(Photo Courtesy: Azusa Pacific Athletics)
When Roger Goodell steps to the podium on April 25 to announce the first pick of the 2013 NFL Draft, there’s a good chance he’ll state the name “Luke Joeckel” to millions worldwide tuning in to check out the draft. The Kansas City Chiefs are on the clock, and it appears as though they’re set to turn the Texas A&M left tackle into a cornerstone of their offense for years to come.
But as folks across the NFL spend the next few weeks beginning to acclimate themselves with Joeckel’s name and game, there is another offensive tackle (ironically also named “Luke”) who has slowly started to create just as much buzz amongst draft circles as well. His name is Luke Marquardt, and if you’ve never heard of the chiseled 6’8 ½, 316 lb. offensive tackle prospect from tiny Azusa Pacific University, you’re not alone. Heck, he was an unknown commodity to most of the NFL as recently as a year ago.
Yet as Marquardt gets set to become the first Azusa Pacific player taken in the NFL Draft since Christian Okoye in 1987, the incredible part of his story isn’t how he has slowly blossomed into an elite prospect with a blend of size, athleticism and quickness that could one day land him on an All-Pro team.
Nope, the incredible part of Luke Marquardt’s story is how he ended up in football all together.
You see, unlike so many members of the 2013 NFL Draft class, Marquardt wasn’t some five-star, can’t miss player coming out of high school.
As a matter of fact, following his freshman year of high school, Marquardt didn’t play any football at all.
Small Beginnings for a Big-Time Prospect:
While it’d be factually incorrect to say that Marquardt “never played a down of football until he arrived at Azusa Pacific,” that statement isn’t totally far off either. Marquardt participated in the sport as a youngster in Texas, excelling at both the quarterback and linebacker, before a confluence of events pushed him away from the gridiron all together and onto the basketball court.
It started when the Marquardt family moved from Texas to suburban Seattle, Wash., prior to Luke’s freshman year of high school. After arriving late to fall camp Marquardt was unfamiliar to his new coaching staff, and never seemed to fit in at famed Skyline High School, and in a program which has produced a number of Division I prospects, including current early enrollee USC quarterback Max Browne.
After some injuries and several position changes, Marquardt eventually ironically found himself on the offensive line, a place that the skinny 6’1 teenager never felt comfortable. Still years away from growing into the frame that would leave NFL scouts drooling, Marquardt decided to leave the sport all together prior to the start of his sophomore season.
“They wanted to move me to offensive line, and I said ‘I’m not doing that,’ Marquardt said in a recent phone interview with Crystal Ball Run, following his Pro Day at Azusa Pacific last week. “I decided with the way I was growing that I didn’t have the body type for football, especially the offensive line.”
Frustrated, Marquardt decided to put football aside, and spent the next three years at Skyline gravitating toward his second love, basketball. There, Marquardt continued to grow, all the way up to 6’8 and helped Skyline make the playoffs in his senior season.
Yet it was actually just before that senior season when Marquardt rediscovered his passion for football, and found it, interestingly enough, halfway across the world. At the time, Marquardt was staying with an old friend on a mission trip Cypress (a small island nation off the coast of Turkey), when the friend’s dad started a football team.
Now taller, and a bit more physically imposing than he was during his freshman season, Marquardt found a home at tight end.
“It sparked a love of the game again,” Marquardt said about his time overseas.
Despite the newfound love, it wasn’t enough to get Marquardt back onto the football field for his senior year of high school at Skyline. However, when it was time to look at colleges, Marquardt did inquire with a few about potentially playing football, in addition to basketball. One was at Azusa Pacific, where an e-mail to head coach Victor Santa Cruz was met with a lukewarm response at best.
Still, the Marquardt family did meet with Santa Cruz during their visit to Azusa Pacific a few weeks later. The meeting only came after mother Pam practically dragged a reluctant Luke into Coach Santa Cruz’s office herself.
“We were walking by the football office, and my mom was like, ‘Hey, maybe we should just go in there and meet him,’” Marquardt said about his first encounter with Coach Santa Cruz. ““I was like, ‘No, I haven’t played football in forever, and kind of feel like basketball is the way to go.’”
Eventually Luke relented, and after a meeting with the Marquardt’s, Santa Cruz agreed to stop into an open gym with the basketball team later that afternoon. Once there, Santa Cruz was stunned at what he saw when the nimble, athletic 6’8 Marquardt took the court.
“Watching him in his basketball tryouts, I just realized he was a football player playing basketball,” Santa Cruz said.
Quickly, the coach invited Marquardt to a couple practices with the team, where he caught a few passes playing the tight end position. And although it took a few months to get all the paperwork in line, Marquardt had no doubts that when he returned to Azusa the following fall, he would return to the football field too.
Reflecting back on that first trip to the school, and his first football practice in four years, both of Luke’s parents- father Adam, and mother Pam- remembered their son saying the same thing when he stepped in the car to go home.
“I feel at home,” Luke told his parents that afternoon.
Life at Azusa:
Despite finding his home on the football field, Marquardt was hardly a finished product when he did put on pads for the first time in four years that fall. Marquardt redshirted during his first year on campus, and was limited at tight end during his redshirt freshman season.
Things began to change though late that second season, when an injury on the offensive line limited Azusa Pacific, and forced Coach Santa Cruz to improvise with his undermanned team. With no one else to play the offensive tackle position, Luke volunteered to slide over. The coach was left with little choice but to oblige him.
“We had an injury, and he stepped right in tackle,” Santa Cruz said. “It was at that point where I said, ‘Luke, you’re an average tight end, but an excellent athlete. You can get paid at the next level at tackle.’”
“I think he caught the vision,” Santa Cruz added.
After changing positions late in his freshman year, Marquardt quickly picked up the intricacies of the position as a redshirt sophomore in 2010. There, he was a key cog on a Cougars’ offensive line which allowed just nine sacks the entire season.
But as good Marquardt and the offensive line were during 2010, it wasn’t until 2011 when they fully flexed their muscles, and Marquardt truly evolved into the offensive tackle that would eventually leave NFL scouts swooning.
That evolution came thanks to a lot of hard work and a little luck too, when a gift from the football Gods fell into Azusa’s laps prior to the 2011 season. A new offensive line coach showed up to town, looking for a place to pursue a Master’s degree and hoped to coach some football as well.
So who was the new coach? How about Pro Football Hall of Famer and 20-year NFL veteran Jackie Slater? In Slater’s first season at the school, Marquardt blossomed, and so too did the Cougars’ offense as a whole. They set school records in total offense (at nearly 500 yards a game) and scoring offense, putting up over 45 yards a contest.
Yet as fortunate as Marquardt was to work every day with a Hall of Famer, make no mistake about it, Slater was just as surprised with the unexpected gift awaiting him when he arrived at Azusa.
“When I looked at him, I said, ‘You’ve got to be kidding me,’” Slater said at Marquardt’s Pro Day last Thursday. “The way he was moving, it was a thing of beauty.”
Apparently, the NFL agreed. Following Marquardt’s junior year, the Jets arrived to scout him. Then came the Giants and Patriots a short time after. Before long, just about every other team made their way to Azusa Pacific as well.
It was a pleasant surprise for the Marquardt family, even if Luke eventually learned to take it all in stride.
“The first scout came last spring,” Pam Marquardt said. “Luke called, and we were all so excited, we couldn’t believe it.”
“Then every day he would text me ‘Oh, this team was here. That team was here’” Pam Marquardt said. “Pretty soon he wouldn’t even tell me. I would say ‘you’re not calling me, you’re not texting me. You need to tell me what’s going on!’”
There was no need to.
By the start of his senior year, all 32 NFL teams knew Luke Marquardt’s name.
“His Best Football Is Ahead of Him”:
With his senior season set to begin in the fall of 2012, Marquardt was dealt with the first major setback of his football career, when an injured foot kept him out of action. Following surgery, Marquardt missed the entire 2012 campaign, his final one at Azusa Pacific.
But while many young athletes would’ve taken such a negative situation and dwelled upon it, Marquardt instead turned it into a positive. In the process, he showed the NFL the kind of work ethic he had, and the kind of character they’d acquire by drafting him.
“A lot of kids get discouraged,” said famed athletic trainer Scot Prohaska, who was hired to train Marquardt prior to the NFL combine. Prohaska has worked with professional athletes across all sports, and trained everyone from NHL players to Olympians to MMA superstars. Yet as a veteran of the profession, Prohaska is also quick to admit that few show the grit and determination in the face of adversity like Marquardt did last fall.
“There’s no reward for them,” Prohaska said of injured athletes. “So they end up going up with their girlfriend, drinking, partying. Luke was still in the weight room and never stopped training.”
That training paid off this past winter, when, despite not playing a single down during the 2012 season, Marquardt became the first Azusa Pacific player invited to the NFL Combine since 2000. There he blew away all spectators, not only by putting up 31 reps on the bench press (third most amongst all offensive line candidates), but by doing with on a chiseled frame, with the athleticism of an ex-basketball player.
Following the Combine, NFL.com’s Daniel Jeremiah wrote that Marquardt was “labeled by just about everyone in attendance as the most impressive physical specimen” in Indianapolis. It was a sentiment shared by all who attended Marquardt’s Pro Day last week.
“Let’s just put it this way,” a glowing Slater said at the event. “Nobody saw anything they didn’t like.”
And frankly, that might be the most incredible thing about Marquardt: As he continues to grow as a football player, the former tight end is still continuing to grow into his body as well. After working with Prohaska the last few months, Marquardt is as physically imposing as ever, yet hasn’t lost an ounce of the athleticism he gained from his years on the basketball court.
It has left everyone in the NFL more than intrigued, and also wondering: How much more can Luke Marquardt continue to grow?
“I think the sky is the limit,” Slater said in terms of how much further Marquardt can grow as a football player. “In the 20 years I played, I never played with an offensive line his size. And personally, I never really thought a guy his size could function in our sport.”
Slater added one further, very telling comment.
“He has blown away all of my myths about the offensive line position,” Slater said. “His best football is ahead of him.”
Reflecting Back, and Looking Ahead:
Looking ahead to next week’s draft, it’s virtually impossible to gauge where Marquardt will be selected. Between his small-school competition, foot injury and year away from football, projections vary across the board; ask some, and they believe he’ll be lucky to get into the fifth round, and a sixth or seventh round selection seems likely. Ask others, and they say that based solely on size, athleticism and upside he could sneak all the way up into the third or fourth.
Still, it does appear as though Marquardt will be drafted somewhere, and when he is, Marquardt hopes to serve as an inspiration to young kids across all sports. Luke Marquardt has proven that there is no one direct path to the NFL, and if you’re good enough and work hard enough, you can overcome any obstacle to reach your dreams.
“I had to do a lot of it myself,” Marquardt said. “I didn’t have a full-ride scholarship, I didn’t have off-season trainers pushing me. No one had this implanted in my mind or gave me that motivation (of playing in the NFL). I brought it upon myself to do that.”
It’s that exact mindset which has brought Luke Marquardt from a college football novice to the brink of an NFL career.
And if the buzz around him the past few months is any indication, it’s an NFL career that should last a really long time.
For all his opinion, insight and analysis on college football, please follow Aaron on Twitter @Aaron_Torres.
Follow Crystal Ball Run on Twitter @CrystalBallRun.