Last Sunday he became the first University of Dayton football player to appear in a regular season NFL game in 45 years and, let’s just say, he made his presence felt.
It was the second half of New Orleans' season opener against visiting Tampa Bay and while on the backside of an outside run, Adam Trautman, the Saints rookie tight end, found himself coming up on the Bucs' 11-year-veteran linebacker, Jason Pierre-Paul, who has a Super Bowl ring, two Pro Bowl appearances and an All-Pro distinction on his resume.
“I ended up putting him on the ground and that felt pretty good,” Trautman recalled the other afternoon by phone. “That definitely stands out for me from my first game, for sure.”
Up in Northern Michigan, Trautman’s parents, Rod and Lori, were watching the game on TV at home,
“When he did that pancake block, I got three or four texts from Dayton parents we’ve gotten to know over the years,” Rod said. “They were saying stuff like, ‘Hey, bring me some syrup!’”
The Saints only took four players in the 2020 NFL draft. Trautman was selected near the end of the third round and last Sunday he was the only one of the quartet activated to play. Two were injured and one had been cut and then brought back for the practice squad.
“When I ran out to the huddle for the first time, I was like, ‘Wow! Here we go!’” Trautman said. “I’ll be honest, I wasn’t as nervous as I thought I’d be. Probably part of it was that there weren’t 75,000 to 80,000 people screaming.”
Because of COVID-19 restrictions, no fans were allowed in the Superdome. But none of that lessened the sense of accomplishment Trautman felt:
“It was awesome.”
Behind two veteran tight ends on the depth chart, he got in for seven plays on offense and also played on a couple of special teams.
After the game, his phone blew up:
“I got a lot of texts, especially from my buddies back at Dayton,” he said. “They were like, ‘Dude! It’s so crazy seeing you on TV!…Seeing you in the huddle with Drew (Brees) ad Michael Thomas and those guys!’”
Trautman’s former UD teammates and coaches will especially be tuned in Monday night when the Saints travel to Las Vegas to open the new $1.85 billion Allegiant Stadium and face the Raiders, who are coached by a better-known Flyer, Jon Gruden.
He was a back-up quarterback at UD in the mid-1980s and he still salutes his college roots and especially his former coach, Mike Kelly, now an assistant athletics director and the enthusiastic color commentator for radio broadcasts of Flyers' games.
Actually, the Monday Night Football game will have five people on the field with Flyers ties. There’ll also be three former UD assistant coaches.
Austin King is now the Raiders' offensive quality control coach and Dave Lippincott is their linebackers coach. Joe Lombardi is the Saints' quarterbacks coach.
Gruden, though. will command the most attention. When he coached Tampa Bay to a Super Bowl victory in 2003, he became – at age 39 – the youngest coach in league history to win the trumpeted title game.
For nine seasons – from 2009 through 2017 – he was a popular analyst for Monday Night Football broadcasts on ESPN and in 2018 he returned to the sidelines, signing a record breaking 10-year, $100 million contract to guide the Raiders, who he’d also coached from 1998-2001.
Before this year’s draft, Gruden got to know Trautman, who set several career receiving marks at UD, won All America honors and was about to get an electrical engineering degree.
“The Raiders had a private meeting with Adam and he got to talk to Coach Gruden for a good while,” Rod said.
Gruden remembers his UD experiences well, whether it was living “up on the hill” at Stuart Hall as a freshman or later at 1532 Brown Street. He regularly ate meatball subs at Milano’s and though he won the Andy Zulli Award as the senior player who especially exemplified character, he still laments – as he told Sports Illustrated in 2002 – “not being able to be anything but a ham and egger” as a back-up quarterback.
He’s proud that he stuck with it, but then he was bonded with UD football long before he put on a Flyers' uniform. As a kid he lived in Kettering for a while when his dad, Jim, was an assistant on John McVay’s staff at UD.
As the story goes, he filled out a questionnaire as a UD player and listed a career goal, saying, by age 39, he wanted to be the head coach at Michigan.
Instead, at 39, he was a Super Bowl champion coach.
Gruden talked about the University of Dayton with me the other afternoon in a Zoom call:
"I’m really proud to be a Dayton Flyer. I was really proud of the basketball team. I wish they could have won the (NCAA) Tournament.
"I had a great experience there and met some of the best people, the best teachers. I got to play for a Hall of Fame coach in Mike Kelly. And I still talk to the Flyers. I was on a Zoom call with Rick Chamberlin and the guys about a month ago.
"I know the coronavirus is still a problem, but I just wish the athletic directors and some of the presidents would let the kids play again.
“But I’m proud to be a Dayton alum and I wish the best for them.”
The entire Pioneer Football League, like several other conferences across the nation, cancelled football this fall because of the COVID pandemic and, in the case of UD, it seems to be a smart decision.
From Aug. 10 to this past Friday, the last day statistics were reported, there have been 1,235 COVID cases at UD. Several football players, including Trautman’s brother Alec, a third-year linebacker forced to give up the sport in the spring due to a persistent injury, ended up testing positive.
Everybody in the non-university owned house he lives in on Irving Avenue – which through the years has picked up the nickname “The Thunder Dome” – had the virus said his dad:
"He and eight of closest friends live there. Everybody there got it, but two guys and they had had it in July back home.
"Alec just felt a pressure in his chest, but a couple of his roommates had a few more symptoms. They’re all better now.
"The school told them not to leave home unless they have to go to the grocery store or get medicine. And not to visit other houses or apartments.
“The COVID cases got pretty heavy there at one point, but they’ve been down a while now. The university has done a great job getting it under control.”
And down in New Orleans, the Saints have done an even better job
“We’ve had only one positive case out of our players,” Trautman said. "And this past Sunday, from all the COVID tests they gave on Saturday to all the teams, there were zero positives in the NFL.
“Guys are taking it serious. They’re being professionals about it. They know what’s at stake. And they know in the NFL you can be replaced at any time – really fast.”
UD’s NFL history
Dayton players know how tough it is to get into the NFL, especially since Flyers football became a non-scholarship program. In fact, Trautman is the only Flyers player drafted since UD stopped being Division I scholarship program in 1978.
The last Flyer drafted was offensive lineman Bill Westbeld, who was taken in the 11th round by Seattle in 1977. He was cut in training camp.
The last Flyers to play in a regular season NFL game were a pair of lineman – Bob DeMarco with the Los Angeles Rams and Mike Wilson with the Kansas City Chiefs – in 1975.
Trautman is the 43rd Dayton Flyer drafted into the NFL, most of them coming in the 1950s and 1960s.
Six players were picked sooner than Trautman, who was the 105th overall selection.
Tackle Emil Karas was the 28th overall pick when the Washington Redskins made him a third rounder in 1960. Defensive end Jim Katcavage was the 45th pick by the New York Giants in 1957 and running back Gary Kosins was pick 77 by the Miami Dolphins.
Running back Art Bok (Baltimore Colts, 1951) and end Fred Dugans (San Francisco, 1957) were 80th overall picks and tackle Erwin Will went to Philadelphia in 1967 as the 91st pick.
The most legendary Flyer in the NFL was Chuck Noll, who played seven seasons with the Cleveland Browns and then became a Hall of Fame coach with the Pittsburgh Steelers, leading them to four Super Bowl titles.
Gruden is another UD pillar in the NFL and, as far as players go, there’s DeMarco, who played 15 seasons in the league, Katcavge, who played 13, and Karas, who was an All Star in 1961, ’62 and ’63 with the San Diego Chargers of the American Football League.
If his past is prologue, Trautman has the chance to be one of the best known Flyers players in the NFL.
He has a history of beating the odds. When he was the junior quarterback of Elk Rapids High in Michigan, he threw for 1,468 yards and took the team to the playoffs even though there were just 18 kids on the team.
The following year – with just 22 players – he threw for 1,896 yards and led the team to the postseason again.
After some 30 Division I scholarship programs ignored his letters to give him a chance, he came to Dayton, switched to tight end and became a star.
The Saints traded up to get him and the way he and his family see it, he could not have landed in a better spot.
The Saints won the Super Bowl in 2009, last year went 13-3 and are led by a proven coach in Sean Payton and a legendary quarterback in Drew Brees.
The team has two veteran tight ends: Jared Cook, who made the Pro Bowl last season, and Josh Hill who came from Idaho State, an FCS school like Dayton.
“With all our super big time players – guys who are studs in the league and are really popular – no one has a big ego. That’s pretty awesome,” Trautman said.
“That’s what I was used to at Dayton, but I thought the NFL was going to be different. But it’s not. Drew is great to everyone. There no big-time BS from him and it’s the same for guys like Michel Thomas and Alvin Kamara. They’re so down to earth. It’s why this team is so good.”
Football in a pandemic
Another thing he didn’t expect was a rookie season skewered by a pandemic.
Last Sunday’s Superdome opener – like Monday night’s game in Vegas – had no fans.
“They pump in crowd noise at practice,” Rod said. “But like one of the veterans told him: ‘Those 75 decibels are nothing. It’s that noisy during our warm-ups.’”
Rod and Lori had planned to have a busy fall, making the 7 ½ hour drive from northern Michigan to Dayton for Alec’s games and then catching Adam’s games on Sundays. Instead they’re encamped at home, watching the Saints on Direct TV.
The whole town of Elk Rapids is following Adam and the longstanding bar there – the Town Club – has his signed Saints' jersey and some photos displayed on the wall inside a custom frame Rod built.
Rod said they are hoping things open up in New Orleans in October and they can attend a Saints game in person.
The team is certainly doing its part Adam said:
"We get tested every day before we enter the building. Our temperatures are checked all the time and people wear masks. There’s Plexiglas between lockers and we wear these tracers in our wristbands that are pretty cool. Everybody in the building wears them.
"If you’re within six feet of somebody for more than 15 minutes, it will show up in the tracing program. That way, if somebody does pop a positive, you can tell who was around them and get them out of the facility so they don’t spread it.
“And guys are being conscious of each other. They’re not doing anything stupid. Not going out to clubs where it’s lingering.”
Trautman said he has yet to sit down for a meal in one of the many great restaurants New Orleans:
“I’ve gotten take away from some of the places, but curbside is not the same.”
There is one consolation though.
So far on Sundays, he’s had no trouble getting a pancake.