May 16, 2018
Borrowing a line from Broadway, Class of 2014 members Ryan Smith and Robert Spillane are ‘not throwin’ away their shot’ to play football professionally.
By Mark Vruno
Smith turned in his lifelong Chicago Bears card when he became a Green Bay Packer.
Congratulations to Friar football alumni Ryan Smith ’14 and Robert Spillane ’14, who have signed free-agent contracts with the National Football League’s Green Bay Packers and Tennessee Titans, respectively. Smith and Spillane are first cousins and grandsons of late Fenwick superstar athlete John Lattner ’50, whose Heisman Trophy from Notre Dame is displayed in the hallowed hallway of his high school alma mater on East Ave. in Oak Park, IL. )A running back for the Fighting Irish, “Papa John” was the 7th overall pick in the 1954 NFL Draft, chosen by the Pittsburgh Steelers.)
The two Lattner grandsons played collegiately at universities representing the Mid-American Conference (MAC): Smith at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, and Spillane at Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo, Michigan. The duo joins Patrick “Packy” Doyle ’07 (tight end, University of San Diego and San Diego Chargers) and Marques Sullivan ’96 (offensive lineman, University of Illinois and Buffalo Bills, New York Giants, New England Patriots) as modern-era Friars who have gone on to the NFL.
Smith is “country big,” standing nearly 6’5” tall and tipping the scales at nearly 260 pounds. With deceptive speed for a big man (4.9 sec. 40-yard dash) and the soft hands of a wide receiver, he honed his blocking skills at the urging of Fenwick Head Coach Gene Nudo. “Ryan Smith is an all-time great Friar,” says Coach Nudo, who came to the Friars in 2012 and coached both Smith and Spillane as high school juniors and seniors. During that two-year span, Fenwick’s varsity team won 18 games, including 10 their senior season of 2013.
“Ryan was a pleasure to coach, in no small part due to his love and sincere approach to football,” Nudo notes. “I feel he learned his lessons well at Fenwick as a great teammate and star athlete. He continued working on and improving his skill set at Miami [of Ohio].”
"Old-school tough" is how his college coach describes Spillane (left, in Titans rookie minicamp).
Spillane, at 6’1” and 230 pounds, is the more muscular of the two cousins who, as boys, used to “beat the heck” out of each other growing up. Used primarily as a tailback at Fenwick, where he was an Illinois All-State player as a senior, Robert morphed into an inside linebacker on defense at WMU. Nicknamed “Robo” by his Friars’ teammates, Spillane is a demanding teammate and an extremely hard worker. High school coaches recall his “high-motor” hustling, literally leading nearly every sprint, lap and position drill at Priory practices in River Forest.
“I’m very happy for Robert,” Coach Nudo adds. “After a stellar collegiate career, he has earned his shot. Robert had the highest football IQ of any high school player I ever worked with.”
Spillane and Smith played in FBS bowl games for their college teams. PJ Fleck is the collegiate coach from the Chicago area (Kaneland High and Northern Illinois University) who recruited Spillane to Kalamazoo, across Lake Michigan. Now the head coach at the University of Minnesota, Fleck describes the athlete’s toughness as vintage: “Robert is a throwback,” Fleck has said. “Robert probably should have played back in the ’60s and ’70s -- that's how tough he is. He’s an old-school player in a new era of football. It’s refreshing to know there are players that tough still out there.”
Spillane at Western Michigan
It’s easy to see why Spillane ended up making the team of new Tennessee Titans Head Coach and former Ohio State/New England Patriots linebacker Mike Vrabel, writes Kyle Madson, managing editor of the Titans Wire for USA Today. “He [Spillane] was a four-year contributor at Western Michigan and filled the stat sheet in all four seasons. Spillane finished his college career with 312 tackles, 32.5 tackles-for-loss, 10 sacks, four interceptions, five pass breakups, two fumble recoveries and three forced fumbles” for the Broncos.
“He joins a group of several interesting prospects lingering at inside linebacker who could make noise in camp,” Madson continues. “With so many veterans vying for reserve spots on the roster, Spillane is on the outside looking in, but he’s a name to keep in mind ….”
Smith, meanwhile, started 32 of the 48 games he played in during four years with the Redhawks. He registered 92 receptions for 1,149 yards and 14 touchdowns. This past season (2017), he was named the team’s Offensive Power Player of the Year after he recorded a career-best 35 receptions for 454 yards (13.0 average) and four touchdowns. As a junior, Smith set career highs in games started (13) and tied his career high from 2015 with five touchdown receptions.
Smith at Miami of Ohio
NFL Network’s Ben Fennell describes Smith as “a big body at the tight end position who should be in the mix to fight for a roster spot behind Jimmy Graham and Lance Kendricks.” Other scouting reports tout him as having good body control, able to “make grabs in traffic and in the Red Zone [goal line].” He is the second undrafted free agent tight end to sign with the Packers this off-season and is considered by some to be a long shot to make the team’s final, 53-man roster three and a half months from now.
Diamonds in the rough?
Some of the best players in NFL history fell through the cracks of the draft and didn’t get their shot until they were signed as undrafted free agents. Players that were not originally drafted include Hall of Fame quarterbacks such as Kurt Warner and Warren Moon, along with Chargers tight end Antonio Gates and recently retired Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo and Steelers linebacker James Harrison. Financially speaking, some people argue that being an undrafted free-agent is better than being a late-round draft choice.
Starting on Monday, May 21st, the two rookies will join veteran players for the Packers and Titans’ off-season, organized team activities (OTAs). Whether or not they make a final NFL roster this fall, Smith and Spillane already have beaten the odds. Consider that more than 1 million boys participate in high school football in the United States, and approximately 25,000 of those young men go on to play big-time, Division 1 football in college. Last year, of the 16,236 draft-eligible, NCAA football players, only 253 were drafted in to the NFL, according to the National Collegiate Athletic Association. (That number doesn’t include the 300 or so undrafted free agents signed by teams each spring.)
Four years ago, the two Friars each were given a 1.6% chance of making it to the NFL. Right now they are counted among the 2,880 players who have made it on their team’s 90-man roster. By September 1st, only 1,696 pro players will stay on for the 2018 NFL season. And why not them? The clock is ticking. Keep grinding, “men of steel.” The Fighting Friars of Fenwick are pulling for you!
Food Fact: To maintain caloric intake, the 257-lb. Smith has been known to eat no less than five Italian beef sandwiches in under 30 minutes at Little Joe’s in Countryside, a restaurant owned by the family of Gino Cavalieri ’14, who is Smitty’s “old” quarterback at Fenwick. (Cavalieri recently graduated from Illinois Wesleyan University in Bloomington, after a four-year baseball career and earning a degree in finance.)