Regis grad Nolan Kern entered the National Football League draft with confidence. A former offensive lineman at Division II University of Sioux Falls, he got a chance to show his abilities in front of scouts at the National Bowl and College Gridiron Showcase before the coronavirus pandemic derailed the draft process. Then he worked to navigate the new world by sending out video for a virtual pro day.
But he admits there was a steep hill to climb for athletes coming from outside the Football Bowl Subdivision this year once pro days and other in-person interactions were shuttered.
“It was probably just about the worst year ever to be trying to get drafted, especially coming from a small school,” Kern said over the phone this weekend. “I think only like 15 DII guys even got signed this year.”
Kern went undrafted and unsigned by NFL teams, and his other football options began to disappear. The Canadian Football League did not play this summer due to the pandemic, and the XFL’s return season was called off early before the league filed for bankruptcy. He was set to participate in events similar to a pro day after the draft, but those were canceled too.
So, he’s going to his backup plan for now, not that his current situation is one to pity. Kern is starting law school this fall at the University of South Dakota, taking some classes in person and others online.
“I figured I might as well be progressing forward regardless of if I’m playing football or not,” Kern said.
That doesn’t mean he’s given up on his football dreams. Just last month, he took part in one of the first football events to be staged since the pandemic began in March, a four-day showcase put on by The Spring League in Glendale, Colorado.
Kern said he heard from The Spring League, a developmental football league and scouting event founded in 2017, just two days after the NFL draft concluded in April.
“I got an email from one of their scouts who just looks for players who didn’t get signed or didn’t get picked up and they think deserve a shot in the NFL, CFL or one of the higher leagues,” Kern said. “I jumped at the opportunity. Any chance you get to play more football and update your film is a good thing.”
So Kern registered, then made the drive from Sioux Falls, S.D., to Denver in mid-July. The Spring League, which has previously included ex-NFL players like Johnny Manziel, Greg Hardy and Fred Jackson, set up three days of mini-camp style practices followed by a scrimmage between the participants on the fourth and final day.
There was no on-site testing, but players needed to provide proof of a negative coronavirus test within four days of reporting to the event.
“I was very realistic of the expectations and the involvement of all of this,” The Spring League Chief Executive Officer Brian Woods told ESPN on July 20. “It’s a (contagious) virus and football is a contact sport. But I also felt like this could be a good example, based on the protocol we outlined. If we had issues with it in a four-day camp, then I thought, man this would be a good sign for the NFL or even college football for that matter. We were very fortunate that we have not.”
Kern enjoyed the experience, especially the opportunity to compete against former NFL and CFL players. Eighty-five players took part in total, all fighting for a coveted spot on a professional roster.
“It was good to see I can still dominate people at that level,” Kern said.
The hope is that the added film helps him find a pro football landing spot. While Kern is set to begin law school, he said he’s willing to defer that opportunity if a chance to play emerges.
For now, he’ll balance staying in shape with his coursework.
“Just this last week we had an orientation-type thing and we actually had to read 60 pages of cases,” Kern said. “I would just wake up at 5 a.m., get all my workouts done, get about two or three hours in, then do all my homework and everything I had to do. I’m definitely still in that training mode.”