ALLEN PARK, Mich. -- Kenny Golladay wanted to leave. The coaches who had taken a chance on him at North Dakota, the only ones in FBS or FCS who had offered him a scholarship, had been fired. After he spent the 2012 and 2013 seasons in Grand Forks, the combination of the cold and the uncertainty led him to make a decision: He would transfer.
He had grown 4 inches since high school and stood 6-foot-4. He had gotten faster. This was his chance to play somewhere else, somewhere bigger. One problem: He had no tape. Yes, he starred for two years as a receiver at North Dakota, but the staff was gone, and no one was there to help him out.
So he dug through Hudl, a commonly used online highlights service, cut clips, made a tape himself and sent it to his high school coach at St. Rita in Chicago, Todd Kuska. Golladay couldn’t have known his decision would eventually lead him to become the Detroit Lions' 2017 third-round draft pick.
“Told him [Kuska] to do me a huge favor, you know -- send my tape out to college coaches that was coming in,” Golladay said. “He jumped right on it, man. It was just a blessing. I feel like it only took him a week, maybe two, and I sat down, talked with my family, and they had my back through thick and thin, man."
Golladay ended up transferring to Northern Illinois, a move up to FBS. The process, though, was a bit more detailed.
When Golladay decided to transfer, he asked Kuska for help. Kuska was honest. He knew Golladay had improved, but once the wideout made the decision to seek a transfer, that probably meant he couldn’t return to North Dakota. Golladay thought it over.
On Nov. 19, 2013, Golladay emailed Kuska and mentioned the highlights. Kuska had emailed to about a dozen schools. On Dec. 4, 2013, Kuska emailed Golladay and told him two schools responded: Northern Illinois and Eastern Illinois.
"Northern was the biggest school at the time that really jumped on it," Kuska said. "This goes back years. They were the ones that really said, 'Hey, we really like him.' They liked him in high school, but he didn’t have the speed or the size they were looking for.
“Then, all of a sudden, they see a transformed kid on film, and they said, ‘Holy moly, my, he did everything that we wanted him to do.'"
By this point, Northern Illinois head coach Rod Carey had already received a call from former North Dakota head coach Chris Mussman. Carey had been Mussman’s offensive line coach at North Dakota before going to Northern Illinois.
Carey remembered Golladay’s name. He remembered that Golladay was on Northern Illinois' recruiting board, but at barely 6-foot and not exceptionally fast, he was behind other receivers.
Carey told Mussman that Golladay could be a good walk-on candidate. Then Carey received the highlight tape from Kuska. Carey said he watched “about five clips and called Muss and was like, 'Oh, hell yeah.'"
Golladay caught 99 passes for 1,313 yards and nine touchdowns in two seasons at North Dakota. He set single-game regular-season records at the school with 16 catches and four touchdowns against Northern Arizona on Nov. 2, 2013. So the numbers were there to intrigue Northern Illinois.
“First off, I think he was 4 or five inches taller than he was in high school, and he’s running by everybody in the Big Sky, and then his catch radius was phenomenal,” Carey said, remembering Golladay’s film. “He was catching the ball on the sideline, making great plays, just what you look for. You’re like, 'Oh yeah.'
"The fact that he had grown that much, and Muss said, 'I don't think he's done growing.' I don’t think he was. I think he might have grown an inch while he was here, too."
Carey wanted to offer a scholarship and called Golladay, asking if he wanted to play closer to his Chicago home. He said yes. Carey offered, and Golladay accepted.
The process changed a teenager’s life and gave NIU a star. Carey says it was a solo decision to offer Golladay. Kuska, Carey and then-NIU receivers coach Thaddeus Ward all have differing stories on the details of who reached out to whom about the transfer.
All agree, though, that it led to big things for the Huskies and Golladay.
"His ball skills popped out right away," Ward said of Golladay’s tape. “I remember seeing a kid that wasn’t afraid to go across the middle. I didn’t see a whole lot of run after the catch. If you could see his highlight tape then and watch him now, you kind of see a kid who can run after the catch with the ball. We allowed him to do more of that.
“One thing I didn’t see on that tape is blocking, and one thing we ask our receivers is to be tough and block. I’m probably more proud of that kid of really turning that around. Didn’t know if he was a physical kid at all, because he never had to block, really, at North Dakota.”
Northern Illinois coaches immediately recognized Golladay’s speed during initial conditioning drills. After a mandated sit-out year in 2014 of one-handed practice catches and dominant performances in one-on-one drills, Golladay became a star. In two seasons, catching passes from five quarterbacks, he had 160 receptions for 2,285 yards and 18 touchdowns. All rank in the top 10 career marks in NIU history. He’s the first player in school history to have back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons.
And his college coaches believe there’s clear room for professional improvement.
"The things we wanted Kenny to get better at, and he did, is to hold his line on vertical routes a little more, embrace being the big receiver," Carey said. "It’s easy when you’re as gifted as he is, starting at North Dakota, and then here, even here, although it’s a different level here, he can still run by a lot of guys.
"Well, at the NFL, he’s not going to be able to run by a lot of guys, and he’s going to have to embrace being that big guy and that guy that you can use in the slot in certain situations to run some routes, like we did, and really just to make the hard catches, which he has a great catch radius.”
The videotape Golladay made, meanwhile, was thought to be gone. He said he didn’t have a copy, but he thought he might have made one for his mother. However, the NIU staff dug up the full eight-minute, four-second Hudl video, which they said was the one he sent to the coaching staff before he committed. Golladay doesn’t need it now, though. His resourcefulness landed him where he needed to be, and then his skill took him where he wanted to go -- the NFL.