Ponder takes the road less traveled

Saturday, November 18, 2006

The team's new return man has beaten the odds in emerging from Division I-AA.

ST. LOUIS -- Willie Ponder smiles when recounting his unorthodox route to the NFL.

While the vast majority of players come to the NFL after Division I play, Ponder is one of those who attended a lesser-known college.

An All-American in both years at I-AA Southeast Missouri State and a finalist for the Walter Payton Award during his senior year in 2002, Ponder barely made the NFL radar coming out of school.

He signed with the New York Giants after being drafted in the sixth round. Four years later he finds himself back in Missouri after the St. Louis Rams signed him Wednesday to return kickoffs.

Ponder believes though many smaller programs have good athletes, even the best of them need luck to make it to the NFL.

"The odds are against you coming from a small school," he said. "You've got to put up numbers for the scouts to come and see you. Then you've got to do really good at the combines."

Even then, no player gets a guarantee of landing in the NFL. Of the top-five finishers for the 2002 Walter Payton Award, the I-AA equivalent to the Heisman Trophy, only two players still play in the league. That's Ponder and the winner, Eastern Illinois quarterback Tony Romo, who now starts for the Dallas Cowboys.

"There's a number of guys in this league that make great players that didn't necessarily go to one of the major universities," Rams coach Scott Linehan said. "That's what the NFL is all about."

Ponder's serpentine college career made his ascent to the NFL even less likely. Kicked out of Tulsa because of poor grades after two years, he transferred to Coffeyville Community College and, despite never playing a game at the Kansas college, signed with Southeast Missouri for his final two years of eligibility.

He used a strong combine and his postseason awards to sign with New York, where he played for three years. He spent the first six weeks of this season with Seattle, before the Seahawks released him. When the Rams signed him this week, Ponder became the team's fourth attempt to find a kick returner this season.

He said the major obstacle he faced entering the NFL was his lack of football knowledge. He noticed players from larger schools knew different schemes, terminology and techniques that he had never heard of while in college.

"When I was at Southeast, I was just being an athlete and making plays," Ponders said. "But I didn't know what coverage (the defense was in). I know I was being double-teamed but I really didn't know what I was into."

He overcame that to become a steady kick returner in the NFL. While with Seattle, he averaged 23.5 yards per kickoff in six games, including a 36-yarder against the Rams on Oct. 15.

"Willie's got a lot of talent, especially as a returner," Linehan said. "He's got the ability to be a receiver, as well. The situation was right for us and it was right for him. He was on the street for a few weeks. Hopefully he can take advantage of an opportunity regardless of where he went to college."

Respond to this story

Posting a comment requires free registration: