a premonition he was going to win the lottery. He went to a gas station and bought six scratch-off tickets—and won each time. Reasonably hyped, he called a friend in Michigan to gush about his fortune.

The friend hung up, then called right back: “It doesn’t sound like you’re doing so great. Maybe you should come up here to get away for a few days.” And so Voss, who had $1,800 from selling his pills, bought a one-way ticket to Michigan. He still wasn’t well. Upon arriving in Holland, Mich., he went for a jog. Here’s how he described what happened:

“I know it sounds crazy. I had this current that guided me. There was a man who got out of the car, and the current told me to go in that car.”

So Voss stole a car. He drove it to a cemetery. Police lights flashed. Voss, who had gotten out of the car, broke down. He was arrested and briefly admitted to the mental health ward at Hackley Hospital in Muskegon, Mich. When he returned to jail, he was assigned a public defender, Jane Patterson. She worked a deal to reduce the charges from felony to a misdemeanor. But among the judge’s orders: Voss needed to be on the first flight back home to Florida.

Voss reached out to Patterson to stay in touch. They exchanged emails, then texts, then long phone calls. “I know this place,” she said one day in June 2011, “where I think you can get better.” That’s how Voss ended up in Argentina. He spent two years at a rehabilitation facility, CMI Abasto in Buenos Aires: one year in-patient, the other out-patient. He became clean, then healthy.

Courtesy Grand Valley State Athletics

“When I first was down in Argentina, football was the last thing I was thinking about,” he says. “But as I started to think about my goals, football became important to me again. I wanted to finish my journey.” There were people at the rehab facility in Argentina from western Michigan, including a family member of a Grand Valley State booster.

“That’s how I found myself at a Panera with Jane Patterson and a booster detailing me about Alton’s case,” says Matt Mitchell, GVSU’s head coach. “Obviously I had some hesitations. We were taking him right from rehab back into the fire. This is a campus of more than 25,000 students.”

Mitchell gave Voss a shot. They gathered his transcripts from across the country, and in 2013 Voss walked on as a 23-year-old freshman. He began as a tight end. “I wasn’t great at pass-blocking or run-blocking,” Voss admits. But he got after it on special teams. Impressed by his effort, coaches switched him to defensive end (where he was older than his position coach). Coaches monitored Voss closely; they saw nothing but a leader. He was good with teammates, and he passed every NCAA-issued drug test. Over the past two seasons he accumulated 7.5 sacks, 20.5 tackles for loss and forced five fumbles. His 6'3", 240-pound frame and non-stop motor caught the eyes of scouts. Many NFL teams noticed Voss on film while scouting GVSU teammate Matt Judon, a 2016 fifth-round pick of the Ravens.

“Some teams have told me, ‘I’m sorry, I can’t bring a 28-year-old former drug addict to my player personnel guys in good conscience,’” Mitchell says. “Other teams are intrigued.”

Mitchell’s pitch to NFL evaluators: Voss may be 28, but there’s not a lot of wear on his tires. He wasn’t playing football for five years, and he stayed injury-free over four years at GVSU. And the coach can’t say enough about his influence on teammates.

Four years clean, Voss has entered the public speaking circuit. He talks with the same confidence and cogency he evinced on the phone last week as he recounted his story. At best, Voss will be a priority free agent who needs to earn a roster spot at training camp, likely on special teams. “Even if that doesn’t happen,” Mitchell says. “He should take tremendous pride in the fact he even got to this point.”

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THE ALMOST CHAMPION

Doug Buffington/Icon Sportswire/AP

On the night of the college football national championship game, Germone Hopper slunk into the couch cushion at his friend’s apartment in downtown Charlotte. Hopper, a former Clemson wide receiver, didn’t watch all of the Tigers’ games this season. Sometimes he avoided being in the same room as a TV altogether. “Depending on my mood on a given day, I knew if I watched, it might make me bitter,” Hopper says. “I didn’t want to feel a certain way.”

But as the Tigers faced Alabama—a rematch of a national title game Hopper participated in a year earlier—he decided to cheer on Dabo Swinney, the coach who recruited him, and Deshaun Watson, the quarterback who delivered the bulk of his 71 career receptions, 797 yards and six touchdowns. “Coach [Swinney] always told me his plan for the football team was to win a championship by the time I was set to graduate,” Hopper says. “And he did.”

Hopper sat through the entire four-hour, eight-minute broadcast. Watson dazzled in a 35-31 win. Confetti littered Raymond James Stadium. After midnight, the 23-year-old Hopper sent his old coach a congratulatory text. According to Hopper, Swinney responded right away.

Hopper never became what he was capable of becoming at Clemson. A four-star recruit from Phillip O. Berry Academy in Charlotte, Hopper attracted a who’s who of ACC and SEC recruiters. He was a 6-foot receiver with seductive speed; at the 2011 North Carolina track high school finals, Hopper’s 10.73 in the 100 meters placed him just .03 seconds behind Todd Gurley. Hopper chose Clemson so as to be part of the nation’s greatest wide receiver factory, but also because it was a straight, 100-mile shot down I-85. He joined the program but spent nearly every off day commuting home.

Coaches asked Hopper if he wanted to redshirt in 2012, and he didn’t hesitate to agree. After all, a depth chart featuring Sammy Watkins, DeAndre Hopkins and Martavis Bryant is not easy to crack. In 2013 Hopper returned kickoffs and filled in at receiver when Watkins needed a breather.

Hopper served two brief suspensions, for an undisclosed violation of team rules and for what he describes as not consistently fulfilling study hall hours. “I’ve learned from those experiences,” Hopper says. “You need to buy into the commitment that the coaches want you to buy into.” As he toggled up and down the depth chart for three years, Hopper was known for a couple of spectacular games, a few frustrating drops and briefly as a social media star around the 2015 Orange Bowl, when his locker-room-galvanizing dance moves went viral. (Hopper is said to have taught Swinney how to dab).

In the 2015 national title game, Hopper played sparingly: 15 snaps, targeted by Watson just once (an incompletion). All the while, he had been dealing with pressures at home. His girlfriend gave birth to their daughter in May, and he felt the guilt that comes with the distance between a parent and child. Hopper never knew his father; he has been in prison Hopper’s whole life. “I didn’t want that for my child,” Hopper says. “I felt I needed to be there.” And so about two weeks after the title game, Hopper called his position coach: “I think it would be best for me to finish out school here and transfer somewhere closer to home.”

And just like that, Hopper’s name was removed from Clemson’s roster. The plan was to be a grad transfer, perhaps slide down to the FCS or Division II level, play the 2016 season and enter the NFL draft. “But life steered me in a different direction,” he says. Instead Hopper took a part-time job at his godfather’s barbershop as a receptionist, earning $10 an hour, 20 hours a week. He moved in with his mom. He worked with a local trainer before and after shifts to stay in football shape, and needed to provide food not only for himself but for his child every day. It was the first fall since he was 6 years old that he was not a part of a team. “It was the first time in my life I felt like I needed to make decisions for myself,” he says.

Asked about regrets, Hopper is candid: “I learned not to make decisions based off emotion. I learned not to run away from my problems but to face them. I also learned that being away from football, I can’t take it for granted any more, like it was given to me.”

Hopper is generating some interest from NFL teams. He has maintained good relationships with the Clemson program; he visited with coaches last weekend and worked out at the facility. He will participate in Clemson’s pro day on March 21. An NFL scout familiar with Hopper called him an “intriguing talent” with value on special teams. But with inconsistency issues and having been away from the game for a year, Hopper has only an outside chance of being drafted. He should, however, get picked up by a team. All he wants is to get back in.

• DESHAUN WATSON, ACCORDING TO NFL QBS AND A SUPER BOWL COACH: His draft stock in question, our panel assesses what they see in the QB.

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THE SMALL-TOWN HERO

Courtesy Washburn Athletics

In the Northeast pocket of Kansas, in the stretches of prairies between Kansas City and Omaha, is a town called Baileyville. “You can find it on a map,” says Cody Heiman, currently Baileyville’s most famous resident. “If you know where to look.” The 2010 census says Baileyville has 181 residents, and Heiman’s graduating class at Baileyville B&B High School had 16 students. Needless to say they couldn’t field a full football team; but they dominated the state in eight-man football. “You know those TV shows where the whole town shuts down when there’s a football game on?” Heiman says. “That was us.” (Since Heiman graduated, B&B merged with a neighboring school.)

Heiman has never lived outside of Kansas. His mom sells crop insurance, his dad sells auto and livestock insurance, his three older siblings have settled across the state. A month ago Heiman packed one suitcase into his GMC truck and drove eight and a half hours to Chicago. “I figured I should probably leave my hunting gear at home,” he says. Heiman moved into the guest bedroom of an NFL agent’s home, and trains five days a week at Northwestern with four former Wildcats, including linebacker Anthony Walker and slot receiver Austin Carr. When he’s not stuck in traffic on the drive home, Heiman spends free time walking the city streets, meandering into the Lincoln Park Zoo (admission is free) or binge-watching “Homeland” at his temporary digs. “It’s all pretty crazy to take in,” he says. “It’s not every day a small-town kid like me gets to do something like this.”

NFL scouts have buzzed about Heiman’s college tape; he played at Division II Washburn in Topeka. He’s a 6'1", 235-pound linebacker with twitchy athleticism, though some teams have inquired if he’ll switch to fullback. Either way, the NFL is within reach for Heiman, which likely leads to this question: How does a player like Cody Heiman get discovered?

Eight-man football can look like a different sport. The field is shorter, 40-by-80 yards, and a game is eight-minute quarters. It’s faster than traditional football—one juke and you’re off—with much more space. “It’s hard for people to judge the film, I think, if they don’t know what to look for,” Heiman says. “The concepts are a little different. But at the end of the day, football is football. You can either play or you can’t.”

Heiman uploaded his highlights to Hudl, like most modern recruits, and received interest from Washburn. The school had just installed a new weight room, it was 83 miles away from Baileyville, and it was the type of program where the coach invites his players over for dinner a couple times a year. Heiman was sold. His parents could come to every game.

NFL scouts typically come through some Division II programs—and Washburn is within an hour of Kansas State and Kansas—but here is where Heiman received a boost: One of his teammates at Washburn is Jake Riederer, whose father, Russ, spent 13 years as the strength coach of the Chicago Bears. Russ Riederer retired 2005 to raise his family in a quieter life. He moved home to Kansas but stayed involved in football, Kansas all-star games and local high school combines.

“I heard about Cody Heiman well before he made it to Washburn,” Riederer says. The first thing that caught Riederer’s attention: In high school, the 215-pound Heiman won the state high jump by clearing 6' 8". “I mean, that should alert any NFL team of what kind of athlete he is,” Riederer says. Heiman grew up about 10 miles from John Riggins’ hometown. What’s interesting, Rieder says, “is if John Riggins was coming out of high school today I’m not so sure any Division I schools would have recruited him. Because recruiting now, especially in the Midwest, is more national. Back then you had to comb the state as hard as you could. They were taking more local kids, and they had more scholarships. So a Cody Heiman, at that point, would have gotten one.”

Heiman came to Washburn as a linebacker—playing 11-on-11 football for the first time in his life—but took a medical redshirt his freshman year. When he returned as a sophomore, the team lost so many running backs to injury that Heiman got a look in the backfield. After just three practices he made his running back debut: 132 yards on 26 carries. “The year of playing running back helped me learn a lot,” Heiman says. “When I switched back to linebacker the next year, I had a better grasp of what the offense was doing. I could react better. It sped the game up.”

In his senior season Heiman amassed 101 tackles, seven for loss, and 3.5 sacks, plus two interceptions and a 60-yard fumble recovery.

“I had Brian Urlacher at the Bears,” Riederer says. “I’m not saying Cody is Brian Urlacher, because he’s one of the special lifetime players you get to coach, but he’s not that far off.”

And so Riederer alerted a few friends in Chicago about Heiman, including his now-agent, Bynum Jaeger. Heiman will participate in Kansas’s pro day in March. According to an evaluator who has studied him, he has no real red flags. A finance and management major, he spent last summer working as a bank teller, and got a few shifts in right before Christmas break this year. He’s willing to switch to fullback, “if that gets me on the field faster,” and knows he’d likely earn his keep on special teams “because I love to tackle and get after it.”

“When NFL teams look at me, I’ve only played linebacker for three years,” he says. “I feel like I don't have anywhere to go but up.”

• THE TOP WR MIGHT BE FROM WESTERN MICHIGAN: From September, the story of Corey Davis.

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THE IMPORT

Matthew Visinsky/Icon Sportswire/Getty Images

A scout first alerted me to Texas A&M’s Jermaine Eluemunor after watching the 6'4", 325-pound offensive tackle at the NFLPA game. “He definitely caught my eye,” the scout said. “Moves well for his frame, powerful punch. A bit raw but a lot to like.” Why is he raw? Eluemunor doesn’t have a ton of experience in top-level football, and his path to Texas A&M was a winding one that spanned two continents. Let’s allow him to take it from here…

What sports did you play growing up in London?

I played soccer for seven or eight years. When I was 12 or 13 I realized I wasn’t going to go anywhere with that, so I played rugby for a year. I played football, but I was too young to hit, so I didn’t like that and went back to rugby.

So they offered American football?

It’s funny, the way I got into it was this: I went home one night, I flipped on TV and I saw the Miami Dolphins and New York Giants playing. Eli Manning—he must have been so young. That game was at Wembley. I loved the way they were hitting each other, the intensity. So I began googling American football and got more into it. I first wanted to be a quarterback because I learned about Sam Bradford on the internet and I liked him when he was at Oklahoma. But I was a 5'11", 300-pound kid so....

When did you move to America?

I was 14. There were more opportunities for me here than in London. I moved to New Jersey because we had family there. Freshman year was great, then sophomore year was tricky because we moved back to England, me and my dad. I begged my dad to go back to the States, and he gave me one opportunity under the condition that I graduate from university and go as far as I could in football. So we came back, and I played sophomore and junior year.

What was the recruitment process like?

I wanted to play in college, and my coach showed me a lot of prep schools around the East Coast and said if I played there a year, I could probably get a scholarship to play football. I didn’t have money to go to prep school so I went the juco route. I applied to a few places close by and ended up at Lackawanna College in Scranton, Pennsylvania.

How did you get noticed from there?

I sent a ton of emails out every day, like I did in high school. One of the linemen that had just left Lackawanna [Mark Glowinski] plays for the Seahawks now, so I wrote, “If you let me come, I’ll play my butt off there and prove what I can do.” I probably sent emails to every Division I coach in the country. I’m not lying, probably 500-600 emails, to every coach a couple times each.

How many responses did you get?

The first email I sent from juco was to Florida State. I sent the email around 1 p.m. At 3 p.m. I got an email from the offensive coordinator saying they loved my film and wanted to talk to me. I spoke to the offensive coordinator, the offensive line coach, [Rick] Trickett, then to coach [Jimbo] Fisher. They offered me right there on the spot. And from there, it just took off. I ended up with about 35 offers from top teams in the country.

Your film must have been pretty good!

I wasn’t experienced, but I think they saw my potential.

Why did you pick Texas A&M?

The family atmosphere and tradition. I had moved all over my entire life. When I got to Texas, it just felt like home.

And you'll be at the combine.

Being invited was such a highlight. I was checking my email 24/7. They told me they’d reach out by Jan 31st. I checked my email every single day before then, and on Jan. 30 I was driving, and there it was: my combine invite. I pulled over and just needed a moment. It meant so much to me. I want to go there and show how powerful I am.

Question or comment? Email us at talkback@themmqb.com.

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