The nation felt for Eric Striker. He was undrafted, surrounded by family, fighting back tears.
NFL Draft cameras captured the Oklahoma linebacker at his most vulnerable moment and, on the spot, his emotional speech went viral.
Through 253 selections in the 2016 NFL Draft, Striker never heard his name called. A player who started three years in the Big 12 with 46.5 tackles for loss, 23 sacks and 12 pass break-ups — who fought racism, who was the face of the defense, whose energy is contagious — was not wanted. Ignored. So the Buffalo Bills signed Striker as one of their 14 undrafted free agents, a potential coup for Rex Ryan, who could devise ways to use this 5-foot-11, 227-pound missile.
Striker doesn’t want people to misunderstand his emotions. He says he was caught in a moment of “reflection,” not sadness.
“I just thought at least, you know, my name would get called,” he said.
Everyone in that room knows how Striker will respond to the league-wide snub, too.
“I can’t lie,” Striker said. “As a competitor, as person who loves the game, I’ll definitely keep this in the back of my mind. This is a moment that will never be forgotten. That definitely will push me."
The story of Striker is well-documented. He unleashed a profanity-laced tirade on Snapchat in response to a racist fraternity and then became the face of fighting on-campus racism. On the field, coordinator Mike Stoops utilized him all over the field as a “Magic Man,” a weapon without a true position that’d pinball into backfields from all angles. Yet on to the NFL, scouts couldn’t get past his lack of size.
Part of Striker “expected” a draft-day plunge. He didn’t have any official meetings with teams. He had only met with linebackers coaches — not head coaches, not GM’s, not any higher-ups — at the Senior Bowl and NFL Scouting Combine. Striker concluded that he wasn’t high on anyone’s board.
Day 3 arrived, his house was full and he truly realized how low he was on draft boards.
Some family members played cards, some played outside. And as the sixth round blurred into the seventh round and familiar names popped onto the screen, his family became more… and more…. and more irritated.
Striker tried to calm them down. He cautioned not to get caught up in the draft.
Still, when he saw their tears, his tears flowed. His own mind raced back to Armwood (Fla.) High School, back to when he only saw the field as a sophomore when the linebacker ahead of him suffered an injury. That game, Striker said he had 12 tackles and three sacks. On to Oklahoma, the coaches didn't know his "identity" at first, he said.
“They gave me a shot and put me in a position," Striker said. "And in two-a-day’s in practice, I was everywhere. I made all kinds of plays and never looked back. Once I started, I remained humble. I remained hungry. ... I don’t need something to push me to want to be my best. It’s naturally in me. It’s second nature — my hunger. It remains the same.
“You have to continue to work hard and get better. If you’re not getting better, you’re getting worse. There’s no remaining the same — none at all. That’s the philosophy I live by and the kind of person I am.”
So of course there was an element of shock. He figured the grind would pay off, whether he's 257 or 227 pounds.
When he woke up on Sunday morning, Striker thought aloud “Man, did yesterday really happen?” With his drive, his leadership, his production, he couldn’t fathom that NFL teams deemed 253 players were better. He “created” countless sacks for others in addition to his impressive numbers. At one point over the phone this week, he let out a deep sigh and said, “Maybe it’s something I’m missing. I have no idea. I can’t think it’d only be size that’d hold me back.
“I’ve never missed a practice at Oklahoma. There’s never been a day that my presence has not been felt. I earned my spot, earned my position. That’s why it made it seem like ‘Damn. My work that I put in was not being rewarded.’ But then it was sunshine on a rainy day. I didn’t get drafted but I got a call from the Bills.”
True, this might be the perfect landing spot.
The Bills now feature two bulky throwbacks in Reggie Ragland and Preston Brown. Possibly, Striker is the hybrid complement that floats throughout the scheme — the team told him he'd even have a chance to start.
His game? Striker concedes he’s “not a prototypical player.” But to him, his size is advantageous.
“Blitzing is one of the best things that I do,” Striker said. “I love to blitz. It’s in my blood, man. I can play in space. I have great instincts. I pick up on plays, pick up on offensive tendencies. I play with a relentless attitude and you’ll find me on the other side of the field. You may find me everywhere on the field. So that’s what I bring.
“The city of Buffalo is getting a guy with a great attitude. You’re getting a person who puts a lot into the game.”
Don’t expect any bold predictions. Five years from now, Striker has no idea where he’ll be.
Maybe that’s the No. 1 lesson from last weekend: expect nothing, keep sweating.
“Hopefully," Striker said, "my hard work will pay off in five years.”