One of the greatest moments of Ricky Proehl’s life is captured in an incredible photograph.
Proehl's 3-year-old son, Austin, is perched atop his shoulders as he celebrates a Super Bowl victory with the St. Louis Rams on Jan. 30, 2000. Wearing a No. 87 Rams jersey that’s far too big for him and with his name on the back and with his hat turned backward, Austin is smiling brightly while Ricky points to the stands.
Ricky said that image has been on his mind a lot lately. When your son gets the chance to follow in your footsteps, it’s hard not to reflect.
"Austin's spent his whole life in an NFL locker room -- since he was able to walk,” Ricky said Saturday in a phone interview with The Buffalo News. “He knew Marshall Faulk and Isaac Bruce and Torry Holt. He would come in on Saturday mornings and help the equipment guys clean the helmets, getting the lockers cleaned up, getting ready for game day.
“He did that up until he was in high school in Charlotte with the Carolina Panthers. He was a water boy or he would help with equipment, so he's just always been around the game. He always watched and admired those guys, seeing how hard they worked.”
Austin now has his own NFL locker. The Buffalo Bills drafted the North Carolina wide receiver in the seventh round last month. He signed his contract Thursday, put on the No. 87 again after wearing No. 7 in college and took part in rookie minicamp Friday and Saturday.
“I know it was a surreal feeling for him. I went through it,” Ricky said. “That feeling of putting on an NFL helmet in practice Friday for the first time, I know how special that was for him.”
Getting a shot
Proehl was the penultimate pick in the draft, No. 255 overall. As the draft’s conclusion neared, the family was busy fielding calls from teams interested in signing him as a priority free agent.
“He was on the phone with the head coach of Philadelphia at one point,” Ricky said. “Atlanta had called. Several other teams reached out. … I think because of the year he had and getting injured, they knew he could play and was a great route runner. In their mind, it was ‘we can steal this kid as a free agent.’ ”
The Bills, though, prevented that from happening.
“For him, it's been a lifelong dream to play in the NFL and to get drafted,” Ricky said. “He told me the day before the draft when we were talking about the possibilities of being a free agent. He said, 'Dad, to be honest with you if that happened that would be great, but I want to get drafted.’ I don't care if I'm the last pick. I don't care if I'm Mr. Irrelevant. I just want to be drafted.'
"So when he did get the call and it was Buffalo, the emotions that he had, me seeing him hug his mom, man, it was awesome. I can't put it into words how it made me feel. I'm just happy for him. He worked his tail off to get to this point. He's ready for this moment. He's been waiting for this moment his entire life and I'm excited for him.”
A 5-foot-10, 175-pounder, Proehl didn’t look out of place in his first professional practice, gaining separation during one-on-one drills and showing good hands.
“It’s a dream come true,” Austin said. “It was an awesome day. It was pretty surreal running out there for the first time, just representing this great organization. I'm so happy to be here, be a part of it, and looking forward to just continuing to work hard.”
Lessons from Dad
Ricky played 17 years in the NFL after being a third-round draft pick of the Phoenix Cardinals in 1990. He also spent time with Seattle, Chicago, St. Louis, Carolina and Indianapolis. His best season was seven touchdowns in 1993 with Phoenix and 1997 with Chicago, but he has two Super Bowl rings.
"He taught me how to be a self-motivator, how to be driven in every aspect of my game, and continue to work on the little things and let the big things take care of themselves," Austin said. "He always told me that people were going to doubt me. That's just part of it. That's part of life. It's part of the game. I just have to continue to stay focused on what I do, be dependable and make people believe in me. That's what I've done throughout my career at Carolina, in high school, and hopefully I’ll come to Buffalo and do the same.”
Ricky transitioned to coaching after his playing days were over. He spent six years on the Panthers’ coaching staff, from 2011 to 2016, the last four as wide receivers coach. His time in Carolina overlapped with Bills General Manager Brandon Beane, who was in the Panthers’ front office, and coach Sean McDermott, who was the defensive coordinator from 2011 to 2016. After the draft, Beane said he has known Austin since he was an 8-year-old.
"Austin just comes from a great, well-rounded family that has a great balance of life and faith and support,” McDermott said before minicamp. “You see that in Austin. He's a well-rounded young man and has had success in his career in part because of the family that he comes from.”
Ricky left the Carolina coaching staff so that he could spend 2017 going to the Tar Heels’ games. He knew that his son had NFL potential, and he wanted to help him make it to the next level. That included a pre-draft training program he put Austin through in Irvine, Calif. Ricky was on the sideline during North Carolina's Pro Day in early April, and at times lined up like a defensive back to help with drills for the 20 scouts who attended.
"It was a privilege that he wanted me to train him," Ricky said. “We do have a great relationship, a strong relationship, as a coach and player, and as a father and son. We do draw that line, though, because when we get between the lines, I'm a coach. And we've had some battles and arguments because I think I am extra hard on him.
"Building that standard, that expectation that if you want to be great, this is what you've got to do. He didn't always understand that.”
The light bulb goes on
It wasn’t until Austin’s junior year at Providence High School in Charlotte, N.C., that Ricky says that changed.
“Then it became easier for me to be that coach,” he said. “There were times when I've jumped his (expletive), like any guy I've coached, because it was, ‘Hey, I'm here to help you.’ I'm not telling you you did something wrong and I'm not jumping your (expletive) because I want to yell at you. It's because I want you to get better and this is what you've got to do to get better.”
Ricky knew that his son would need to pay close attention to the finer points of playing wide receiver if he wanted to become a great player.
“I've been around this game long enough; it's a strength of mine,” he said. “I can pick up things when they're rounding their routes, or they're not sticking their foot in the ground, or they're not coming off the ball like they should be. Those are things I don't take lightly. If they're going to be great, these are the things that you need to do. To be able to pass those things on to him and then to have a relationship with him on the field and off the field as a father, it wasn't always the calmest of times, but it's been a great experience, and I'm blessed to be able to work with him over the years, and particularly this year getting him ready for this moment.”
Ricky only officially served as Austin’s Pop Warner coach for half of the 2006 season, before the Colts called to lure him out of retirement. That, of course, doesn’t come close to accounting for all the time spent working out at home, or reviewing film.
"He coaches me like he coached guys in Carolina for six years, or like he coached himself and was hard on himself for 17 years,” Austin said. “I appreciate that. It shows how good he thinks I can be. As soon as we step out of these white lines, he's my dad and he loves me. It's been great for me to be able to distinguish that.”
As a high school junior, Austin earned all-conference honors after posting 504 yards receiving, 189 yards rushing and 15 touchdowns. He kept it up as a senior in 2013, making 89 catches for 1,190 yards and eight touchdowns.
"I think it's always been a goal, but when it really became something that I knew I could achieve was probably toward the end of my high school career,” Austin said about making it to the NFL. “I started getting stronger and coming into my body a little bit more. Then when I went to college, I could tell I could do stuff that maybe people thought I couldn't do. I started getting excited. It made me work harder. It drove me. People continued to doubt me because of my size and my stature, and I never let that faze me. So I just continued to push and work hard.”
Proehl played in 12 games as a true freshman at North Carolina. He became a starter by his junior season, finishing third on the team with 43 catches for 597 yards and three touchdowns. He was poised for a big senior season, but a broken collarbone suffered in September against Duke made it look like his college career was going to be cut short.
Proehl, however, went through an exhaustive rehab process and was able to make it back on the field for the Tar Heels’ last two games and had three catches for 52 yards in a 65-10 win against Western Carolina on Senior Day. Even when he could not play, Proehl was around the program and helped the younger wide receivers. He finished his senior season with 21 catches for 337 yards and one touchdown.
"He had been wanting to play for a while and each time they were checking him out they weren’t able to release him," North Carolina coach Larry Fedora said after the Western Carolina game. "He wanted to play and get back out there with his teammates. I was happy for him and happy to see him get that opportunity.”
At the NFL’s regional combine in Tampa, Proehl solidified himself as a legitimate prospect by running a 4.4-second 40-yard dash, a time that would have tied for third among wide receivers at the Scouting Combine.
"I've been thinking about getting that phone call for a really long time,” he said. “To get it from this organization was a blessing. I really feel like I'm in the right spot. I'm happy, and I'm so excited to get started.”
Ricky would have been happy with his son joining any team, but admits it’s much sweeter that it’s the Bills who called.
"I knew Sean would be a head coach,” Ricky Proehl said. “He gets it. He understands players, he understands how to put people in position to be successful. Guys respect him. They love playing for him. He and Brandon are creating a culture that's conducive to winning, so when your son has a chance to play for that kind of coach and that kind of management, it's exciting.”
Just because the team’s GM and head coach know him, though, doesn’t guaranteed Austin anything. The Bills are hoping for competition at the slot position and Proehl provides another potential option.
"I have to believe in myself and believe in my talent,” he said. “There's so many great players in this league. I mean it's the best of the best. Half of it is believing in yourself and knowing that you're here for a reason. You have to stay humble each and every day and come out to work. You can never get complacent. That's what my mindset is each and every day. I've got to prove myself to these coaches, to the GM, and to the players around me.
"I've got a big chip on my shoulder. … Each and every day, I come out here with a lot to prove, but mostly to my teammates. I don't let the outside world dictate who I am. I come out here, stay focused, and do what I can to help my team win.”