Path less traveled

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Jacksonville Jaguars wide receiver Cortez Hankton doesn't need to look far for motivation. He rubs shoulders each day with another receiver who had to make believers of critics that said a player from a small school can't make a living in the NFL.

Hankton, a third-year player from Texas Southern, has a locker in Alltel Stadium next to former Jackson State receiver and current Jaguars receiver Jimmy Smith. Smith has played 13 seasons in the NFL and ranks seventh all-time in NFL career receptions. Hankton has played three seasons for the Jaguars.

It's difficult to change the stigma that surrounds small school players, but there are numerous players on each NFL roster that did not play at Florida, Florida State or other collegiate powers. The Jaguars' roster features players from Florida A&M, Cal Poly-SLO, Bethune Cookman, Fort Valley State, Arkansas Pine-Bluff and Saginaw Valley State, just to name a few.

Texas Southern struggled during Hankton's senior season, but he displayed his skills with 13 touchdowns and 64 receptions. It wasn't enough to receive an invitation to the annual NFL combine in Indianapolis or the Senior Bowl in Mobile, Ala.

Hankton's future was going to come down to game film and his pro day on campus. It was his one opportunity to impress NFL teams. He had three months from the end of the season to get ready.

"The biggest negative scouts look at is the level of competition you played against," Hankton said. "Would he have played that well if he was at another school? I didn't get the opportunity, so no one would ever know."

Hankton performed well at his pro day in front of several NFL scouts and coaches. He was joined by two other players from Texas Southern that had NFL potential, including Oliver Celestin who played last season for the Seattle Seahawks.

"At the time, that was the most important day of my life," Hankton said. "The scouts realized I had potential. If you come out and you're not feeling well and have a bad pro day, it can really hurt you especially if you come from a small school. If you are coming from a big college, you might only drop a few spots.

"The scouts think your level of competition is not up to par so that's already one notch against you. It was funny to me because you work out with guys from some of the larger schools and you realize there's not much difference."

With a strong group of receivers coming out in 2003, Hankton didn't even bother to watch the first day of the draft. He spent the second day at his mother's home in New Orleans, evaluating each team that selected a receiver and holding out hope of being drafted.

He started to receive calls from interested teams in the middle of the fourth round. The calls brought the possibility of getting drafted closer, but the seventh round began without his name being called.

"It was disheartening," Hankton said. "I saw guys get drafted that I felt I was better than. That sadness immediately turned into fuel to motivate me to prove everyone wrong."

As the last players were being selected in the seventh round, the atmosphere at the house turned into a frenzy as teams called wanting Hankton to sign as a free agent. A dozen attempted to sign him immediately. Hankton started to cross teams off his list that were loaded at the receiver position.

One NFL coach called and told him they wanted him to compete for a spot on the practice squad.

"I was thinking you can't be serious," Hankton said. "You really believe I'm only practice squad material. That team just did not feel like I was good enough."

It came down to the Jaguars and another team competing for Hankton's services. The Jaguars offered a better situation and financial deal so Hankton made his decision. He was going to be a Jaguar.

"It was a great situation to come into with Jack Del Rio beginning his first season," Hankton said. "They didn't draft any receivers so it made it a lot easier for me to transition into that rookie receiver role."

Hankton remembers attending his first NFL minicamp following the draft. He was nervous prior to taking the field for the first time.

"My heart was racing a thousand miles an hour," Hankton said. "My expectations of everyone else were so much higher. I thought the guys that went to these big schools were awesome. When I started playing with them and against them, I realized I'm just as good as everyone else."

Hankton recently spent time looking over the entire 2003 draft class and saw a good number of players who are no longer in the league.

"Everything happens for a reason," Hankton said. "I'm a strong believer.

While Hankton no longer has to worry about the draft, it won't stop him from watching next weekend.

"I still get butterflies watching it," Hankton said. "My advice to the guys that come from small schools is to stay sane. At this point there is not much you can do. All it takes is one team to really want you."

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