Part 1

undrafted NFL free agent
Image courtesy of Jerrod Black

The iPhone illuminates the cabin of a pitch-black Chevy Tahoe. It’s one o’clock in the morning, and Jerrod Black’s eyes dart from clip to clip. He’s watching game film, training videos, anything he can get his hands on. Cars flash by on the quiet road and crickets buzz in the grass, breaking the silence within Jerrod’s truck. He’s hyper-focused on the screen in front of him, analyzing every step, get-off, and rip or swim.

This quiet moment outside of 4th and Inches Sports Performance is the culmination of a years-long journey for Jerrod. He’s an undrafted NFL free agent, one of hundreds each year who miss their chance to play football on Sunday afternoons. But living in his car isn’t a deterrent for Jerrod — it’s the ultimate motivation.

“Not having an actual house, bed, or couch, you become even more grateful for the little things,” he said. “When you’re sitting in your truck at 1 am, sitting in front of the gym you spent eight hours at that day, you convince yourself it’s worth it and envision yourself doing good things.”

A Texas Upbringing

Jerrod was born in Galveston, Texas to Damon Black and Jacqueline Hull. Growing up in a city where football truly is life, Jerrod felt the push to join his friends on the field. He had played baseball growing up, but at the age of 10, took his talents to the gridiron. “He was so much better at baseball than football,” his mother remembers. Unfortunately, Jerrod’s transition to the football field didn’t come without challenges. “I hated it and cried every day, but my mother and father wanted me to play,” he said. ” I made the all-star team, even though I played with 11 and 12-year-olds because I was too big.”

He could have easily given up, but Jerrod was raised in a house where hard work was the only way of life.  Jacqueline had Jerrod when she was only 16, and when the time came, she and Damon pursued their own college degrees. Despite the challenges of raising a child as young parents, Jacqueline and Damon set an early example for Jerrod.

“He watched me go to high school, to college, he watched me earn my Master’s, my PhD,” she said. “If you want something, you have to stick to it. Successful people will tell you how hard it is, but it’s worth it.”

Image courtesy of Jerrod Black
Image courtesy of Jerrod Black

Her example opened a door for Jerrod, who stuck with the sport and worked his way into the college football conversation. “I watched my uncle [former Oilers/Titans defensive back George McCullough] play while I was in high school, and I knew I wanted to get there, too.”

His junior year, the University of Central Floria offered Jerrod a scholarship. And shortly after, schools were lining up at Jerrod’s door. He received other offers from Texas A&M, Arizona, Houston, Missouri, and Nebraska; Division I programs with the pedigree to jump-start Jerrod’s journey to the NFL.

Still, his 121 total tackles, eight sacks, and interception his senior year weren’t enough to garner the attention of one particular school — the University of Texas. “My mom wanted me to go to Texas, but Texas wasn’t recruiting me,” he said. “I truly believed I was going to go to A&M or Nebraska.”

But in the middle of the 2007 recruiting season, another school with ties to Texas became a legitimate option for Jerrod — Iowa State. Gene Chizik, a former assistant head coach for the Longhorns, had just been hired as the head coach at Iowa State. He visited Jerrod’s Galveston home, and Damon remembers the conversation vividly.

“At that time, in that space, I knew Iowa State was the best opportunity for Jerrod,” he said. “As a father, I asked all the questions you can ask of head coach. One of those questions was, ‘What are your plans with Iowa State and this team?’.”

Chizik assured Damon that he’d make the most of his first head coaching opportunity, promising to “see his first recruiting class through” their college football careers. The interview, along with multiple calls to Chizik, was enough to convince Jerrod that he’d make the right decision by becoming a Cyclone. And so, he packed his bags, moving from the football center of the country to the quiet city of Ames, Iowa.

Culture Shock

“Iowa was a culture shock,” Jerrod remembers. “It was slow-paced, but I wouldn’t take my decision back for anything. I met some of my closest friends there, and it forced me to grow up and become a true athlete.”

Like so many top-tier high school football players, Jerrod arrived on campus with the “big fish in a small pond” attitude. He’d played against Andrew Luck and Andy Dalton in high school and appeared in a state championship game with Cypress Falls. He was ready to make the jump, but timing wasn’t on his side.

Jerrod became a redshirt freshman, sitting out his first year with the team and watching the Cyclones finish the season 2-10. They won their first two games, but went on to lose 10 straight contests. “I hated not playing and watching my team struggle,” he said. “I thought we [redshirt freshman] could help. But as the season went on, I realized the experience was about growing, both mentally and physically.”

Other experiences forced Jerrod to grow up even faster, like Chizik’s sudden departure from the school in 2008. The first-time head coach accepted the same position with the Auburn Tigers and led the SEC program to a national title in 2011. Like many of his fellow recruits, Jerrod was torn, and his family felt his pain hundreds of miles away in Galveston. “I was upset, we all were,” Damon said. “But Jerrod sucked it up, rolled with the punches, and tried to stick it out with the new head coach [Paul Rhoads].”

Unlike with Chizik, Jerrod had no connection to Rhoads. He wasn’t a Rhoads recruit, and he wasn’t one of the coach’s “guys.” That took a toll on Jerrod, who didn’t play a game in 2009 and played just three games in 2010. “I didn’t fit the new defensive scheme, and I was hurt because I loved Iowa State,” Jerrod said. “I didn’t want to leave, because the decision to transfer and adjust is a difficult one.”

But after the 2010 season, he did just that, graduating with his communications degree from Iowa State and transferring to Southeast Louisiana with one year of eligibility remaining. He’d be leaving best friends and Cyclones roommates behind, like current Vikings tackle Carter Bykowski and free agent guard Kelechi Osemele.

“We played together for three years at Iowa State, and during that time he and I were really close,” Bykowski said. “We fished all the time in the summers, barbecued,  and played video games all the time off of the field. Then at the same time we got each other better at practice each day on the field.”

Jerrod would be leaving that behind, taking a leap of faith in Southeastern Louisiana, all with the hopes of hearing his name called in the NFL Draft.

Denied

One season with the Lions in Louisiana was enough to put Jerrod’s name on the map. He finished the year with 19 tackles, 4.5 tackles for loss, and half a sack, earning his teammates’ nomination as a defensive captain. “Moving to Louisiana was another culture shock, but I met a lot of good friends and people there,” he said. “I still talk to the defensive line coach to this day.”

After graduating, Jerrod spent his time preparing for the draft process. Though he didn’t attend the Combine, he participated at a Pro Day in Louisiana, running through drills for a single scout in attendance. “I felt I had a really good afternoon, and a New Orleans Saints scout [Joey Vitt Jr.] called me forty minutes after,” Jerrod said. “He told me I did great, looked really good, and that the Saints were thinking of taking me in the fifth, sixth, or seventh round.”

At 6’1″ and 300 pounds, Jerrod reminded many of his teammates of Vince Wilfork. He’s often called “Baby Wilfork” by the staff and players at 4th and Inches, and he’s a nose tackle with the speed to make an impact on the defensive line. Like Jerrod, Bykowksi knew his friend could make it in the NFL. It was just a matter of when that opportunity would come.

“I think he has the tools and skill-set to make a team in he league,” Bykowski said. “He just needs a chance.”

The weekend of the NFL Draft, Jerrod made his way back to Iowa State, where he’d watch the event with his closest friends. “The first round passed, then it was the second, and suddenly, it was the fifth,” he said. “Now it was my turn.”

But Jerrod didn’t receive a phone call. The Saints? Nowhere to be found, and suddenly, Jerrod was on his own. Osemele was a second round pick to the Baltimore Ravens, and a year later, he’d watch Bykowski go to the San Francisco 49ers in the seventh round.

“It was probably one of the most humbling, helpless days of my life.”

That night, Jerrod drove to the lake he’d spent so many days fishing at, and sat by himself, crying. The door was closed.

Read Part 2 of Jerrod’s story this week on Vikings Territory, and be sure to follow all of our live free agency coverage HERE!