Flanked by friends and family watching the second day of the 2021 NFL Draft unfold on television from his couch, D'Wayne Eskridge had a positive feeling he would soon hear his name called. And he had a strong intuition which team would pull the trigger to select him.
As everyone waited in suspense midway through the second round, Eskridge's phone finally lit up. Those huddled around him stood in unison and as he answered the call, cheers erupted throughout the house. Just as he hoped, Seahawks general manager John Schneider was on the other end of the line, ready to inform the speedy receiver he would soon be picked with the No. 56 overall selection.
“I instantly knew. It was some type of energy that came over me,” Eskridge told reporters moments after being selected. “Then once I saw that Washington number call me, I stood up and was so joyful. Now it’s time to get to work.”
For those who were privileged enough to be in the room to share this monumental milestone with Eskridge, the moment couldn't be described as anything other than surreal. This was especially true for Bluffton head football and track coach Brent Kunkel, who found himself struggling to contain his emotions as his long-time pupil achieved his dream of making it to the NFL.
"I just stood there with my hand over my mouth and I just started crying," Kunkel said. "I mean, just to be real with you, I just couldn't hold it together just because I was so proud of him for everything he had [done]. Just thinking about the stuff he'd been through."
Having known Eskridge since he was in middle school, it's not difficult to understand why Kunkel had a difficult time maintaining his composure. After all, he and his family had left an indelible imprint on the young man's life, providing invaluable support to help pave Eskridge's path to become the first person in his family to graduate high school, attend college and now play under legendary coach Pete Carroll in Seattle.
A Tiger With Different Stripes
Long before his aspirations of obtaining a high school degree and receiving a college scholarship became a reality, Eskridge was born on March 23, 1997 in tiny Winona, Mississippi, located about 95 miles north of Jackson.
With a population of only 6,000 people, Winona had a few factories, a handful of fast food restaurants and one main highway in and out of town. With poverty rates eclipsing 60%, many of the families who lived there took up residence in government-subsidized housing. Drug use was rampant in the community. Wanting to escape their current environment and provide an opportunity for a better life for D'Wayne and his four siblings, Eskridge's mother moved the family north to Bluffton, Indiana.
A quaint little town roughly a half hour south of Fort Wayne, Bluffton wasn't much bigger than Winona, with a population of 9,897 people according to the 2010 census. Like many of the small towns in Indiana, more than 95% of the population is white, while less than 1% is Black.
Casey Kolkman, who served as Bluffton's varsity head football coach during Eskridge's first two years of high school, believed the lack of diversity made adjusting to new surroundings more difficult for him.
"He was in a situation where we didn't have a lot of minority kids around," Kolkman said. "I think that presented a challenge for him in of itself, just being in that environment. So it took him a little bit to get adjusted."
With an enrollment under 500 students, Bluffton High School wasn't known for producing athletic standouts, except for basketball star Adam Ballinger played for Tom Izzo at Michigan State and then for several seasons professionally in Australia's National Basketball League.
Keeping all of these facts in mind, it's safe to say Bluffton had never seen an athlete of Eskridge's caliber move into town. It didn't take Kunkel, who took over as the high school's track and field coach during D'Wayne's eighth grade year, very long to figure out the Tigers coaching staff had a special talent with unlimited potential.
While Kunkel and Kolkman had seen Eskridge tear it up in middle school games on the gridiron, his track accolades were what truly caught their attention.
"We always host the middle school conference. It's always at Bluffton," Kunkel said. "So I'm out there working the middle school conference meet and someone said D'Wayne just jumped 21 feet. He's an eighth grader and he was long jumping 21 feet. Our school record at the time was 22 feet. He was in eighth grade, I think he jumped like 21 feet, two inches or 21 feet, three inches. That's probably a middle school record that will never be broken. So that was kind of the first time he was really on my radar."
"We knew that we had this kid that just had this raw talent," Kolkman added when asked about the record-setting long jump. "And then he just played against kids and ran away from everybody, but—this isn't a slight on D'Wayne—but some of the teams we play against, it was hard to gauge. Where was this kid really?"
In a surprise to no one, Eskridge became an immediate starter as a freshman. But while his elite speed allowed him to torch defenses right away, Kolkman admitted he struggled a bit with the "mental side of football" and going up against players who were three or four years older than him.
Still, Eskridge developed a tight bond with Kunkel, who was promoted to running back coach prior to the 2010 season while also remaining the head track coach. He quickly became the face of a Bluffton program that hadn't found much success on the football field. Before Kolkman's arrival in 2010, the Tigers had not won more than two games in a season since 2004 and had produced three winning seasons combined since 1983.
With Eskridge leading the way as a do-it-all weapon out of the backfield, Bluffton improved from three wins in the season prior to a 5-5 record, the program's best mark in nine years.
The Sophomore Wake-Up Call
By the time Eskridge entered his sophomore year, he had emerged as one of Northern Indiana's most feared playmakers. Opponents keyed in on him and game-planned with the lone purpose of trying to slow him down, but he was lightning waiting to strike any time he had his hands on the ball.
Kolkman recalls during the 2013 season that the Tigers ran the same opening play on offense each of the first four games, handing the ball to Eskridge. It became a bit of a running joke, but opposing defenders certainly weren't the ones laughing. If anything, they were embarrassed by a one-man wrecking crew.
"Players would be like 'hey, coach, what are we calling first?'" Kolkman smiled. "I'd just look at 'em and be like 'uh, jet sweep to D.' And I think the first three games of his sophomore year, he scored a touchdown first play of the game just because nobody was prepared for that [speed]."
Eskridge wasn't just dominating as a running back and receiver, however. As Kolkman described it, teams "wouldn't kick it to him" and if they did, everyone knew it was an accident and he would make them pay dearly for it.
At this point, Kunkel knew the Tigers had a potential Division I player starring for them under the lights on Friday nights. Eskridge was driven and motivated to be the best athlete he could be and it was only a matter of time before coaches would soon be descending on the school attempting to recruit him.
But there was one significant problem. While Eskridge had proven himself to be a hard worker on the practice field and in the weight room, he hadn't learned to grind in the same manner in the classroom. Obstacles in his home life were a major factor, as he took care of his younger siblings and often took on a parental role in the household out of necessity. Sometimes, he would have to bring them to football or track practice because nobody else could supervise them.
Kunkel, who teaches economics at Bluffton High School, feared Eskridge would not be academically eligible. Late in his sophomore year, he pulled the youngster off to the side in his office and provided a bit of tough love, warning him prospective schools wouldn't be able to give him an offer with his current grades.
"You could tell how talented he is. He just was different than any kid I've ever coached," Kunkel said. "But his demeanor and attitude towards school was one that wasn't going to get him anywhere."
"I said, look D'Wayne, you have more ability than I know what to do with. And I go 'someday, there's going to be a Division I college football coach who walks through those doors and wants to hand you a check for $120,000. And you're going to have to say no, coach because your grades are not going to get you in because you don't want to put the work in in the classroom.'"
Taking Kunkel's cautionary tale to heart, the player and coach hatched out a plan to put Eskridge on the right path academically to avoid such a scenario from coming to fruition. But it wouldn't be easy.
After he finished up the school day and football practice, Eskridge began coming over to Kunkel's home as many as "four or five" nights a week for tutoring and homework help. Every now and then, if his studies lasted late into the evening, he would even stay overnight and sleep there.
Along with Kunkel and his wife Danielle opening their doors to Eskridge, he reached out to one of his friends who taught English to help the young man prepare for the SAT. Several science teachers also gladly chipped in, doing whatever they could to push him towards the right track, and his grades quickly began to improve.
Less than two years later, Eskridge broke through a barrier that nobody else in his family had ever been able to. He held a high school diploma in his hand, a testament to the work he put in and the efforts of the countless people such as Kunkel who pitched in to ensure he achieved his goal of graduating and advancing to further education.
"It was one of those things where, you know, to me as a coach, you've got to do things for kids who want to be helped," Kunkel elaborated. "And he wanted to be helped. All I wanted from him was that he bought in and did you have the ability to change your life? Because my only goal for him was to get into college and get a degree."
Sprinting to a Full Scholarship
Between the lines, Eskridge continued to excel as a two-way player for Bluffton during his final two years in school, starring at running back and safety. Though the team struggled with five combined victories during his junior and senior seasons, he garnered Honorable Mention All-State recognition in 2015 after rushing for 1,020 yards and 16 touchdowns.
When Kolkman left after the 2013 season, Randy Hudgins took over as Bluffton's new head football coach. Now coaching at Warren Central in the Metropolitan Interscholastic Conference, a recruiting hotbed consisting of massive Indianapolis-area schools with elite talent, he immediately saw an athlete and player who could have held his own against such competition.
"I firmly believe and I told people up in Bluffton that, you know, D'Wayne could have stepped down to the MIC and in Indianapolis and performed at a high level," Hudgins said. "It was pretty obvious from the beginning that he was a special young man with a special skill set that could really do most anything that was necessary for his team on a high school football field."
Asked when he started to consider Eskridge could have the goods to play on Sunday, one game from his senior year jumped out to Hudgins specifically.
Playing Manchester High School, one of Bluffton's out of conference rivals, Eskridge scored all but one of the team's seven touchdowns in a 49-7 drubbing. The majority of the damage came in the second half, when he scored four or five times in the final 20 minutes to single-handedly put away the Squires.
But interestingly, much as was the case when Kolkman and Kunkel first noticed him three years earlier, Hudgins highlighted Eskridge's "exploits" on the track for putting him on the map for prospective colleges. Edging the top runners in the state, he captured titles in the 200 meter dash each of his final two years and won the 100 meter dash as a senior, narrowly missing out on a long jump title as well.
"I thought that was just as impressive because in track, it's not a class competition," Hudgins explained. "It's every single school in the state of Indiana competing and a kid from a 2A school was able to win multiple state championships and sprint events and came within a couple of inches of winning the 100, 200, and the long jump as a senior, which hadn't been done in like 110 years."
Even after stepping down from his coaching position at Bluffton for personal reasons, Kolkman also kept tabs on Eskridge and took notice of his dominant performances at the state meet against the best of the best.
"We're talking about schools with 4,000 kids in them and Bluffton has, what, about 400?" Kolkman added. "And he's down there running with kids that are going all kinds of places. So it was that moment when I knew - obviously I didn't know where that would project him to go - but I knew schools with scholarships would offer. If academically he was going to be okay, just the sheer speed they would give him a shot."
What impressed Hudgins the most was Eskridge's ability to win state titles as a junior and come back with a target on his back as the favorite, displaying the focus and fortitude to not only repeat, but also garner 2016 Indiana Mr. Track and Field honors.
"You know, for me, that was almost just as much of an indicator that he had what it took physically to get to the next level," Hudgins remarked. "That's something I'll always remember about him, is how he was able to maintain that standard performance between his junior and senior year to be a multiple state champion."
Despite showcasing his elite speed and acceleration in track and posting prolific numbers as a football player for a subpar team, however, Eskridge only received a pair of scholarship offers from Ball State and Western Michigan. Hudgins and Kolkman both agreed the size of Bluffton and inferior level of competition may have contributed the lack of interest. Grades and test scores also remained a red flag for some schools.
But Hudgins also acknowledged that while other programs may have entered the mix if Eskridge waited to make a decision, he wound up committing to Western Michigan early in the process. Blown away by coach P.J. Fleck, his coaching staff, and the program they were building, he signed his letter of intent before bigger schools could potentially step in and make an offer.
"I think he really liked Coach Fleck and his staff, really bonded with several of the staff members. And they made a big commitment in keeping up with him. They had multiple staff members that would visit and keep track of him. I think when he visited, it just felt right for him. I appreciated that he was willing to do that and have that confidence in himself."
A Star is Born in Kalamazoo
Though listed as a running back when he signed with the Broncos, Eskridge made the transition to receiver immediately upon his arrival on campus and as he did in high school, he found his way onto the field early and made an instant impact in a reserve role as a true freshman.
In his collegiate debut against Northwestern, Eskridge caught a pair of passes for 20 yards, including a 13-yard touchdown reception. Western Michigan wound up pulling off the road upset against a Big Ten foe, holding on for a narrow 22-21 victory.
Appearing in 12 games, Eskridge finished fifth on the team with 17 receptions for 121 yards, helping contribute to the best season in school history. Galvanized by his famous "Row the Boat" slogan, Fleck's Broncos finished the regular season with an undefeated 12-0 record and held off Ohio to win the MAC Championship Game, earning a bid in the Goodyear Cotton Bowl against Wisconsin.
Unfortunately, Eskridge's time in Kalamazoo wouldn't be all sunshine and roses. On the heels of their historic season, Fleck accepted Minnesota's head coaching position and bolted for the Big Ten, taking most of his staff with him. Tim Lester stepped in as his replacement, taking over a squad that lost numerous players to the NFL and graduation.
It would be the first of multiple coaching changes Eskridge dealt with during his five years at Western Michigan. As Kunkel noted, he wound up having three different position coaches and in part due to injuries and transfers within the program, Lester moved him to cornerback full-time during the 2019 season. Some players would have rejected such a switch, but not Eskridge.
"The great thing about D'Wayne is that he's not a selfish kid," Kunkel remarked. "I just think about the way he approaches his life with his family. Like, he's a giver, he's taking care of his mother and he does all these things. He has a grandma that is like a second mom and he's always trying to take care of her. So he is a very selfless kid.'
"For him, when the coach comes in and says that, I know he was met with some disappointment. But he's like 'you know what? This is what I got to do to get to where I want to get. So if they make me a cornerback, then I'm going to be the best cornerback on the team.'"
Though Eskridge led the Broncos with 506 receiving yards as a sophomore, the team sputtered to a 6-6 record. He broke out with a career-high 776 receiving yards on just 38 receptions in 2018, but they didn't fare much better in the win/loss column, going 7-6 and losing to BYU in the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl.
Adversity struck again in 2019, this time impacting Eskridge on an individual level. In just the fourth game of the season, he suffered a broken collarbone, forcing him to sit out the remainder of the year and apply for a redshirt.
But instead of letting the injury bring him down, a mentally-hardened Eskridge called it a blessing in disguise, saying he learned "priceless" lessons and gained an increased appreciation for the game of football during his time on the sidelines.
"My injury in 2019 was probably the best and the worst thing to happen to me in football. I learned much more about myself," Eskridge said. "I learned that I was much more than a football player when it comes to what I want to do later in life. That helped me bring more love to the game. I just go out there and have fun. Do what I do best."
For a while, it didn't look like Eskridge would have a chance to redeem himself. Though back healthy, the COVID-19 pandemic brought the entire sports world to a halt in March 2020. While other conferences planned to attempt to play, the MAC initially canceled its fall season.
Believing his college career was finished, Eskridge worked with Kunkel and others to find an agent and planned to head down to Florida to begin training for the 2021 NFL Draft. But on his way to the airport, he received a call that the MAC had changed course and intended to hold a shortened six-game season, leading him to scrap his previous plans.
With the cornerback experiment finally being abandoned, Eskridge returned to the receiver position with a renewed focus. Playing on defense had given him a unique perspective on how to attack opposing defensive backs as a route runner and these new skills helped him break through with a sensational senior season.
"The whole season, I made a lot of sacrifices," Eskridge said. "I knew exactly what I needed to do when it came to my routines and taking care of my body, watching film. I just checked every single box this year. I just did everything that I needed to do and then when it came to the field, it wasn't anything new. I practiced some of the plays that were touchdowns this year that everyone thought was explosive. I was doing that exact thing in practice. It just translated right to the game. I kept it going the entire season."
While a delayed start and the ongoing pandemic limited the Broncos to six in-conference games, Eskridge exploded for 768 yards on 33 receptions, averaging 23.3 yards per reception and scoring eight touchdowns. Leaving defenders to inhale exhaust fumes after he raced past them downfield, three of those scores went for 72 or more yards.
Eskridge also returned to form as one of the nation's most dangerous return specialists. He returned 17 kicks for 467 yards and a touchdown, helping him lead all FBS players with 213 all-purpose yards per game. He propelled this success into a Senior Bowl invite and impressed against many of the best players in college football in Mobile back in January, further elevating his draft stock.
"It's like a movie in a sense," Kunkel marveled. "I mean, it's just not some of the stuff that fell into place for this kid. But a lot of, I mean all the credit in the world goes to him because a kid not mentally tough enough to handle it wouldn't get through that. His mental toughness is second to none."
The Long, Winding Road Leads to Seattle
Months before Eskridge would convene with friends and family in Battle Creek, Michigan and find out where he would begin the next phase of his career, the star receiver had one last goal to accomplish leading up to the NFL draft.
Eskridge had three numbers in mind: 4, 2, and 9. What's the significance of these digits? The former track star wanted to join an exclusive club of 13 players who previously had ran their 40-yard dash in under 4.3 seconds at the combine. Though the combine had been canceled, he would have one last chance to showcase his world-class speed at Western Michigan's pro day. During his time in college, he ran a laser-time 4.33-second 40-yard dash, so breaking that mark seemed plausible.
Though Eskridge wasn't quite able to meet his goal, he had nothing to be ashamed about. He still clocked in with a blazing 4.38-second 40-yard dash, ran the 3-cone drill in 6.95 seconds, and posted a 35-inch vertical jump. With an impressive overall workout on top of his Senior Bowl performance, the hay was in the barn. He knew he would be picked in the early stages of the draft and now the only question was who would pick him.
Zooming back to Eskridge's draft party on April 30, Kunkel now had the opportunity to celebrate with the player who he had invested so much time in over the years to help guide him to this very moment. Others who left their mark on his life such as Kolkman and Hudgins soaked in the entire process from afar, seeing their collective efforts culminate in him becoming a second round NFL draft pick.
From Kolkman's perspective, Eskridge developed the one skill that truly separates the cream of the crop on the football field and in the game of life. Now, he's reaping the rewards.
"The kid has learned how to grind. That makes me a little emotional because when you coach in high school and you deal with so many kids that don't learn that," Kolkman said. "When you're trying to develop young men, the only thing you're really trying to do is teach them how to grind in life... He's turned into a tough kid."
This toughness clearly stood out to Carroll and Schneider, who gushed about Eskridge's mental makeup as much as his explosiveness and playmaking ability hours after drafting him. In particular, his willingness to heed the call and play cornerback and special teams when Western Michigan needed him to made him a top target on their draft board.
"It makes him a unique player coming in at the position," Carroll said. "Think about the staff that had to present this to him: 'We've got problems on defense, we need some help. We think you can be a cornerback.' How many wide receivers get asked that question? So the versatility, the all-around athlete that he is, the person that he is - he's really smart and bright and wide open and team oriented and all of that. I think [playing corner] just shows the variety and the spectrum of this guy's ability."
As Eskridge repeated multiple times in his first press conference, he understands this is only the beginning. Starting from scratch, he will have to earn his keep with the Seahawks, where players don't win jobs simply because the team used a draft pick on them. This holds true for everyone from first rounders to seventh rounders.
But after making the arduous journey from Mississippi to Bluffton to Kalamazoo and now Seattle, Eskridge doesn't lack in confidence and will be ready to compete. Calling himself a "dog," he plans to add another dynamic weapon to the Seahawks' arsenal alongside Tyler Lockett and DK Metcalf. Whether running jet sweeps, returning kicks, or making tackles as a gunner on punt coverage, he will do whatever needs to be done to help his new team win games.
Back in Bluffton, the idea Eskridge would soon be catching passes from Russell Wilson still isn't computing for Kunkel. When he pulled the young man into his office seven years ago, the last thing on his mind was trying to steer him towards playing in the league. He didn't even want to entertain the possibility.
Looking back at everything he accomplished amid challenging circumstances and looking ahead at everything still left in front of him, the coach couldn't be more proud of the young man D'Wayne has become.
"My only goal was for him to get into college and get a degree," Kunkel reflected. "And when he was being recruited by Western Michigan and other guys would come in and talk NFL this, NFL that, I told them all to stop saying that because I just wanted [him] to go get a degree because I thought his ticket out of Bluffton would be football and then his ticket to a better life would be a college degree."
Maximizing on all of the support Kunkel, Kolkman, Hudgins, and countless others gifted him, Eskridge didn't just get a degree. He provided a blueprint for his younger siblings to follow, proving they could achieve their dreams if they put their mind to it. He serves as an inspiration for young people who are growing up with challenging home lives like the one he endured.
One decade ago, Eskridge was discovered because he was a special athlete. Checking off milestone after milestone since that fateful middle school track meet, he demonstrated to everyone around him he was far more than that. Ready to get to work with the Seahawks, he hopes his example lights the trail for others like him to follow his lead.
"It's crazy. I wouldn't want it any other way. The things that I had to face and not be able to run from, it's definitely a blessing that I made it through all the obstacles that I did. I'm just thanking the man up above for all that he's provided me with."