There are few dreams bigger than those carried by an NFL rookie in their first training camp. Most have been playing football since they were children. Now that they have been signed to an NFL team, they stand at the precipice of achieving the goal they established for themselves so long ago — a goal that that has demanded extremely hard work and absolute dedication to their craft.
But one test remains: proving they belong in the NFL. While preseason games may be meaningless to fans, they mean everything to these young men. When the games don’t count, veteran players might take it easy — but the rookies are giving it everything they have.
As the Kansas City Chiefs defeated the Cincinnati Bengals 38-17 in their preseason opener Saturday night, we got to see two unheralded rookie running backs do exactly that.
Darwin Thompson — just 5-foot-8 and 195 pounds — is one of the team’s workout warriors. He played only one season at Utah State after two years at Northeastern Oklahoma A&M. Declaring for the NFL draft after a stellar junior season where he gained 1,376 yards from scrimmage and scored 16 touchdowns on just 176 touches, he remained available until the sixth round — when the Chiefs took him with the 214th pick.
“I’ve got to make up for my size somewhere, and that’s the weight room,” he told the press back in July. “I mean, every day, day in and day out, I spend time in the weight room. Knowing that I’m only 5-foot-8. I’ve got to build my base, my core and my strength. It shows on the field. My contact balance shows up on the field because of the weight room.”
Thompson showed that to us on Saturday night, demonstrating speed, elusiveness and toughness in his five carries — a couple of which were inside runs where he displayed an ability to fight for extra yardage despite his size. But then in the third quarter, Chase Litton found Thompson streaking across the middle on a crossing route.
All speed everywhere. ♂️(via @NFL) pic.twitter.com/jyb0B0TMQz— Arrowhead Pride (@ArrowheadPride) August 11, 2019
“It was crazy,” Thompson told the press after the game. “I didn’t know it was coming to me, but as soon as I broke off the linebacker, I’m like, ‘OK, this ball is coming to me.’ So I put my hands up — it was in slow motion, and my eyes just got big. As soon as I caught it, I was like, ‘Get loose now. Just start running as fast as you can.’”
How’s that for a dream come true? Work your way up from a small Oklahoma A&M to a Division I scholarship, get picked late in the draft and then score a touchdown the first time you suit up for an NFL game — even if it’s just an exhibition.
“I proved a little bit,” said Thompson. “I proved that 5-foot-8, 195 [pounds] can play in the NFL. I can break tackles. I can do the same things I did in college. Let me build on top of that. That’s not the best of me. I’m going to keep getting better every day.”
But then consider the case of Josh Caldwell.
Before Saturday night, his name was probably unknown to you. A product of Lee’s Summit North High School in suburban Kansas City, Caldwell began his collegiate career at Missouri Western State University in St. Joseph — the home of Chiefs training camp for the last ten years.
At Missouri Western, Caldwell was an All-MIAA running back in his redhsirt sophomore season. But midway through his third season with the Griffons — when he was second in the MIAA with 856 yards and eight touchdowns — the MWSU football team and Caldwell parted ways for an unspecified reason. Head coach Matt Williams said it was a “mutual agreement” between himself and Caldwell — but Caldwell publicly denied that.
Whatever the reason for Caldwell leaving the team, MWSU’s loss turned out to be Northwest Missouri State’s gain. Transferring to Northwest for his senior season, Caldwell joined a Bearcat team that already had plenty of talent in its backfield. He started only five games in 2018, but nonetheless ran for 830 yards and scored 11 touchdowns — earning him an honorable mention on the All-MIAA team.
Caldwell wasn’t on anybody’s draft radar, but he managed to secure a tryout during the Chiefs minicamp in June — and was signed on June 14.
So for him, just playing at Arrowhead Stadium for his hometown NFL team was cause enough for nervousness.
“The biggest takeaway was just getting those first-game jitters out,” he said after the game. ”I just wanted to come out and put on a show for my family, my friends, and the city of Kansas City. So it was just fun for me.”
But then with less than two minutes to go in the fourth quarter — and the Chiefs leading 31-17 — something happened.
From Lee’s Summit to the red zone! (via @NFL) pic.twitter.com/Po9OVTNdYJ— Arrowhead Pride (@ArrowheadPride) August 11, 2019
Caldwell’s 47-yard gallop set up a touchdown by... Josh Caldwell — on the very next play.
“I might have just taken a knee there,” head coach Andy Reid told the press after the game, “other than that the kid is from Kansas City. He makes a huge run to get down there and you have to give him the ball, right?’’
Just so, Coach Reid.
“It was just like a dream come true,” Caldwell said. “You know, I’m really not supposed to be here. I’ve been through a lot in my past with the transfer and whatnot. Just to cap it off with my first NFL touchdown was a blessing.”
Indeed it was. And wherever their paths may take them, both Thompson and Caldwell each have something that no one will ever be able to take from them: a glorious moment of realization that big dreams can come true.