The University of Maine football program again garnered considerable attention during the last several days in conjunction with the annual NFL Draft.
UMaine safety Jerron McMillian topped the news when he was selected in the fourth round by the Green Bay Packers. He was the 133rd pick overall in the draft and became the highest choice ever by a Black Bear.
It didn’t end there. Safety Trevor Coston (Chicago Bears), running back Pushuan Brown (New York Jets) and receivers Derek Buttles (Buffalo Bills) and Derek Session (Bills) will get a shot as free agents.
And defensive lineman Kevin Phanor is headed to Germany to play pro ball.
Chalk it up to the magic being worked at UMaine by head coach Jack Cosgrove, “The Wizard of Cos.”
One would expect Bowl Championship Subdivision teams such as Ohio State, Florida and Oklahoma to produce NFL players every year. The vast majority of the best athletes are playing for those high-profile, big-money programs.
There’s a much smaller pool of pro prospects coming out of the Football Championship Subdivision, where teams such as Montana, Northern Iowa and Appalachian State are perennial contenders.
UMaine is among 122 FCS teams.
This year’s class at UMaine is the most recent example of how a player, given an opportunity, and the right coaching and guidance, can maximize his potential and play with the big boys.
Still, it defies logic. The vast majority of young men who play football at UMaine were not offered a scholarship by any other Division I program.
UMaine often must settle for recruiting players who aren’t as big or fast or strong as their counterparts. Or they take a chance on someone who is underrecruited, hasn’t been playing long or suffered a significant injury that scared away other teams.
Some, like defensive tackle Mike DeVito, who is now with the New York Jets, was offered $1,000 to attend UMaine. He will earn an estimated $3.36 million in 2012.
Enter Cosgrove, who is gearing up for his 20th season in Orono, and the University of Maine.
Enticing student-athletes to Orono can be a difficult proposition because of the location, the weather and, in some cases, even the demographics.
Yet most of the young men have a dream — playing in the NFL.
Once they have interacted with Black Bear coaches during the recruitment process and have the chance to meet UMaine players on a recruiting visit, many can sense there is something special about the program.
Certainly, the statistics on former Black Bears who have gone on to play on Sundays also carry some weight: 14 NFL draft picks and 31 others who have hooked on as free agents.
If that isn’t enough, the offer of a scholarship often makes the decision easier. The players are energized and motivated by the fact UMaine believes in them.
UMaine provides the opportunities on the field, in the classroom and in the community. Those who are unable or unwilling to fulfill commitments in all three areas weed themselves out.
Those who buy into the program and demonstrate a willingness to learn, a strong work ethic, a team-first mentality and a commitment to maximizing their potential, achieve at a high level.
But Cosgrove and his staff don’t just turn out talented football players. The program represents much more than that.
UMaine places a strong emphasis on facilitating emotional growth and maturity and making sure student-athletes represent themselves, their families, their team and their university with class — on and off the field.
The players quickly learn that the coaches, administrators and support staff are more concerned about their development as people than their achievements as football players.
Because of the physical rigors and time demands of the game, the players bond and develop friendships that endure far beyond graduation day. The shared commitment and sense of family helps cement the experience.
Of course, only the elite UMaine players have the good fortune to move on and earn a paycheck playing football.
Ultimately, most of them depart with a degree, along with the knowledge and confidence to succeed in whatever they choose to pursue.