Griffin Neal didn't know what lay ahead when he left his home in North Dakota last spring to play semi-pro football in Germany. And the quarterback certainly couldn't have anticipated the amazing chain of events that ended with him landing an NFL contract in April.
After finishing his college career, Neal did know this: "I had this feeling that I wasn't finished with football."
Neal was a three-year starter at Concordia College, a tiny Division III school in Moorhead, Minnesota. It's just across the river from Fargo, home of North Dakota State, where Neal's former high school rival Carson Wentz made his name.
Everybody knows about Wentz, the 6-foot-5, 237-pound quarterback who made only 23 starts at North Dakota State but ended up being selected by the Philadelphia Eagles with the No. 2 pick in last week's NFL draft. But the pro scouts hadn't paid any attention to Neal, who measures at 6-5, 225 pounds, runs a 4.6-second 40-yard dash and went 24-6 as a starter. Here's the catch: Neal guided a triple-option attack at Concordia, not exactly the sort of system that catapults small-school quarterbacks into the pass-happy NFL.
After going undrafted and unsigned in 2015, Neal was undeterred. "I was just like, 'Man, all these other guys are doing this. Why can't I?' " he says.
And so, off to Hildesheim, Germany, he went at the invitation of an American coach who had heard some good things about him. Hildesheim is a town of 100,000 whose team, the Invaders, was playing in the second tier of the German Football League.
Neal says what he found in Germany was a league that isn't ready to send polished talent to the NFL on a regular basis.
The GFL started in 1999, and its level of play doesn't begin to rival even the Arena League Football in the United States, let alone NFL Europe, which began as the World League of American Football in 1991 but folded in 2007. NFL Europe, which had several franchises in Germany, relied mainly on American-trained college players who often had experience in NFL training camps.
The Invaders, on the other hand, play in a tiny stadium that was typically packed with about 1,500 or so rabid fans, according to Neal. GFL rosters are capped at four Americans per team, and only the U.S. imports are paid. (Neal said his salary was 700 Euros, or about $805 a month, plus housing, the use of a car and health insurance.) The rest of the Invaders' roster consisted of German-born players who ranged in age from 20 to 45. The Invaders practiced only twice a week, and film study wasn't even a given the way it is in the U.S.
"The passion is there, and playing there was fun, very fun, but it's more like a club or a hobby to them," Neal explains.
Neal's assessment that he and German-born Moritz Boehringer are outliers, not the start of a GFL-to-NFL pipeline, seems accurate.
The Minnesota Vikings were impressed enough with Boehringer to select him in the sixth round over the weekend, making him the first player drafted straight out of a European league. It didn't hurt that Boehringer is 6-4, 229 pounds, plays wide receiver and ran a 4.33 40 for scouts. Only three receivers at the NFL combine ran faster.
Neal, on the other hand, had more hurdles and prejudices to overcome, even though he is American born.
Hoping for a shot in the NFL or even the CFL, Neal sought help from Arizona-based quarterback coach Rudy Carpenter in December. Carpenter says the biggest value of the GFL for Neal was not just getting to play more football, but actually putting games on video that showed he could excel in a pro-style passing offense. Neal led the Invaders to a 2015 division title by throwing for 3,268 yards and 30 touchdowns, earning the club a promotion to the GFL's top tier for 2016.
"Griff wasn't asked to throw a lot in college, and that obviously hurt his development," says Carpenter, who played at Arizona State and spent six years as an NFL backup or practice-squad player for the Dallas Cowboys and Tampa Bay Buccaneers. "I basically just told him at the start, 'I'm not going to be doing a bunch of quarterback drills in the sand at the beach, using a tennis racket or waving a broom at you. We're going to get on the whiteboard, and you're going to learn the game.' ... From the moment he arrived here in December till a few weeks ago when he left, that's all he did five to six days a week. He was throwing and studying, throwing and studying, throwing and studying."
Neal admits he had a lot of catching up to do before he was ready for his NFL close-up. But the harder he worked, the "luckier" he got.
Neal and a former Concordia teammate, wide receiver Brandon Zylstra, moved into an extra bedroom at the home of Neal's grandmother in Scottsdale, Arizona, and threw themselves into training. When money got tight, they did some babysitting to make ends meet.
Once Neal and Carpenter got deep into their quarterback-specific work, Carpenter says he understood why Concordia coach Terry Horan likes to say Neal has a brilliant football mind. "Griff's the sort of kid you only have to tell something once," Carpenter says, "and he remembers it."
Still, Neal needed someone to give him a shot. And it happened thanks to former Tulane receiver Xavier Rush, who delivered on a promise to get Neal invited to Tulane's pro day in March. Neal got lucky yet again when it rained that day -- forcing Tulane to move the event to the New Orleans Saints' indoor practice facility. Instead of perhaps only one Saints scout in attendance, most of the team's hierarchy -- scouting director Jeff Ireland, head coach Sean Payton, and quarterbacks coach Joe Lombardi -- were on the sideline, too.
When Neal arrived, however, there was one problem: His name hadn't been added to the tryout list. "They literally had no idea who I was at the door," he recalls, "and I thought, 'Oh, great. I came all this way. This is my one opportunity.' ... But they finally said, 'He's a big kid. He's already here. We might as well let him throw.' "
This was indeed Neal's big shot, and he aced the workout. Carpenter says Neal texted him afterward and said he'd never thrown the football better in his life.
The Saints invited Neal back for a second workout a few weeks later. Despite an excited, sleepless night, Neal excelled at that tryout, too, showing he could run the plays the team gave him to memorize the day before.
He was signed on the spot to a contract that can become as much as a three-year deal if he makes the Saints' roster out of training camp.
There's always the chance Neal was signed as nothing more than a training camp arm. But he remains driven by the same feeling that sent him to Germany in the first place. He has played some football so far. Maybe more than he ever expected. But he's not done with football yet.