Donald Rutledge's football career has been anything but simple. He attended three colleges and wasn't able to play in two of his five years in college, but he didn't let the long and winding road of his college career slow him down.
After the …
This item is available in full to subscribers
Click here to log in
If you're a print subscriber, but do not yet have an online account, click here to create one.
If you aren't yet a subscriber,
click here to start a new subscription.
After the conclusion of the National Football League draft on Saturday, Rutledge, a safety at Georgia Southern who played his high school football at Crestwood, signed with the Indianapolis Colts as an undrafted free agent to keep his dream of playing in the NFL alive.
"It was needed," said Rutledge of his 3-stop college career. "It made me who I am."
After his high school days at Crestwood, Rutledge failed to get much attention from college coaches, but he decided to try to walk on at The Citadel. He made the team, but redshirted as a freshman. After the coaching staff suggested a position change, Rutledge decided to transfer to Savannah State, a Football Championship Subdivision school like The Citadel. However, he was again held off the field due to NCAA transfer rules.
"(Citadel) didn't really believe in me as a safety. They had their guys that they wanted and they didn't believe in me as a safety. They actually wanted to move my position," said Rutledge. "That just taught me to really believe in myself and that's why I transferred up out of there and went to Savannah State.
"But with transfer rules, I had to sit out a year, so that's two years of me not playing. With those two years on scout team, I went in and treated every day at practice as a day to get better. I tell a lot of young guys to just try to get better every day."
Finally, in his third year of college, Rutledge had a chance to play and he played well. Rutledge earned a starting spot at safety and led the team with 81 tackles, while picking off two passes and forcing a fumble. He followed that with 53 tackles and two more interceptions the following year.
After two strong seasons at Savannah State, he wanted to take his game to the next level. He went to Georgia Southern, a Football Bowl Subdivision school, as a graduate transfer last season. He played in 12 games, starting nine, and finished the year with 50 tackles, five pass breakups and an interception, which he returned for a touchdown.
"Every move I made, it wasn't made on the fly," said Rutledge of his three stops in college. "It was just me making the best moves for myself. Even when I left Savannah State, I made sure to leave them on good terms. I told the coaches I wanted to make this move because it's just hard to make the league (NFL) out of Savannah State."
Rutledge's wild college career was followed by possibly the worst offseason for a small school player to try to break into the NFL. One of the last sporting events before the coronavirus pandemic shut down nearly every sporting event was the NFL Combine, which is ironically is held in the stadium of Rutledge's new team, the Indianapolis Colts. Unfortunately, as a small school player, Rutledge didn't get an invitation. The coronavirus then led to cancelled pro days, so Rutledge lost another chance to show off his skills.
The only major chance Rutledge had to show off his skills was the NFLPA Collegiate Bowl. Rutledge earned a spot on the roster and played against players from Power 5 conference schools. Strong play there helped put him on the map for many NFL teams.
"I was out there with guys from Ohio State, Mississippi State, Tennessee, all the big schools all over the country," said Rutledge. "I came in as the last safety on the depth chart, and I ended up being the starter for the game."
The other thing that Rutledge did have was strong tape, and in the months leading up to the draft teams were starting to notice that tape, and he started to think he may have a chance to get drafted.
"Early on in the process, I always thought I'd go for a free agency deal, but as teams started to really dive into my tape from Southern and from the all-star game, that's when teams started to say, 'We have picks in the sixth round, we might grab you in the sixth round and you can come here and be a potential starter for us,' " said Rutledge.
That rise on to the draft boards was slowed down by the fact he couldn't go work out for teams, so teams took the safer route and selected someone who went to the combine. Rutledge was left to sign as an undrafted free agent.
"That's where it started to look like I was a late riser, but then the coronavirus stopped some of that because then I would've had private workouts for these teams set up," said Rutledge. "The way it hurt me was because I was rising late, so I didn't get the combine invite, and the one thing about the combine is that you'll spend an entire day on medical evals (evaluations), so if a team is skeptical about taking you, they'll take someone else because they went to the combine and got that medical eval."
The Colts ended up signing Rutledge pretty quickly after the draft, but they were far from the only team to reach out.
"After the draft, it was probably about six or seven teams (that reached out)," said Rutledge. "I spoke to about 20 teams before the draft, but a lot of teams backed out as the draft continued on, talking to my agent, because they filled out that roster spot or they drafted a safety they were looking for ahead of me."
In the end, the Colts just seemed like a perfect fit for Rutledge. The team has one safety spot locked down by Malik Hooker, but the roster after that is far from set in stone.
"The Colts were an A-list team, me and my agent love the Colts," said Rutledge. "We love the organization, love the spot, love the position they're in at safety and everything. As soon as they reached out, I knew that was where I wanted to be."
Rutledge also thinks he'll be a fit with the Colts because of his versatility. At the end of the day, he'll fill any role he's asked to fill by the coaches.
"I'm all of it. I'm every one. I'm anything a team wants me to do," said Rutledge. "I've gotten calls about being a dime linebacker, I can be a free safety, a strong safety. I can run with the best of them, my footwork is great, I can be out there in the middle of the field. I'm also 215 (pounds) and I can come down; I love to hit. I'll do whatever you need me to do, and I think that versatility is going to stand alone and it's going to show when we get to camp and can start practicing."
When that camp will start is still up for debate. With the coronavirus still in the forefront, it's tough to know what the offseason will look like. That makes things a little more difficult for a player that still has to prove himself to make the roster. Rutledge hasn't gotten a clear answer on what the rest of the offseason will look like, but he plans on doing whatever he can to make the team.
"My agent kind of got an idea of it, but the only idea I have of it is that everything is going to have virtual meetings. They may send an iPad or a Zoom link to your phone and they'll have scheduled meetings, and you just have to be a professional meeting at those certain times and be alert and attentive during those meetings, things like that," said Rutledge. "Other than that, as far as training, I think they'll let us do the training ourselves, just to make sure we're in (good) physical shape. I'm not sure how much of a hand they can have in every player when they're not in their facility, so I'm not sure. I just know for sure we'll have virtual meetings and that might weed out some of those free agents."
All this craziness is just business as usual for Rutledge. He knows what it's like to have to prove himself, and he's going to keep doing whatever it takes to make his NFL dream come true.
"That was a difficult time sitting out those two years, but it makes you realize that you just need to control what you can control and that's it," said Rutledge. "They picked me up and I can control that I'm in the best physical shape possible and I'm working on my skills. I know what I'm good at and I know what I'm lacking at, so I focus on that. When I get the playbook, we have all this time so I can really learn this playbook, so by the time I get there I'm physically fit, I'm in the best shape I can be in and I know what I'm doing, so I can get there and play fast with nothing that's holding me back.
"I embrace that role, because that's kind of what I had to do my whole college career. I had to be an underdog and fight for everything I've got, outwork everybody. I had to walk on, I wasn't a big recruit, so I've always been that underdog. Every step I took, I had to fight, pray, hope and jump out of there with a leap of faith and grind and make it happen."
Rutledge went through all of those ups and downs to get to this moment and he's excited to have the opportunity.
"It'd be a huge blessing and a dream come true," said Rutledge of potentially making an NFL roster. "Just to get that first year under my belt, I feel like that would be a blessing. That's all I'm working for. I'm just focusing on right now, this first year and making this roster."
More Articles to Read