- Josh Weinfuss, ESPN Staff Writer
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TEMPE, Ariz. -- When Darren Fells told his father he was getting recruited to play big-time college football, his father thought it was all but a done deal.
He thought it was a foregone conclusion that his son, all 6-foot-7, 281 pounds of him, would accept one of the football scholarships offered from either UCLA, Arizona State, Washington, Washington State or any of the other then-Pac-10 schools. So when Fells, who was all-state in football in California, accepted a scholarship to UC-Irvine -- to play basketball -- everybody was floored.
"Pretty much every single person I know thought I made a mistake doing basketball over football," Fells said. "Even my dad was shocked. My dad was extremely shocked that I was doing basketball.
"Especially when I was getting those UCLA letters, he was telling everybody, ‘Oh yeah, my son is about to get a full ride to UCLA, be a tight end.' And then when he found out I signed, that shocked him. He was proud of me but it just shocked him. He thought for a fact I was going football because both my older brothers went football."
But Fells is proof that people can make the most out of second chances.
Basketball was good to him, taking Fells around the world and filling his bank account. He played in Belgium, Finland, Mexico and Argentina.
About two years ago, however, the passion for the game that drew him toward it against everyone's expectations began to wane. But Fells didn't know how to quit. As the seasons wore on, he knew more and more basketball wasn't for him. He loved lifting and being in the weight room. He was a physical player in a game that was shifting toward the finesse.
Those feelings piqued last year and Fells knew it was time to walk away.
"It just got to the point where I felt like something was missing," Fells said. "Basketball wasn't what I was looking for. I talked to my brother (former NFL tight end Daniel Fells), and he told me why don't I give football a try? I was like OK. I never thought about it but I'd give it a try."
Fells traded in his high tops for cleats, the hard wood for the perfectly manicured grass of football fields, and began training in California. He began training as a defensive end at the urging of his agent and the coaches at Athletes' Performance, and at his size, he'd be a formidable challenge for any offensive tackle.
Fells' first NFL tryout came with the Seattle Seahawks last summer. After 30 minutes of being put through a gauntlet of defensive end drills, which just "destroyed" Fells, he said, Seattle tight ends coach Pat McPherson approached Fells and asked him to run a few routes.
The last time Fells ran a route, in high school, Seattle coach Pete Carroll was still at the University of Southern California. But he ran five patterns as requested.
"I don't know how I looked," Fells said. "I probably looked really awkward out there but I guess I looked better than I thought."
Even though the Seahawks felt Fells was more natural at tight end than at defensive end, they were surprised he caught everything thrown his way.
"The first thing that popped in my head was, ‘You only threw the ball to me five times. What did you expect? Me to drop four out of five?'" Fells said with a smile. "It was weird. I said, ‘OK, thank you.'"
While he was waiting in the locker room after the tryout, Fells' phone rang. It was his agent calling to say Seattle was signing him to a three-year deal. Fells, still naïve to the practices of the NFL, was shocked himself. Three years? Why would they invest that much into him, of all people, such an unproven commodity? But Fells was explained that a three-year, non-guaranteed deal was standard in these situations. If he blew up to be the next Jimmy Graham, Seattle had him locked down for cheap. If he was a bust, they could cut him without a penalty. It was win-win for the team.
And Fells was just happy to have a shot.
But if Fells could've bottled the reaction when his friends and family found out he signed with Seattle, he'd still have it on his mantel at home. If they were shocked he decided to play college basketball instead of football, then this practically gave them all heart attacks. Especially his brother, who last played in the NFL in 2012 with the New England Patriots.
"He was like, 'Wait, what?'" Fells said with a laugh. "That's been everybody's reaction. Just shock. Even my girlfriend, my parents, my friends. People send articles to me on Facebook and it's like, ‘I think they spelled Daniel Fells wrong.'
"I'm like, ‘No, that's me. I'm going to Seattle.'"
The next question Fells usually got was: For basketball? Seattle doesn't have a basketball team anymore since the SuperSonics moved to Oklahoma City in 2008.
No, not basketball. Fells was a professional football player and was about to find out how tough it was to stay in the league. He lasted through OTAs, minicamp and training camp before Seattle released him during final cuts. If that was his first and last shot at the NFL, Fells felt good about it.
"Honestly, my whole feeling in this situation right now is still surreal to me," Fells said. "The first (preseason) game I was out there, I didn't even feel real. I just walked through the tunnel hearing the crowd roar and everything, I was just pinching myself like, ‘Is this really happening?' Exactly a year ago, I was overseas in Argentina, not even understanding the language, not even speaking Spanish, and next thing I know, I'm here in Seattle. It was crazy."
Three days after Seattle cut him, Fells said Arizona brought him in for a tryout. They put him through a different gauntlet, this time with Fells as a tight end. His fortune wasn't the same in Arizona. He didn't leave with a contract, but the Cardinals told him they liked what they saw. There wasn't room on the roster spot for him. Then Fells had a tryout with St. Louis and got the same answer.
He started seeing a trend.
Three weeks later, on Oct. 9, Arizona called Fells back and signed him to the practice squad.
For the better part of the past three months, Fells has been learning how to play tight end in the NFL facing one of the league's best defenses. With a stocked depth chart at tight end, it's not surprising Fells didn't see any action this season. He's still a project.
"He's got great hands, unbelievable body control for a tight end," Arizona coach Bruce Arians said. "Just (needs to) continue to work on his blocking. He's one of the guys, we were hoping in the open date that somebody would separate themselves, and they weren't quite ready. I really like where he's at. I think he's got a bright future.
"I won't talk too highly of him; somebody might try to poach him."
One way to avoid Fells from being poached is if he's promoted to the 53-man roster ahead of Sunday's game against San Francisco. That'd trigger his contract and make it impossible for another team to go after Fells until that contract expires.
Every day is another step forward for Fells, who said he's still making mistakes every day.
"I don't mind where I'm at," he said. "I would love to be moved up and be on that field and show them what I could do what little ability I have in the NFL.
"I definitely feel like I have potential," Fells said. "I'm not going to say a Jimmy Graham or Gronk kind of player, but I feel like I can help the team out."
Arizona obviously feels the same way. He's been giving the Cardinals' defense looks against a big, fast, physical tight end in practice. And his upside far outweighs his downside.
All Fells needs is time to grow.
"I feel," Fells said, "like I wouldn't be here if they weren't going to give me that shot at some point."