PHILADELPHIA – They were only two games, played four years ago, in a loosely-organized weekend football club located in another hemisphere halfway around the world. To Nic Purcell, the games were an absurd imitation of the real thing, a farce played for free, by out-of-shape men who knew little about American football. To the NCAA, the two club games he played in New Zealand were legitimate enough to destroy his eligibility and crush his eventual dream of playing major college football.
How could he know a senseless edict delivered from the cold halls of the NCAA would be the best thing to happen to him?
All Purcell wanted to do was play a little football. He decided this in the spring of 2011 at the age of 25 when he and his wife arrived in the United States from his native New Zealand. He enrolled at Golden West Community College in Southern California hoping to study physical fitness and also thought he might try football, a game he had played a few times on a whim back home.
Given that he was 6-foot-6, 260 pounds and once an elite-level basketball player in New Zealand, the Golden West coaches told him they'd love to have him try out. Little did they know he would become such a natural at left tackle that many of the country's top college football teams offered him a scholarship during his second season at Golden West.
However, little did Purcell know those two casual club football games he played in 2009 would fall under an NCAA rule that considered such games to be part of his football career, starting an eligibility clock that expired at the end of last season.
"I had gone from 250, 260 pounds to nearly 300 pounds, working my butt off [to be big enough for big-time football]," he said last week in a thick New Zealand accent while participating in the Philadelphia Eagles' OTAs. "For someone to do this…"
He gave a dry chuckle.
"It was pretty difficult."
Except it was also a blessing because Chip Kelly, the former Oregon coach who appealed Purcell's case to the NCAA, left the school to coach the Eagles. Kelly invited Purcell to try out at the Eagles' rookie camp last month. At camp's end, Kelly and the Eagles' management gave the player who had only two years of community college football a contract.
"He can look at the NCAA and say, 'Screw you,' " Nick Mitchell, the head coach at Golden West said by phone. "What must the NCAA think of this? Because the kid played two games in a beer league where you have to pay to play, you start the clock on his eligibility? And now to have the kid go straight to the NFL? What does that say?" Growing up, Purcell never could have imagined a football life. He barely knew what American football was. Occasionally games appeared on television but the sport was as foreign to him as Aussie rules football is to Americans. He played basketball as a child, developing into a power forward. He said he played at some of the highest levels of youth basketball in the country, even choosing the sport over rugby when he played both in high school until his basketball career stalled.
At 19, Purcell – a member of the LDS Church – went on a two-year mission where he was stationed on a small set of islands off the New Zealand coast called the Republic of Kiribati. He attended Church College where he played basketball and at 23 he married his wife Madison, an American whose mother is from New Zealand. For a couple of years, he worked as a youth minister and occasionally played on casual club rugby teams both in New Zealand and in Australia.
According to an appeal he filed with the NCAA, a rugby friend invited Purcell to play on an American football club team in 2009. He enjoyed the experience but he was also busy with a job at a property management company. He played only twice.
Not long after, he got a green card and came to the U.S. with Madison in hopes of going to college. His first choice, BYU, turned him down because of poor high school grades and suggested he go to a junior college. He picked Golden West because it was near Madison's family. He initially had no intention of playing football, only deciding to do so when a friend introduced him to an assistant coach at Golden West.
He started at defensive end in the spring of 2011, knowing almost nothing about the game. He was lost. "I was struggling schematically with what was going on," Purcell said. The coaches suggested he move to offensive line. At first he refused.
"One of the big reasons is I didn't want to put weight on," Purcell said. "I like to be lean. I didn't want to be fat. Not that all offensive linemen are fat but in junior college they are."
Finally a coach told him: "You can stay at defensive end and be an average defensive end or you can move to offensive tackle and have the potential to be great."
Purcell moved that day. Mitchell noticed the improvement immediately. "He caught on very quickly," the coach said. Purcell's basketball moves translated to football. His turns and leg kicks were almost perfect the first times he tried them. When he started to dominate in games, the colleges began to call.
Looking back, it's hard to say if Oregon would have been Purcell's first choice. He liked Washington because Seattle reminded him a lot of Auckland. Oklahoma and Alabama made intriguing appeals. But Oregon had an impressive pitch, Mitchell recalled. The Oregon coaches told him that because he was 26, they looked at him as a one-year player.
"Come in, play for a season and then we need to get you to the NFL because you are getting older," Mitchell remembers an Oregon coach telling Purcell.
Oregon also took his paperwork to the NCAA, a step no other school took in the recruiting process. And it was Oregon that called him about the two club games. Purcell had listed them on his application to the NCAA's clearinghouse because the questionnaire asked about any football he might have played. He figured he was being honest. He said he asked an assistant coach at Golden West if he should include them and after consulting with someone who had some experience with the NCAA, the coach told him he should. As long as he didn't get paid, Purcell remembered the coach saying, he would be fine. But he wasn't fine. The NCAA considers "official competition" to be any league that has standings, keeps official score, uses officials and has rosters. Mitchell and Kelly were told the rule is primarily used for tennis players who play competitively after high school and then try to play later in college.
Because of the work it was doing on his behalf, Purcell naturally moved toward picking Oregon. He appealed the NCAA's ruling in 2012 that he was ineligible and was denied. He filed another appeal and the NCAA ruled again this past April. He had been denied a second time. College football was over.
By then, Purcell had built himself into a 305-pound giant. He loved working out. Eddie Steele, Golden West's strength and conditioning coordinator, opened a gym not far from campus and Purcell spent hours there. In fact he was so diligent about his workouts, arriving before 6 a.m., Steele finally gave him a key, telling the player to get started in case Steele couldn't get there in time.
In the evenings, Purcell and a small group of workout partners ran a hill that went down to the Pacific Ocean. The hill is steep, yet they pushed to run it over and over. They lifted more weights. They pushed cars.
"His work ethic is unreal," Steele said.
But even after his first appeal to the NCAA was rejected last fall, Purcell kept pushing and he anticipated that he would be at Oregon by this summer. When the second appeal was rejected, the NFL draft was two weeks away. He didn't think he could be drafted but maybe someone would give him a tryout.
"We thought if he had a chance to go to a combine he had a chance to blow some scouts away," Mitchell said. "He was going to test pretty dang good."
The coaches at Golden West loved Purcell. Maybe it was because he was older and had a chance to live life but there was an urgency to him. He wanted to be good and he wanted to be good quickly. He was also a great leader. In most cases, he had six years of life on his teammates. He was worldly. He knew things. And even though he had played little football, he became a leader.
The first time Steele met Purcell, the player was sitting on the floor of Golden West's weight room with a mustache and horn-rimmed glasses. Purcell's laptop was open and he was pulling players over, encouraging them to sign up for grant money most were entitled to get but knew nothing about.
"At first I was mad, what's this guy doing with a laptop on the floor of the weight room?' " Steele said. "Then I realized what he was doing."
"I mean that's the kind of person he is," Steele continued. "He's new on the team but he's trying to convince everyone to get this money."
Enough of these stories trickled back to the NFL that by the end of April, several teams were interested. The problem was, there were only two weekends in which teams had rookie camps scheduled. He would be able to choose only two teams for which to try out. Because of Kelly and everything Oregon had done, he picked the Eagles first. How could he not?
He left that early-May weekend with a contract. The deal came with no guarantees, just a spot on Philadelphia's 90- man roster heading into training camp. Since the roster must be cut nearly in half by the start of the season, the odds are long. Still, he's made it farther than he could have imagined three years ago and is playing for a coach who wanted him enough to fight for him at Oregon.
The chance might be long but not impossible.
"I think he's just a big athletic, raw kid, you know. A unique situation, didn't play college football," Kelly said after the Eagles' last session before training camp. "He played junior college football but he's got a skill set. He's big, he's athletic, he can run. Just the one thing I'd say he lacks is experience."
The NFL is loaded with big and athletic players who have far more experience. Simply being great in the weight room and running up hills are not going to win Purcell a spot on the Eagles' roster this fall. Yet few players have had his life experiences. Few have been told no twice and had their eligibility stripped by the NCAA. Few have had to fight like he has fought.
"It's not easy but it's good," Purcell said last week. "I like to push myself and compete. Obviously the caliber of player here is nothing to be compared to at the junior college level. The boys are helping me out. The reality is not only coming from junior college football; I've only been playing football for two years so don't get me wrong, I try not to use it as an excuse. I try to make myself better and work on techniques."
All in making the unimaginable a reality. Somewhere in Indianapolis, the biggest bureaucracy in American sports has filed Nic Purcell away, tucking his big-time college football dreams on a shelf with other hopes squashed by arcane decrees in a more than 400-page NCAA rule book.
Only it doesn't matter, he gets to laugh now. You can almost hear it, spilling all the way down from the NFL.
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