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Grand Valley State University's Beacon Since 1963, Allendale, MI
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Three GVSU players pursue NFL dreams

Armstrong, Green, Charneski gear up for draft day


There are 120 NCAA Division I football programs, 148 or so more in Division II, with approximately 25,300 players in total — just a fraction of the hundreds of thousands of high school hopefuls that pick up pigskins across the country.

Of that collegiate pool, about 3,500 declare themselves eligible for the NFL Draft every year, and every year, less than 300 are selected into the pro ranks. Even fewer still make it all the way through camp to find a spot, any spot, on a week-one roster.

A minuscule percent of a percent of a percent, only the best of the very best advance to the next level, yet in the context, best is not synonymous with most talented. Plenty of prospective players have the potential to be productive, perhaps even prolific, contributors at the next level, but with so many gifted options to choose from in the pool of prospects, the players that make the cut do so not only because of what they have, but also because of what they don’t, because of what they are able to overcome.

This is especially true on the Division II level where the odds of advancing are even steeper, and where even a powerhouse program like Grand Valley State University has graduated less than 30 of its alumnus into the NFL. With the 2014 NFL Draft looming and scheduled to begin on May 8, three Lakers – Matt Armstrong, Brandan Green, and Hunter Charneski – will look to add their names to the list and join the six former Lakers currently active in the NFL.

All three still have something to prove, but have exceeded expectations by being part of the discussion.

MATT ARMSTRONG

Armstrong holds the distinction as the only GVSU player to ever get invited to the NFL combine, and was the first three-time All-GLIAC selection at any position on any team. He was also named the recipient of the 2014 Division II Rimington Award as the top center in the country. At 6-foot-3 inches, 302 pounds with an explosive 32-inch vertical and 8-foot-10 inch broad-jump, he seems to have all the measurables, accolades and acumen to make it as an interior lineman in the NFL.

In fact, Armstrong might be the most highly-touted draft prospect produced by GVSU since defensive back Brandon Carr was drafted in the fifth round in 2008, despite the fact that his career in football nearly came to a premature conclusion.

“I started playing football in the seventh grade and quit after my first day,” Armstrong said. “I was a big lazy kid — they ran the hell out of me and I didn’t want to do it anymore. The next day, my mom said to go try it again. So I did, played through middle school and then in high school, continually getting better and better.

“The next thing you know, I’m at GVSU competing at a very high level, with a chance now to do even more.”

Much like Tim Lelito last year (a projected starter for the New Orleans Saints in 2014), Armstrong offers the versatility to play all three positions on the offensive line — an attractive quality for franchises that are limited to 53-man game-day rosters.

Although the versatility that Armstrong possesses transcends the gridiron. A record-breaking thrower over the course of his career at GVSU, he is equipped with unique explosion and an exposure to performing under pressure.

“In track and field, you have to be not only big, but explosive to make it as a thrower, and I attribute a lot of my advancement in strength and conditioning to my coaches, Cory Young and Blaine Maag in particular,” Armstrong said. “All of that improved strength and athleticism gets carried over to football, but also in big meets, when you’re the only one in the ring throwing in front of hundreds of people, all eyes on you; it gets you used to the big stage.”

With the stage set, Armstrong will duck away for a day to spend the draft with his fiancée Sam Lockhart, a former record-breaking Laker thrower herself, as the picks play out while waiting for his name to be called in the later rounds as he silently reflects on how glad he is that momma made him go back after a rough first day.

BRANDAN GREEN

Measuring in at 5-foot-10, 180 pounds in a sport of giants, Green, at a standstill, would be difficult to pick from a crowd as an NFL prospect. Put him on a field, however, and it’s quickly understood that even for football stars, size isn’t everything.

Green played on every facet of special teams last season as a senior, and posted career highs in receptions (53), receiving yards (1,210) and receiving touchdowns (six) as a receiver blazing out from behind the shadow of current NFL sophomore and Cleveland Brown, Charles Johnson.

In regional combine events from Ford Field to Tampa Bay, Fla. to his pro day back in Allendale, Green has failed to stamp his sizzling speed to his resume via a sub-4.4-second 40-yard dash, but has demonstrated elite athleticism. Green’s broad-jump of 10-feet-7-inches would have ranked fifth among all receivers that participated at this year’s combine, and his L-drill time of 6.48 seconds was one of the fastest-timed scores this offseason by any prospect.

“I’m pleased with what I’ve been able to show for scouts so far in the process, but there’s more for them to see from me left on the table,” Green said. “Not to make excuses or to be cocky, but I am fast and feel confident in my ability to run in the 4.3 range. My training was thrown off track for the pro day in Tampa. The headwind made it feel like I was running in a parachute and I just haven’t been able to get the time I want on the official record.

“I just hope I’ve done enough on tape and in other drills to get my foot in the door, because if I do, I know the speed is there.”

Comparing Green to an undersized receiver like Wes Welker would feel cliché’, but he is often, and gains confidence every time the resemblance is acknowledged.

An athlete that predicates his game not only on explosiveness, but effort, Green understands that if he is going to make it on the next level – whether that be the NFL, the CFL, or in a league somewhere overseas – it won’t be due to a number on a stopwatch.

“Wes is the guy I look like, the guy I play like, and in my years of watching him and guys like him play, I feel like I can do those things he does out on the field,” Green said. “I’m not afraid to take a hit, no matter how big the defender might be, to go in there in a tough situation to make a tough catch, no matter what the situation is, and my tenacity and mental toughness – qualities that have been instilled in me at GVSU – are attributes I take a lot of pride in.

“You see Wes Welker might be one of the least athletic players in the NFL, but he is also one of the hardest working. He works his butt off, day in day out, and that’s what I’m willing to do. I’ve played this game my whole life, I’ve loved it ever since I wore soccer cleats to my first practice for the Byron Eagles Pop Warner team, and as long as I have a chance to play at the next level, I’m going to take advantage of that opportunity.”

Green is a long shot to hear his name called, but then again, Wes Welker did go undrafted. Green will spend Thursday at home with friends, patiently waiting by the phone.

HUNTER CHARNESKI

Every single person that has ever made it to the NFL experienced a dream actualized, but first had to have the dream, stomach and heart to chase after it.

In its own way, to make it to the NFL is to burden hope through trial, victory, defeat, time and pain, all of which Charneski saw plenty of, and through it all, he toted his dream along with him in secret.

“Football was still very new to me in middle school, but I was loving every bit of the game through two-a-days and the whole camp process. It was a happy time for me, but it also was around that time when my father became very ill – he had reoccurring brain tumors and multiple surgeries to remove them, but they just kept growing back bigger and stronger before it took him.

“When he was finally on his death bed, he told me to ‘chase whatever dream it is that you have, Hunter, there are no limits,’ and I really took that to heart. So at 14 years old, with the love that I had for the game that only a kid could have, I told him that I will promise to do whatever it takes to get to that level and make you proud.

“When you’re 14 years old, you truly believe everything is possible, but now that it’s starting to really become a reality, it’s special.”

A defensive lineman throughout most of his high school career at Notre Dame Academy in Green Bay, Wis., Charneski played three years of varsity football at GVSU at 260 pounds and battled against the likes of both Armstrong and Lelito in the trenches as a three-technique every day in practice. Through every snap, Charneski simultaneously played with reckless abandon and plotted his course to the NFL, realizing that if he were going to have a chance to make it to the next level, it would be as the next Mike Alstott – not the next Jared Allen.

Weighing in at a svelte 240 pounds, the 6-foot-2 Charneski not only looks the part of an NFL fullback (especially when wearing his John Randle-esque war paint) but plays like it. His 4.7-second 40-yard dash, his 31-inch vertical and his 20 reps on the bench at 225-pounds all compared favorably to NFL metrics for the position, and his hands on hitches and short routes look much more like those of a receiver than a defensive lineman’s.

As an admirer of former Green Bay Packer and All-Pro fullback Vontae Leach, Charneski has had some contact with the Packers (the director of pro personnel was also a Notre Dame Academy alum) and hopes to become one of the select few to make the NFL after a late-career position change. It won’t be an easy road to travel, a truth Charneski knows, but he’s already traveled a long way protecting his dream like a running back, bull-dozing any obstacle in his path.

“I didn’t really tell anybody that I had the NFL in mind, until GVSU’s pro-day came around, and I asked if I could come do my stuff the week of,” Charneski said. “In my mind, dreams become less and less special the more you advertise them, and so I just try to keep mine as hush hush as possible.

“I’m a perfectionist, and very tunnel visioned, so I take everything one step at a time with my eye on the prize. I’m not Matt Armstrong, or a shoe-in for the NFL. I’m a long shot and I know it. But for me, I wouldn’t have it any other way; I still have something to prove.”

Charneski, like both Armstrong and Green, plans to spend the draft in low-key fashion. He’ll go to his older brother’s house in Green Bay to watch, but is uncertain if he’ll be able to spend much time around the T.V. – he’s restless as it is. Instead, he’ll barbecue and play video games to pass the agonizing time with his phone at the ready, sharing baited breath with thousands of other NFL dreamers across the country.

Dreamers that have overcome the odds and maximized their potential to fulfill dreams that can’t all come true. Dreamers that will do all that they can to enjoy them a long as they can. Dreamers with dreams that come Thursday, might just come true.

“It’s hard to guess what’s going to happen in the draft – not even the ‘experts’ know,” Charneski said. “The trick for me, and a lot of us late-round kind of guys, will be to just be content to let it play out how it will, ready to seize the opportunity if and when it comes.”



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