Eric Kush was undersized and under-recruited as a high school player at Chartiers Valley, but he was never under the impression he could not make it to the NFL.
After five years at Division II California University of Pennsylvania, Kush is on his way to realizing his dream of playing in the NFL after the Kansas City Chiefs drafted him in the sixth round of last weekend's NFL draft.
Kush, a 6-foot-4, 305-pound center, was the only player from a WPIAL school selected in this year's draft and he's come a long way in a short amount of time.
As a 245-pound senior for the Colts in the 2007 season, Kush was first-team All-Big Seven Conference, but the major recruiters never gave him much of a second look. The way college football has evolved, prospective Division I offensive lineman not only have to exhibit blocking skills on the field, they also must exhibit flocking skills to the dinner table.
The major Division I schools in Bowl Championship Series conferences recruit size as much as skill. So even though Kush was second-team all-state in 2007, he did not receive one scholarship offer from a Division I school.
California coach John Luckhardt did offer Kush a scholarship and under his tutelage Kush developed into one of the premier lineman prospects in the country. Kush became the highest draft pick ever in the history of California, going with the second pick of the sixth round. And don't think for one minute that it went unnoticed by Kush that Pitt and Penn State did not have an offensive lineman drafted.
"I was always upset that Pitt and Penn State didn't come after me at all," said Kush, who resides in Bridgeville. "Growing up in Western Pennsylvania, all you hear about is Pitt and Penn State. You don't get a lot of attention at all at Cal. I always had that chip on my shoulder that the bigger schools passed on me."
In the end, it also turned out to be what was best for Kush. Former Chartiers Valley coach Chris Saluga described Kush as a "late bloomer." Kush started both ways as a junior for the Colts, but Salgua said he did not develop into a dominant player until his senior season. Division I coaches mostly recruit players based on their performance as juniors.
Luckhardt saw potential in Kush, but at first he believed that potential would be realized as a defensive lineman. He recruited Kush to play defensive end, but some injuries on the Cal offensive line prompted him to ask Kush to switch to offensive line on the first day of camp his freshman year in 2008.
"I told him I would do whatever was best for the team," Kush said.
Kush redshirted his first year and slowly began adding weight to his 6-4 frame. He became the starting left tackle as a sophomore and moved to center for his final two seasons. By last fall, he tipped the scales at more than 300 pounds.
"He came back the one time and we all couldn't believe how big he got," Saluga said. "He was huge."
NFL scouts began to take notice of Kush as well. He was one of five Division II players invited to the East-West Shrine Game in January. He was named a D2Football.com second-team All-American and first-team All-PSAC West last season.
"I just kept developing and battling my butt off," Kush said.
It's more difficult to get noticed at a Division II school, but Cal is one school that often hosts NFL scouts because of the way Luckhardt developed the program during his decade as the head coach.
Last season, Tommie Campbell, who began his college career at Pitt, was drafted by Tennessee in the seventh round and made the Titans roster after a strong training camp.
Cal had two NFL prospects last fall. In addition to Kush, Rontez Miles, who played at Woodland Hills High School, was on a lot of draft boards. He signed as a free agent with the New York Jets.
"Cal gets a lot of attention from NFL teams," Kush said. "That helped me a lot."
Kush was not invited to the NFL combine, but he did take official visits to Kansas City, Tennessee and Oakland. He also held private workouts at Cal for Atlanta and New England.
In the days leading up to the draft Kush heard he might hear his name called, but he was prepared to become a free agent, too.
"You hear a lot of things, how you're on a lot of draft boards, but you never know how it will shake out," Kush said. "Anything can happen. You never know if a team is going to pull the trigger."
Kansas City did and now Kush will set out to make the 53-man roster. He will join the Chiefs for their offseason program next week.
Ray Fittipaldo: firstname.lastname@example.org and Twitter @rayfitt1.