You’ve probably never heard of Dee Brizzolara, a senior wide receiver and return man at the University of Chicago, and if you saw him around campus you would be forgiven for not recognizing him as one of the most talented college football players in Chicago.
But Brizzolara, a shade under six feet, and weighing about 187 pounds, is one of those young men holding tight to a slender shot at playing in the NFL, which makes his every game and every touch of the ball more exciting this fall.
As a freshman, Brizzolara led all Division III players in all-purpose yards (220.2 per game). He’s a two-time University Athletic Association Offensive Player of the Year and holds or shares 13 school records, including:
Most Career Receiving Yards (3,243)
Most Receiving Touchdowns (38)
Total Touchdowns (44)
All-Purpose Yards (5,785)
Last season, he caught 11 touchdowns and had two punt returns for TDs. Already this season he has five receiving TDs, one rushing TD, and he’s averaging 73.7 receiving yards a game and 23 yards per kick return. U of C, 4-3, plays its next game at home Saturday against Case Western Reserve.
These are Division III numbers, true—but in the later rounds of the draft, the mantra is to take the best athlete available. Brizzolara, a native of Aurora, Ohio, competes year-round: football in the fall, indoor track in the winter, and outdoor track in the spring. He runs the 100-, 200-, and 400-meter and has done so with a good amount of success: he’s got three UAA titles to his name. That’s not enough to guarantee he’s the second coming of Wes Welker (5’9″, 185 lbs… and lots of trips to the Pro Bowl), but in those later rounds of the NFL draft, you never know.
Brizzolara himself, who will graduate in the spring with a degree in political science, has said that his goal is to play professionally, whether in the NFL, CFL, or somewhere overseas. He thinks he has what it takes—and certainly there are those who agree. His coach, Dick Maloney, now in his 19th season as head coach of the Maroons, points to two things that make him a special player: his hands and his ability to change directions with speed as a return man.
“The thing that makes Dee unique is his return ability,” Maloney said. “You watch when he sets blocks up, he throttles down, and bounces, and throttles down. He has those great instincts. And he’s made some sensational catches. He’s got tremendous hands—and a lot of speed guys don’t have tremendous hands because they rely on the speed. Dee’s been able to be a top-end player speed-wise, have that change-in-direction ability, hip flexibility, the ability to see things, and part of it is setting up a block.”
Maloney—in the game for the last four decades, including a three-year stint in the Canadian Football League—has had a few prospects in years past but none have made it to a pro camp. And he didn’t think of Brizzolara as a pro prospect until the winter of his junior year, when he started to display a work ethic Maloney thought could help him get to the next level. (The 15 pounds he’s gained since last season, for instance, came by working out daily, back at his high school in Aurora, Ohio, here in Chicago, and with teammates at the sand dunes in Indiana, where he ran barefoot (and puked a few times from the effort). It was the first summer Brizzolara didn’t take an internship, after summers past in which he interned for UBS in private wealth management, then for a biology professor who was researching massage techniques.)
Last spring Maloney sent a few emails to some professional scouts, forwarding Brizzolara’s stats and a few DVDs. “As I tell the kids, they’re not going to leave any stone unturned,” Maloney says. “If somebody has a legitimate recommendation they’re going to follow through. We’ll see what happens.” Soon after, the Tennessee Titans and Minnesota Vikings contacted Maloney. They wanted to schedule a day to come out to measure and interview Brizzolara.
This sort of thing is not done as a favor. NFL teams have scouting departments that go 20 deep and travel year-round to workouts. They’re looking for the rare find; the Vikings, for example, signed a former Florida International University basketball player to a three-year contract to play defensive back. But there is no time to waste.
Maloney emailed Brizzolara, telling him that some scouts were interested in seeing him. Brizzolara gave his availability and a meeting was arranged.
“It was unreal,” Brizzolara recalls. “I got the email in the afternoon after I got back from working out and I was just ecstatic. I can’t even put into words how happy I was. I went and called my parents then told my roommate. Then I just sat in my room by myself for a while thinking about it.”
Brizzolara wanted to keep it on the hush. He told a few people but didn’t want word to spread. Nothing had happened yet. It could go terribly, he thought, or they might not even show up. Worse, he thought, he could get injured. There were no guarantees of anything. A few teams were just interested, Brizzolara reminded himself.
According to Brizzolara, the meeting went well—and quickly. There was a rudimentary interview. “They pretty much asked me if I had any questions,” he says. “It was more of me asking them about the process, what would happen, what they’re interested in.” He ran the 40, had his measurements taken—palm size, wingspan—and took the Wonderlic test, a common gauge of basic aptitudes.
“I think I did very well,” Brizzolara said. “It was ridiculously easy.”
Easy to say for a kid who got a 32 on his ACT.
Back in March, the University of Chicago put out a press release that got zero attention from local media outlets but raised my antenna with the headline: “Dee Brizzolara Meets With NFL Scouts.”
For their part, the scouts don’t have much to say. Getting an NFL scout to talk about a potential prospect, Maloney warned me, is like trying to crack a CIA agent. A phone call to National Football Scouting, one of the league’s scouting services who sent a scout to see Brizzolara, got me nowhere. The person who answered the phone told me the company’s president, Jeff Foster, would be the person to talk to but that there was zero chance anyone would say anything about a prospect.
And Brizzolara’s name isn’t on any prospect watch list, although that’s really no surprise given where he plays. The best objective opinion I could get was from an opposing coach. Concordia University Chicago head coach Lonnie Plies, whose Cougars have faced Brizzolara in each of the last three years, said three things come to mind about Brizzolara: his hands, blocking ability, and fearlessness as a return man.
“To play at the NFL, as we’ve been told with some of our guys who have been looked at, you really have to be such a great physical specimen and because there are so many great wide receivers looking to play that’s where it might be tough (for Brizzolara),” Plies said. “But with his football IQ, which is obvious, and his toughness and athletic ability, playing at the next level is a possibility. I think so much of that depends on if the right opportunity presents itself. If you get in the right place at the right time.”
Maloney and Brizzolara know this well. Brizzolara, for one, sees himself playing in the slot and on special teams in the NFL.
“The more detailed you get in football the more you know the specifics,” he said. “I feel like I can play just as well if not better than some of the guys out there. Obviously I have physical limitations—I’m not like Calvin Johnson [aka Megatron, of the Detroit Lions]. But I weigh almost as much as Wes Welker. There are other small receivers—Hakeem Nicks, he was drafted in the first round, he’s an inch taller than me and has five pounds on me but I have a faster 40 than him. I’m not too worried about the physical aspect of it. I think I can compete at that level.”
Brizzolara said he’ll continue doing his homework. But he swears he won’t get ahead of himself. He knows there’s a small chance of reaching the NFL: he could make a minicamp and get cut or get no further than a practice squad. But Brizzolara approaches professional football as a realistic goal. Not every Division I player can say he’s a pro prospect and even fewer can say so at the D-III level.
“I’m going to keep playing football as long as I can,” he says. “Obviously the NFL is the first choice. I haven’t looked at anything in Europe but I think going there would be awesome and a fun experience, or the Canadian Football League—that’s always a good option. If the NFL doesn’t work out we’re just going to go down the list. After football is done I’ve thought about grad school or law school to become an agent, I’ve thought about business school—but yeah, no plans as far as that goes.”
Worst-case scenario: Brizzolara will graduate this spring with a political science degree from the University of Chicago, the fourth-ranked college in Forbes’ America’s Top Colleges. Not a bad fall-back plan.