From the NESCAC to the NFL: Ephs go pro

Div. I schools like the University of Michigan, which produced Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, or Ole Miss, alma mater of the legacy of the Manning family, are known for being top NFL-feeder schools. In the Purple Valley, however, Williams more often generates future i-bankers, art historians or the med-school bound, not quarterbacks in the NFL.

However, several of our very own Ephs traded in their purple cow mascot for Cardinals, Ravens and Rams, among others. While it’s extremely rare to see Div. III players anywhere near the top of the NFL draft, Williams alums Sean Keenan ’00, Ethan Brooks ’96, Jack Maitland ’70 and a few more (Tim Rogers ’91, Scott Perry ’76, Scott Farley ’03) have logged some professional playing hours on NFL fields and in stadiums across the nation.

Keenan – voted one of the 50 best athletes to ever come out of Vermont and dubbed by Sports Illustrated writer Marty Burns the “Bledsoe of the Berkshires” – never envisioned playing in the NFL during his first few years at Williams. “I never thought I would pursue professional football,” Keenan said. “I just hoped to have an opportunity to play at Williams coming out of high school.”
These opportunities were afforded to Keenan when he forewent attending a Div. I school for the chance to play more than one varsity sport at the collegiate level. “Almost every kid that’s ever played for us that’s gone onto play in an NFL camp has played two or more sports,” former football Head Coach and track Assistant Coach Dick Farley said. “I was one of the few coaches who said to kids and their parents [that] coming [to Williams] would mean getting the overall experience – that could mean playing two sports and a junior year abroad. Very few coaches would say to the kid, ‘you’re spending $50,000 a year to come here; if you want to go to New Zealand or Ireland, if track or lacrosse or basketball are also important to you, you should have that experience.’”

Farley’s candor about the program’s flexibility was well-taken by Ethan Brooks ’96, a three-sport All-American during his time here: indoor and outdoor track and field and football at defensive tackle. Unlike Keenan, Brooks’s dream of playing football began in high school, the 6’6”, 300 plus defensive tackle began to feel his dream shape into a goal – almost an obsession – at Williams. “I would quietly speak to myself, ‘Ethan Brooks, defensive tackle, NFL,’ probably about a hundred times a day,” he said.

These Ephs all felt their NFL dreams come to life around their junior year at Williams, when the NFL scouts came knocking. Farley maintains that the Williams football program demands enough from its players to be able to prepare them for life in the NFL. As for getting noticed by scouts, it’s easier than you’d expect.

“In the NFL, nobody goes unchecked,” Farley said. “If they’ve got ability, all you have to do is put a name down and everybody in the NFL will find out about it.”

NFL scouts locate around the 300 best college football players in the country and invite them to the NFL Combine, an annual event that puts potential candidates through a series of tests, drills and interviews. Keenan was selected as one of only 20 quarterbacks in the country to participate in the Combine during his senior year at Williams – the only Eph to ever have done so.

“Professional scouts would come through when a kid’s name would pop up; we’d get literature from teams asking if we had anyone worth taking a look at,” Farley said. In 1995, that player was Brooks, a dominant defensive force.

Farley remembers Brooks describing his experience of being scouted: “I can remember Ethan saying it was dehumanizing,” Farley said. “You’d be in your underwear; they wanted to look at every part of your body to see if you’d had surgery. They’d talk to the trainers, talk to the coaches, take pictures. They looked them over with a fine-toothed comb.”

According to Maitland, the scouting process now is much more sophisticated than ever. “For me [in the 1970s], it was all timing,” he said. “Then, nobody had ever heard of Williams College; the coaches thought I was Jack Williams from Maitland College. Nowadays, they’re going to smoke you out eventually.”

Maitland made a name for himself in 1967 in his sophomore year at Williams with a legendary game against Amherst. His reception and run late in the game brought Williams the Amherst victory after five years. Maitland has said that moment was the most thrilling in his football career, even more than the Superbowl game and the ring he would go on to win with the (then Baltimore) Colts six months after graduation.

Maitland was a 16th round draft pick for the Colts when he graduated in 1970. In what he attributes to luck and extraordinary timing, Maitland was put onto the field as a running back when two higher draft picks were injured during preseason. Six months later, he wore the Superbowl ring. Shortly thereafter Maitland was traded to the Patriots.

For Brooks and Keenan, who missed each other by just a year at Williams, they found themselves in the same place when the Arizona Cardinals drafted them both. Post graduation, Brooks was drafted by the Atlanta Falcons in the seventh round of the 1996 draft. He spent the next two years with the St. Louis Rams, spent one year injured with herniated discs and in 2000 found himself arriving in Arizona the same year as Keenan, who signed right after graduation.

“I was aware of Sean and all the records he had broken at Williams,” Brooks said. “We were both represented by the same agent. I remember thinking it was pretty darn cool to have two Williams guys in the NFL, together on the same team – I mean, what are the chances of that ever happening again?”

Brooks had met Keenan fleetingly four years before. “I had met [Brooks] briefly on Spring Street during his senior year when I was at Williams for my recruiting visit,” Keenan said. “I knew a lot about him but didn’t get to spend time with him until we were both on the Cardinals. Ethan became a wonderful friend and mentor during my time in Arizona and still is to this day.”

After the Cardinals, Brooks played with the Baltimore Ravens from 2002 through the 2004 -2005 season. Brooks then signed with his favorite team since childhood, the Dallas Cowboys, but without an entirely happy ending. “I should have known that moment was a sign of the end. Coach Bill Parcels released me the day after Thanksgiving,” Brooks said. “I’m a Pats fan now.”

Since retiring in 2006, Brooks has embraced his new role as an assistant football coach and the strength and conditioning coach at the Pomfret School in Conn. Keenan, who retired in 2002, now lives in Buffalo, N.Y. with his wife Liza ’01 and his daughter Avery. He works for an insurance agency.

After several successful seasons, Maitland moved to Florida. He currently lives in Ft. Lauderdale. Fla. and started his own ad agency.
“If you can play on an NFL team or practice squad, you can play college football at USC, or Penn State, Michigan,” Farley said. “These guys could have been on TV on Saturday afternoons and not on Weston Field.”

Leave a reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *