This is the first installment in a series of stories that will follow former Stony Brook star Miguel Maysonet on his road to the NFL draft.
MARTINSVILLE, N.J. -- Miguel Maysonet grew up on Long Island's East End, playground of the rich and famous, but there was nothing tony about his childhood.
He lived with his mother and two older brothers in a cramped apartment above an auto-repair shop in Riverhead -- a long way from Hamptons chic. They struggled, but he never complained, not even when the shower broke for a few months and they had to heat water on the stove so they could bathe.
When Maysonet's friends joined a youth football league, he sat out because his mother, who worked two jobs, couldn't afford the cost. In fact, he didn't play organized football until the seventh grade. No matter.
"I would never let where I came from affect where I'm going in life," Maysonet said last week.
There's no mistaking his direction: He's going forward, 7.4 yards at a time.
After a record-setting career in college, the former Stony Brook running back is tantalizingly close to his dream -- a dream shared by those who have known him since his humble beginnings. He can become the first player in school history to be drafted by the NFL.
"I really hope he gets the opportunity to hear his name called," Stony Brook coach Chuck Priore said. "That would be a pretty special reward. He put us on the map single-handedly."
For the next two months, Maysonet's job is to convince at least one NFL team he's worth a draft pick, that he can be the next Danny Woodhead. It starts Thursday, when he arrives in Indianapolis for the NFL combine.
"It's a tremendous accomplishment for a kid who went to a small high school and ended up going to a small university," he said of this opportunity.
Maysonet rushed for 1,964 yards last season, averaged an astounding 7.4 yards per carry and finished second for the Walter Payton Award, the FCS equivalent of the Heisman Trophy. Now he goes from the big fish in a small pond to a minnow in the ocean.
He will be one of 38 running backs at the combine, a 333-player meat market that consists of everything from agility drills to medical evaluations to intelligence tests.
A combine invite doesn't guarantee anything. In fact, only 21 backs were drafted last year. Scouts say Maysonet, a bit undersized at 5-foot-9, 205 pounds, could be drafted anywhere from the fourth to the seventh round, depending on how well he tests.
"I see a possible late-round guy -- if not, a good priority free agent," said an AFC personnel executive, speaking on the condition of anonymity. "He's not real big, but he has quickness and vision. He's more of a quicker guy than a fast type, but he has good feet and balance."
For a small-school phenom like Maysonet, it's critical that he impress at the combine and at his pro day, March 21 at Stony Brook. A recent hamstring injury may force him to skip the all-important 40-yard dash at the combine, raising the stakes for his pro day.
He has been training since early January, when he moved to New Jersey for a six-week program at the TEST Football Academy in Martinsville. His agent, Joe Linta, sends many of his clients to TEST, where they participate in two-a-day workouts six days a week under the supervision of professional instructors.
This is serious business. Hundreds of draft-eligible prospects across the country leave school to concentrate on combine prep. Agents typically spend $12,000 to $15,000 per client, making sure they're physically and mentally ready for what amounts to a four-day job interview.
Maysonet lived on Linta's dime, residing in a two-bedroom condo in a gated community about 15 minutes from TEST. He was fed by nutritional experts and his condo was cleaned by a weekly maid service, which struck an emotional chord. His mother, Yolanda Santana, works as a hotel maid in Riverhead.
"I love him as a person, the kind of kid you'd want to marry your daughter," Linta said of Maysonet. "He's sincere and genuine. He was brought up the right way."
Linta has a reputation for uncovering hidden gems like Flacco, a relative unknown before his senior year at Delaware. In 2007, Linta drove to a game at New Hampshire, where he watched Flacco pass for 419 yards and two touchdowns. That convinced him that Flacco had the goods to make the jump from the FCS to the NFL.
Six years later, Linta has a winning lottery ticket -- he'll make millions on his Flacco commission -- yet there he was last week, sitting in a cozy deli in small-town Martinsville and talking up Maysonet as The Next Big Thing in between bites of a turkey burger.
"He has tremendous lower-body strength and quickness; he's like a Ray Rice," said Linta, comparing Maysonet to the Ravens' star running back.
From a height-weight standpoint, they're almost similar. Rice was 5-8, 200 pounds when he came out of Rutgers in 2008, but he ran the 40 in less than 4.5 seconds -- and that will be Maysonet's challenge.
He's not a true blazer -- he ran a 4.55 last spring -- and that could work against him in a league obsessed by 40 times. But he has an innate ability to find daylight and finish runs. As Priore said, "One thing happens when you watch him: He comes out the other end of pile-ups."
Maysonet believes his running style is similar to that of former Giant Ahmad Bradshaw, meaning: "He's tough. He never wants to go down, like me."
Skeptics will point to Stony Brook's level of competition, but it bears noting that Maysonet averaged 129 yards per game and 6.2 per carry in five games versus FBS opponents. His signature play came against Syracuse, a 71-yard touchdown in which he high-hurdled a defender -- an instant "SportsCenter" highlight.
"That's the one that really helped me out with the scouts," Maysonet said.
Nearly every team sent a scout to Stony Brook in the fall to watch practice and to study him on tape. They saw a downhill runner who managed to dominate against eight- and nine-man fronts.
"The feedback from every scout was, 'Wow,'" Priore said.
The most remarkable thing about Maysonet, according to Priore, is that he never asks what the scouts are saying about him.
There's not an ounce of diva in Maysonet. He rarely speaks of his NFL opportunity, except to say his hope is to make enough money to support his mother.
It starts with his trip to Indianapolis. Even if he skips the 40, he'll have other combine tests, including the 225-pound bench press, to make his case. He'll also be interviewed by individual teams.
Maysonet's career has been building toward this since that harbinger moment in seventh grade, when he ran for a long touchdown the first time he touched the ball. Since then, "I've been killing it," he said in a rare moment of braggadocio.
"I honestly don't think it'll be that nerve-racking," Maysonet said of the pre-draft process. "I've had to prove to people my whole life that I'm a really good football player. This is just another way for me to prove to them I'm able to compete at a high level."