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The beaten path to the National Football League isn’t as clear-cut as many think.
Not every player gets his name called out during the NFL Draft. Not every player gets signed as an undrafted rookie in its aftermath.
In some cases, former college standouts have to ply their craft in smaller leagues in order to catch the NFL’s attention. Which is exactly what Minnesota Vikings safety Andrew Sendejo did.
Born in San Antonio, Texas, the 28-year-old starred at Rice University, where he was a three-time Academic All-Conference USA. An ankle injury limited him to seven games during his senior year, but he still made an impact.
When his college career was said and done, Sendejo ranked second in school history with 318 career tackles and seventh with nine career interceptions. But the injury may have scared away NFL teams.
“Obviously, you want to get drafted,” Sendejo told Fox News Latino. “I was injured … It’s a difficult situation going into the draft like that, after that I tried to get signed as a free agent.”
He had a mini-camp tryout with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers but they declined to offer him a contract. From there Sendejo realized he needed to start at the bottom and work his way up.
“I went to that rookie tryout and didn’t get signed, and that’s when I decided to go to the UFL,” Sendejo said.
He’s referring to the now-defunct United Football League, which was co-founded by AOL chairman Tim Armstrong and investment banker Bill Hambrecht and operated from 2009 to 2012.
Sendejo played for the Sacramento Mountain Lions during the 2010 season, finishing with 48 tackles, seven pass breakups and two interceptions.
Even though the UFL is just a footnote in American football history now, Sendejo is grateful for his time there.
“I’m really thankful that it was around,” Sendejo said. “Fortunately it was around to give me a stepping stone to get into the NFL.”
His performance in Sacramento caught the eye of the Dallas Cowboys, who signed him to their practice squad in November 2010, after the UFL season ended. He was promoted to the active roster for two games that season, playing primarily on special teams.
The team invited him back for the 2011 preseason, but waived him in the last round of roster cuts. The New York Jets signed the 210-pound Sendejo shortly afterward, only to cut him a few weeks later.
But Sendejo never gave up as he felt that his time was coming.
“[I thought] if I could get a tryout with a team, I’d be happy. Then once I had a tryout, it wasn’t enough and I wanted more. Then I was like, ‘As long as I make a practice squad, then I’ll be happy.’ Then once I made a practice squad, it wasn’t good enough,” Sendejo said. “I continued to push the bar higher.”
He pushed the bar high enough that the Vikings signed Sendejo in November 2011. After earning his stripes – mostly on special teams – between 2011 and 2014, Sendejo finally got his chance last year, starting 13 games at strong safety while continuing on special teams.
And he didn’t disappoint. He picked up 74 tackles, a partial sack, three pass deflections, an interception as well as a blocked field goal. The Vikings were so impressed that they offered Sendejo a four-year, $16 million contract extension heading into this season.
But Sendejo doesn’t take any part of his success for granted. It isn't even guaranteed that he will start the Vikes' opening game against the Tennessee Titans on Sept. 11. The team has been giving 31-year-old veteran Michael Griffin a look at strong safety.
“It feels good, but the NFL can be a rough business,” he told FNL. “That’s why I just enjoy every second of it. I play hard, (and I) work hard.”
Sendejo is living proof that hard work can indeed pay off.