NFL's star search hits the hardwood

Athletes currently shooting hoops and pinning opponents on the wrestling mat could be the next giants of the gridiron.

Looking for the next pro football star? Check out your local basketball court. Or wrestling mat. Or even the ski slopes. You never know where a gridiron great may be lurking.

Exhibit A: Antonio Gates, who spent his college years at Kent State playing basketball before developing into a Pro Bowl tight end for the San Diego Chargers. Signed as a free agent in 2003, Gates set an NFL record for touchdowns by a tight end last season with 13. This year he leads his position in receiving yards, catches, and touchdowns.

The Denver Broncos, hoping to bottle some of the Chargers' lightning, last week signed tight end Wesley Duke to its roster. Last year, Duke ran the hardwood as a forward at Mercer University in Macon, Ga.

While most NFL playmakers do come from big-time college football programs, other notable exceptions include:

• Stephen Neal, a fourth-year offensive lineman with the New England Patriots. Neal was a two-time NCAA champion in college - as a heavyweight wrestler, never playing football at Cal-State Bakersfield. Now he spends his Sunday afternoons protecting Tom Brady.

• Eleven-year veteran tight end Marcus Pollard, now with the Detroit Lions. He played power forward for Bradley University's basketball team, securing a starting role for two seasons.

• Then there's Jeremy Bloom of Loveland, Colo., who did play some college football but has been spending the past few years training for the Olympics as a freestyle skier.

In today's NFL, players are more athletic than ever. So teams are scouring the sports landscape to find athletes that can run faster and jump higher - even if they've never handled the pigskin.

"Remember, the NFL is a very trendy league," says Mel Kiper Jr., an ESPN football analyst. "Everybody this year seemed to be looking at the basketball players to find out who wasn't good enough to play in the NBA that could maybe translate their skills into a tight-end position. Everybody is looking for the next Antonio Gates."

Perhaps it is Gates's mentor who has the best shot at finding his heir apparent. Tim Brewster, the former San Diego tight ends coach, now holds the same position with the Denver Broncos. The young Mr. Duke is his current project.

"I met [Gates] after our game against San Diego," Duke says. "He was real encouraging. He just said, 'Keep working.'"

Duke, who finished fourth in an NCAA slam-dunk contest last spring and left Mercer as the Atlantic Sun Conference's all-time leader in blocked shots, began eyeing football as he watched Gates on TV last season - and just as he realized an NBA career was a long shot.

Now Duke must play catch-up after not strapping on the shoulder pads since high school. He has spent part of the season on Denver's practice squad and was even cut from the team before playing in his first game Sunday. "It's a big learning curve because I haven't played in so long," he says. "I'm in pretty good shape, I feel pretty good about my conditioning. Once I get used to what they want me to do in football, I can use some of the [basketball] stuff like boxing out and going up and getting balls out of the air."

Searching for unorthodox personnel solutions gained momentum after the Dallas Cowboys discovered several gems during the 1960s and '70s. In 1962 Dallas signed Utah State hoopster Cornell Green, who played 13 seasons as a defensive back and earned five Pro Bowl selections. Two years later, the Cowboys drafted Florida A&M track sensation Bob Hayes. He went on to play 11 seasons as a wide receiver and became a four-time Pro Bowler. Others followed, including Preston Pearson, Percy Howard, Ron Howard and, in 1981, defensive back Everson Walls.

"We started it because we had to," says Gil Brandt, who led the Cowboys' personnel department for 29 seasons. "We had to do different things and take chances for a long time because, in the beginning, we weren't very good."

The San Francisco 49ers also found success on the track, in the form of star hurdler and Olympic hopeful Renaldo Nehemiah, who spent five years in the 1980s with the team, and was part of a Super Bowl-winning squad.

Jeremy Bloom is trying to follow in Nehemiah's footsteps. Bloom returned kicks for the Colorado Buffaloes before being stripped of his NCAA eligibility in 2004 because of his skiing endorsements. He is currently training for the 2006 Winter Olympics, hoping to make the US team bound for Turin, Italy. He sees pro football as his next challenge.

"The NFL is a huge 'what if' for me," he told ESPN. "Can I make it? Not make it? I need to know."

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