KANSAS CITY (AP) — Tershawn Wharton doesn't want to minimize the work the coaching staff at Missouri S&T did with him the past four years, but the massive defensive lineman with the slightly shy chuckle also knew it wouldn't be enough.
If he wanted to reach the NFL, he would need to find some extra help.
So, while most players at the Division II level were taking a break and basking in the summer sun, Wharton sought out a group of trainers he hoped would take him to the next level. His goal growing up in the St. Louis suburbs was also to play professional football, and he wasn't going to allow a lack of big-time college scholarship offers or the fact he was playing at Missouri S&T — rather than just Missouri — keep him from achieving that dream.
"It's not the way to go," Wharton acknowledged this week. "I knew I would have to work harder."
It paid off.
After wowing the Kansas City Chiefs in pre-draft workouts, the Super Bowl champs signed Wharton as an undrafted free agent. And despite an offseason scuttled by COVID-19, robbing Wharton of a chance to showcase his abilities in voluntary workouts and minicamp, he still managed to impress the Chiefs enough in training camp to make the team.
Not surprisingly, he hasn't stopped working. The 22-year-old Wharton moved from the practice squad onto the active roster, then from a backup spot to a crucial role in the middle of the defensive line. The past two weeks, he's caused and recovered his first fumble against the Denver Broncos and picked up his first sack against the New York Jets.
"It seems like he does everything right," said fellow Chiefs rookie Clyde Edwards-Helaire. "He's probably one of the hardest-working guys that came in here. He's very respectful. He does everything he's asked to do. Once you do that and you're a person all the way bought in, you see the results coming, and right now he's enjoying it."
So are the Chiefs, who never could have imagined such big returns on such a modest investment.
It's hard to overstate the rarity of what Wharton has done.
Every season, each NFL team signs between 10-20 undrafted free agents, and most are roster fodder to help get through training camp. One or two might make a practice squad and once in a while, someone might crack the game-day roster. But more often than not, those undrafted rookies are cast into the wind — their careers done just that quick.
"If you're to get one," Chiefs coach Andy Reid quipped this week, "get one from Missouri Science and Tech. I mean, come on. I think it's awesome for the area, the school and the kid."
Missouri S&T is based in the small town of Rolla in south central Missouri, and is known more for its engineering and tech programs than its football program. Only three players have ever been drafted from the school, and only two others have played in the NFL — kicker Charlie Copley from 1920-22 and quarterback Dick Thornton in 1933.
"I mean, it was always the plan. Always the childhood dream," Wharton said, "but I just knew a different level of coaching was out there, so I took a few steps of going out and training myself, and pushing myself in the offseason. At that level, people don't really push themselves in the offseason. I wanted to make sure I was going to be able to compete at my level, but also if I got a challenge in front of me that was higher, I could compete with them as well."
His difficult path to the NFL was made infinitely more difficult by the COVID-19 pandemic. Wharton had to rely on Zoom meetings throughout the summer to learn the Chiefs defense and build some kind of bond with the coaching staff.
"Finally everything is starting to slow down for me. Some things I still need to work on but it's starting to slow down," said Wharton, who still hears from parents, teammates and Missouri S&T teachers on a daily basis.
"I have a lot of supporters from S&T," he said. "They're just telling me to keep going, never get complacent. Keep fighting. And they just want to see me do this for a long time."