KENNESAW — Darnell Holland wanted to stand out.
While competing Tuesday during Kennesaw State’s pro day in front of 25 scouts from the NFL and CFL, Holland tried to pull out all the stops. While doing his vertical jump and running his 40-yard dash, he wore gold cleats that shined in the afternoon sunlight.
“You only have one pro day,” Holland said of the gold shoes and running one of the fastest 40-yard dash times of the 40-plus competitors from schools around the Southeast who congregated in Kennesaw. “You want to have a good first impression.”
When Holland turned his attention to the shuttle runs and workout, he changed cleats, opting to go for a white pair with inscriptions on each one. The first one said “Fear God Forever” on one side. The second wrapped around the shoe saying,” Chase your dreams, not the money.”
“A lot of things I follow in daily life,” Holland said. “It encourages me to do better. I think the inscriptions speak highly of my character. If you chase your dreams, God will take care of you.”
I’m sure Holland knows that wearing gold or inscribed cleats, or competing without his shirt on while looking like a sculpted, mythical Greek god, wasn’t really his first impression.
After being on a team that went 11-2 and was ranked in the top five nearly all season, the scouts in attendance Tuesday were all aware that Holland was a first-team Big South Conference selection. They knew that he ran for 949 yards and nine touchdowns. They also likely knew he returned 13 kicks for 437 yards and a touchdown.
What the scouts didn’t know about Holland was the kind of gracious, soft-spoken, high-character guy he is.
They learned many of the same things can be said of the other Owls who were on the field Tuesday, including wide receivers Justin Sumpter and Xavier Foster, linebacker Anthony Gore Jr., offensive lineman Joe Alexander, running back Randy Jones and athlete Myles Hughes.
In the end, it was Holland and Sumpter who drew the most interest.
For Holland, his numbers were as shiny as his gold shoes. The 5-foot-10, 195-pounder ran a 4.38 in the 40. His vertical jump was 37½ inches, the broad jump was 10 feet and he caught everything that was thrown to him.
Sumpter was equally as good, if not better. After catching 21 passes for 316 yards and four touchdowns as a senior, the first-team all-conference selection wowed the scouts with a 39½-inch vertical jump and the hands that allowed him to be featured on SportsCenter’s top 10.
Sumpter had hoped to run a 4.5 40, but he came in at 4.6. Still, the 40 time won’t matter. At 6-3, 220 pounds, he has the size and pass-catching ability that nearly all the teams are looking for.
The only downside to the day came late in Sumpter’s workout, when he tweaked his hamstring while running a pass route. He still found a way to finish the workout.
“I wanted to show them my character,” he said.
Sumpter felt like he put up good numbers in his workout. Five years ago, however, it’s unlikely he would have seen Tuesday on his radar.
Coming to Kennesaw State from Sandy Creek High School, Sumpter wasn’t sure he could compete on the Divsion I level. He did not have the quiet self-confidence he has today, and the idea of potentially playing in the NFL would have made as much sense as him flying to the moon.
“I had to mentally grow up,” Sumpter said. “I had to grow up fast. I had to learn what it meant to be a college football player and how to continue to get better and compete.”
To this point, no Kennesaw State Owl has made it to the NFL. Dante Blackmon came close, making it to minicamp with the Colts.
With Holland and Sumpter, that is about to change.
As the players were leaving the field Tuesday, Holland was stopped by a number of the scouts who congratulated him on his workout. It looked like he traded contact information with scouts from the 49ers, Lions and Giants, among others.
Sumpter was congratulated, too, with the caveat from one scout, “Make sure you get healthy now.”
By the time he finished his run through the local media, Sumpter was already scheduled to have dinner with representatives of the Bears, and the Saints were anxious to talk with him, too.
Tuesday was a big first step for both of them, but there is still more work to do if they want to live out this dream.
Neither is likely to be drafted. If either or both are, it won’t be until late on Day 3, but that doesn’t matter. Both have the talent and the character it takes to not only make a team, but become a key contributor.
“There’s always room for improvement,” Holland said. “The hard work we’ve done is paying off.”
Now, all they need is another chance to prove it.