His hopes of a pro football contract tossed to the wind in tatters, Jibrille Fewell had to reassess his immediate future in early July.
The Rock Hill native and former Liberty University football player went undrafted by the NFL in May even after five straight months of training, and his phone remained largely silent during the agonizing free agent months of May and June. Talking over an unclear future with his mother, Grafonda Ruff, at her home in Rock Hill, Fewell knew who he had to call.
Incredibly, Kristie Beitz called him first.
Unsigned, and resigned
Even as Fewell endured an embarrassing and hugely disappointing summer, Beitz never lost track of him. When she called in early July, she offered Fewell a road map. Beitz, Liberty’s associate athletics director for academic affairs, worked extensively with Fewell during his two years in Lynchburg, Va., as a Flames defensive tackle.
“We wanted to help him to pursue both his academic goals to graduate from college and his dream to play professional football,” she said. “We were observing and communicating with him the entire spring semester.”
When it became clear that a pro football opportunity wasn’t forthcoming, Liberty football coach Turner Gill made Fewell an offer, with Beitz as the conduit.
“I said, ‘Jibrille, we have an opportunity, if you would like, where you can come back to school.’”
He wasn’t supposed to need to return to school. While Fewell was unlikely to be drafted by an NFL team, he seemed to be a lock for a free agent contract, or at least a tryout. His agent, James Peterson, told Fewell he didn’t need to go to any CFL combines because he was a lock for the NFL. In hindsight, that was bad advice, but how could Fewell have known? He had strained and exerted for five months in Buffalo, N.Y., living in a house with four or five other draft hopefuls, all convinced their phones would ring on or around May 8, the big night of the NFL Draft. It seemed as certain as taxes.
But when nothing happened for Fewell, the initial feelings were a swirling cocktail of embarrassment, self-doubt, mistrust of Peterson, hatred of cell phones, confusion, and a host of other feelings that made him a pretty miserable roommate for his mom the last two months. Even as a whisper of hope from Peterson would rattle his cell phone periodically, Fewell and his mom knew it was time to start looking at Plan B.
“We were trying to contact (Beitz) to see what classes he needed because we were just gonna go and get a loan like everybody else so he could finish,” said Ruff. “He was just too close to a degree not to finish it.”
Just ready to go
While Fewell was mired in an undrafted funk, Liberty football coaches and support staff were monitoring his situation, Beitz in particular.
“One of the things we stress at Liberty University, is that we’re here to build the whole person. Academically, athletically, socially and spiritually,” said Beitz. “With Jibrille and any other student-athlete that we’ve had that has had that opportunity to compete, we want them to get their degree. We want to do everything possible to set up opportunities for them to take the classes that are necessary to achieve their graduation from Liberty University.”
Fewell only needs to complete eight credit hours to graduate with a bachelors degree in communications. Liberty has offered him what’s called an AEM scholarship, available for student-athletes who have exhausted their athletic eligibility or had their athletic careers ended by injury.
Fewell’s presence will have another benefit for the Liberty Flames football program. Beitz thinks Fewell can be valuable mentor to the Liberty players seeking to reach the NFL, even more than she in some instances, because of the lessons he’s learned from the trying first eight months of this year.
“He can share his experience, both the positives and the negatives, and provide some guidance,” Beitz said. “A lot of times when you get that guidance from a peer, it’s much different than getting it from someone who is a full-time staff member that hasn’t had the opportunity.”
It wasn’t a surprise that Beitz kept track of Fewell even after he’d left Liberty. It was typical of her concern for him.
“She always stayed on me, she was always hard on me,” said Fewell, smiling. “She was mad at me when I decided to leave school early, but I guess all is forgiven now.”
After six months full of difficult and opaque decision-making, it was nice to have an easy one for once. Fewell decided to go back to school in mid-July for free thanks to the AEM scholarship. He didn’t need to talk it over with his mom.
“I’m ready to get out of her house,” he said with a laugh. “I’m just ready to go.”
A parent’s dream
There was another entity monitoring Fewell’s status, though not as successfully. When the San Jose SaberCats of the Arena Football League reached out to him through a Facebook message, a member of their player development department was under the impression that Fewell had signed with an NFL team. Obviously he hadn’t, and the SaberCats have kept in touch over the last month.
It’s a funny turn of events. Hell-bent on the NFL, or at least the Canadian Football League, Fewell initially wasn’t interested in the Arena League, and he still wasn’t even after the draft came and went. But as the pro football dream began to dim, Fewell warmed to the idea of playing indoors. The 2015 season doesn’t begin until next March, so Fewell would have time to finish his schooling should a concrete offer come through from San Jose, or elsewhere.
Viewed through the scope of Fewell’s roller-coaster year, his return to school and new-found consideration of arena football aren’t that surprising. Humbled and matured, the big “teddy bear,” as Beitz called him, is a bit wiser to the ways of the world.
For starters, he’s in the process of parting ways with Peterson.
And the considerable faith in God that he rode through the tough times has crystallized even further, appropriate as he returns to a school of great faith, Liberty. Had he been drafted, Fewell admits he wouldn’t have returned to school. But he believes “that was God’s way of telling me I needed to finish school, because I wasn’t going.”
As Beitz put it, “He’s got options now, where other people don’t.” Fewell’s mother concurred. Ruff, who is taking classes from Liberty University Online (not for free), said that while she was disappointed that her son’s NFL dream didn’t materialize, “my dream was that he get that degree so he can have a better opportunity at life and not have to struggle.” For someone who seemed to have a rash of bad luck in the first half of the year, the concern showed by Beitz and the Liberty coaching staff, for a former student-athlete who could no longer compete, was a welcome change of fortune.
“It’s a blessing, man, a blessing,” said Fewell, who has moved back into his old apartment in Lynchburg and started class last Monday. “Everything that happened to me with the draft, all that other stuff with the agent and different stuff, just for them to call and be like, ‘we’re gonna pay for everything,’ it’s just a blessing. Who does that happen to?”