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Undrafted but undeterred, St. Francis product Jake Dolegala heads to Cincinnati Bengals

ELLICOTTVILLE – A parent lives for a day like this.

“You’re absolutely right,” Greg Dolegala said, 11 different NFL hats stacked in the corner.

His wife, Tia, is wearing a white Central Connecticut State jersey, the name Dolegala printed in blue across the back. Her father, Al Bemiller, who won a national title with Syracuse and played on the Bills’ offensive line for nine seasons from 1961-69 and won two AFL championships, is sitting at the bar.

And their middle child, Jake, standing 6-foot-6 and 240 pounds, has his giant hands wrapped around a cell phone, his eyes never straying far from the televisions in Finnerty’s Tap Room. The 22-year-old mingled for hours with a few dozen family and friends, many of whom made the trip from Connecticut to Western New York to celebrate his selection in the NFL draft.

It never happened.

Dolegala, who rebounded from shoulder surgery in his senior year at St. Francis High to set the career passing record at Central Connecticut State, agreed to sign as an undrafted free agent with the Cincinnati Bengals on Saturday night, the culmination of years of effort and one rollercoaster of a day.

“Waiting, waiting, waiting, waiting, waiting and then finally getting the opportunity to play somewhere, and to end up at Cincy is really cool,” Dolegala said. “Today is such a big day for me and my family, to know where I came from, after I had the injury and the one scholarship offer, it’s just amazing. It’s surreal me being here. But now that it’s here, I’m just ready to get started.”

Quarterback Jake Dolegala from St. Francis and Central Conn St joins with family and friends to watch his draft fate at Finnerty's on Saturday, April 27, 2019. (Harry Scull Jr./Buffalo News)

***

Earlier in the afternoon, Dolegala’s name appeared on the NFL Network broadcast, listed among the best quarterback prospects available on the third and final day of the NFL draft, the picks in rounds four through seven coming in increasingly rapid succession.

Five quarterbacks had been selected in the first three rounds, beginning with Heisman Trophy winner Kyler Murray going first overall to the Arizona Cardinals.

Dolegala had been projected by some draft analysts as a possible mid-round pick.

He knew all along that this was his day. But it got off to an inauspicious start.

Dolegala was disappointed when the Bengals drafted North Carolina State quarterback Ryan Finley with the second pick in the fourth round, the 104th overall selection. He had taken a pre-draft visit to Cincinnati, and that seemingly nixed one of the hats, the collection selected by his agent, Matt Glose, a fellow St. Francis High graduate.

Dolegala also visited with the Browns, Bills, Jets and Giants, with the last three considered local visits, which didn’t count against the teams’ 30-visit maximum.

“He might not get drafted, but he’s going to leave here on an NFL team,” Greg Dolegala said.

Signing as a priority free agent has its perks, the opportunity to choose from a handful of options.

But everyone was here to see his name flash across the TV screens.

The Patriots drafted Auburn quarterback Jarrett Stidham with the 31st pick of the fourth round.

Jake Dolegala practiced his putting with friends on a couple of holes in the back of the restaurant.

The Chargers and Eagles drafted quarterbacks with consecutive picks in the fifth round, Los Angeles taking North Dakota State’ Easton Stick and Philadelphia selecting Northwestern's Clayton Thorson.

That eliminated two more hats from the pile.

But it’s a small miracle that stack even existed.

St. Francis quarterback, Jake Dolegala in 2013. Harry Scull Jr. / Buffalo News}

 

***

In 2013, Jake Dolegala started just three games at St. Francis. He finished two. The senior quarterback needed season-ending surgery after tearing the labrum in his throwing shoulder while making a tackle on an interception return, ending his high school playing career.

The teen sank into depression before enrolling at Milford Academy in New Berlin, a postgraduate school that often attracts talented players, such as Bills running back LeSean McCoy, who need to improve their grades. Dolegala simply needed to prove he was healthy and could play.

After the 2014 season, Dolegala had a lone scholarship offer from Central Connecticut State.

He’d go on to set the school record for career passing yards.

Dolegala split playing time as a true freshman, then took over as the Blue Devils’ starting quarterback as a sophomore in 2016. In 44 career games, Dolegala completed 57.6 percent of his passes for 8,129 yards, 48 touchdowns and 29 interceptions. He’s one of just five players in Northeast Conference history to pass for more than 8,000 yards.

Dolegala led CCSU to a conference championship as a junior in 2017, qualifying the Blue Devils for the FCS playoffs for the first time in history. But he was suspended for the playoff game, a 14-0 loss to New Hampshire, after a party at his apartment got out of hand when his intoxicated roommate, who wasn’t on the team, started a fight.

Last season, as a senior, Dolegala completed 61 percent of his passes for 2,221 yards, 16 touchdowns and six interceptions. He graduated in December with a degree in biology and has since been home in Hamburg and working out at Sahlen’s Sports Park in Elma.

Dolegala was not invited to the scouting combine, but impressed NFL scouts at the University at Buffalo’s pro day, running through drills alongside UB quarterback Tyree Jackson, who also went undrafted Saturday.

“Jacob Dolegala impressed so much, some think he worked his way into an early Day 3 pick,” Gil Brandt, the revered former Cowboys talent evaluator, tweeted on March 18. “A labrum shoulder tear in HS threw off recruiters. Now he’s on NFL radars.”

Dolegala paced around the restaurant as the draft entered the sixth round.

“We’re getting there,” he said, to no one in particular.

The Jaguars selected Washington State quarterback Gardner Minshew, the Pac-12 Offensive Player of the Year and 10th quarterback drafted, with the fifth pick of the sixth round. Jacksonville general manager David Caldwell is also a St. Francis grad.

Dolegala stared at Minshew’s highlights on TV, pulling his hands from his pockets and placing them on the bar.

A short while later, Billy Finnerty, the restaurant’s owner and a family friend, raised a glass in Jake’s honor as the crowd cheered.

“We’re so proud of you buddy!” Finnerty bellowed.

Dolegala smiled. The draft chugged along. He had yet to receive a call or text from any organization, except for the Vikings, whose quarterbacks coach spoke with him days earlier.

“I just wish one of these teams would pull the trigger,” Dolegala said.

Eight of his 11 hats remained in play: the Bills, Browns, Broncos, Colts, Texans, Titans, Redskins and Vikings.

If you don't know QB prospect Jake Dolegala, here's why you should

***

Dolegala sat a table with mentors Jim Kubiak, the former St. Francis standout and NFL quarterback, and John Scibetta and Bill Stachowski, his since-retired assistant coaches at St. Francis. Dolegala's right leg shakes with nervous energy.

The Ravens selected Penn State quarterback Trace McSorley with the 25th pick in the sixth round, No. 197 overall.

Talk turned to great quarterbacks who slipped into the late rounds of the draft.

Tom Brady was drafted 199th overall in 2000.

Bart Starr was selected 200th overall in 1956.

“He’s a little disappointed, a little anxious,” Kubiak said about Dolegala. “This is a day he’ll look back on five to six years into his career and say, ‘I remember that.’”

The Browns texted Dolegala, saying they’d be in touch, as the draft entered the seventh round.

The Vikings owned four more picks, offering hope he might be selected among them.

The bar erupted in song as “Sweet Caroline” blasted through speakers, but Dolegala sat stone-faced at the table.

The Browns called.

The Colts called.

The Dolphins called.

Each time his phone rang, Dolegala raced to a quiet area at the back of the restaurant. They all liked him, they said, but apparently not enough to use a draft pick.

It happened again with only a handful of picks remaining. Minnesota owned two of them.

This time, Dolegala hung up, tapped the phone against his chin and remained alone, watching a screen in the back of the restaurant rather than rejoining his friends and family. He leaned against a wall for several minutes, reality setting in.

The Vikings used their final pick, the 250th overall, on Austin Cutting, a long snapper from Air Force. Dolegala raised both arms, incredulous, then leaned with both hands on the chair in front of him. He finally sat down and buried his head in his phone.

Once the draft ended, Jake’s older brother, Jarrett, was the first to approach. Other family members joined, as did Kubiak, Scibetta and Stachowski.

A few teams called over the next hour to offer opportunities, including the Eagles and Colts, Dolegala said.

The group at the table jointly selected the Bengals because quarterbacks coach Alex Van Pelt had been straight with them throughout the process, Kubiak said, and because they believed Cincinnati presented the best opportunity to make the team.

The quarterbacks behind Andy Dalton include Jeff Driskel, Brad Kaaya, and of course fellow rookie Finley, drafted near the top of the fourth round.

“It’s a new coaching staff,” Scibetta said. “They’re bringing in the offense from the Rams, which they talked to Jake about, which he fits well, and he likes his opportunity. They do not have an established No. 2 really. I just think he feels that there’s a good opportunity there.”

The group erupted in cheers once Dolegala called to inform Cincinnati of his decision.

A wide smile burst across his face.

“You’ve got the hat!” his father shouted. “Put it on!”

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