The way Jimmy Graham and Antonio Gates make it look, every undersized power forward in college should ditch the sneakers for spikes and hold tight for inevitable NFL stardom.
Those two highlight the list of former basketball players who have made the transition to the NFL look easy, converting quickly into dangerous tight ends. The list also includes the Broncos’ Julius Thomas and the Browns’ Jordan Cameron, as well as the player who started the trend, former Chiefs and Falcons star Tony Gonzalez.
The Cardinals would love for a similar development to take shape and have two players –
“It’s nowhere near as easy as those guys make it look,” Hardy said. “It’s actually been a much harder journey than I
Hardy would have played college football if the opportunity presented itself out of high school, but there was more recruiting interest from basketball coaches. He played two years of hoops at Oral Roberts and two more at Cal State Fullerton, averaging 7.0 points and 5.6 rebounds for his career.
Even then, Hardy’s mind would wander every Saturday during the fall.
“I just always felt it in my heart,” Hardy said. “It was funny because I used to watch college football a lot with my teammates. I used to ask them, ‘Hey, do you think with a year of training I could play?’ I would joke around about it, because obviously that’s such a major leap, but I was still serious in the back of my head, knowing that I think I could with a year’s work.”
Hardy said the NBA Developmental League or overseas basketball were options after he used up his college eligibility in 2012, but instead he decided to make a serious run at football. Hardy -- whose father, also named Andre, played running back for three seasons in the NFL -- held a pro day despite not playing football since high school. He said eight or nine teams attended.
The Raiders’ interest was piqued and he signed with them on April 12th, 2012. His stint there lasted only a month, and Hardy remained out of the NFL until the Cardinals signed him this January to a futures contract.
Fells played four seasons of basketball at UC Irvine from 2004-05 through 2007-08, averaging 10.2 points and 6.3 rebounds, before embarking on a four-year professional hoops career which included stops in Argentina, Mexico, Belgium, Finland and France. His love for the game slowly dwindled as the nomadic lifestyle wore on him. Fells was out of the country for 10 months a year, and knew that if he wanted to have a family, he couldn’t do it living like that.
“Every year it got harder and harder mentally to go over there,” Fells said. “I remember one time I was sitting in the room with one of my teammates and he was Skyping his son. His son started crying saying he missed him. It was a very tough situation.”
Fells’ brother, Daniel, is a seven-year veteran tight end currently with the Giants. He was surprised when Fells chose basketball after high school, and once he began to waver, pushed him to try football.
Fells worked out for the Seahawks on March 5, 2013, first at defensive end and then tight end. They signed him, and suddenly, he was in the NFL.
“It was nervewracking,” Fells said. “You have a mindset of how things are going to be. From the outside in, you think these guys are just giants – strong, fast, and I’m trying to compete physically. It’s more of a mental thing than it is physically. Coming in, I felt like everyone was speaking a foreign language. All the different terminology the offense has, to me, was the hardest part.”
Fells was cut by the Seahawks at the end of the preseason. The Cardinals added him to their practice squad on Oct. 9, where he remained the rest of the season.
Fells and Hardy have been exclusively football players for a couple years now, but both said the adjustments are ongoing. Coach Bruce Arians also sees the need for improvement.
“Darren’s a little bit further behind than I’d thought he’d be having been here for a year,” Arians said. “Hardy is an outstanding athlete. He’s just got to learn how to play football. It’s learning assignments and still playing fast, not thinking about your assignment the whole time. He struggles with that. Darren should be past that right now but he’s still struggling a little bit with it.”
Fells and Hardy are expected to be the fifth and sixth tight ends on the depth chart heading into training camp and must show their worth quickly because only four players are likely to be kept at the position. And they won’t get any extra rope from Arians based on the success of players like Graham and Gates.
“I don’t give a damn about other basketball players,” Arians said. “I like football players.”
Fells wonders what could have been if he played football instead of basketball in college, as the learning curve in the NFL has been steep. Then again, he’d have the same question about a possible hoops career if it happened the other way around.
“Either path I took would have been a ‘what if?’ path,” Fells said. “Being able to do both, now I can see both sides.”
For both Fells and Hardy, basketball is in the rearview mirror. Fells plans on becoming a high school counselor after his football days are over, while it took Hardy just a pair of pickup games after college to hang up his sneakers.
“The last two times I played were about a year ago,” Hardy said. “The first time I hit my tailbone on the crack of a wall at 24-Hour Fitness, and the last time I twisted my ankle with no one around me. So I said, ‘I’m done.’”
Both are a long way from Gates or Graham territory, and the odds to simply make the team might be against them at this point. However, both are appreciative of the opportunity after many years away from the game.
“It’s like a dream come true, honestly,” Hardy said. “Chances like this come around once in a lifetime.”