By Bruce Wood
It's a pretty good bet that when players from New Orleans powerhouse St. Augustine High School were breaking off long gainers, blowing past dazed defensive backs and running down receivers at the Tulane football camp in the '90s, Tulane head coach Buddy Teevens was watching intently.
Check out the St. Augustine Wikipedia page and you'll see why. The site lists no fewer than 19 former Purple Knights who went on to play in the NFL, including former New England Patriots running back BenJarvus Green-Ellis. Tyrann Matheiu, the "Honey Badger," is another well-known product of St. Aug, which had no fewer than 14 players accept football scholarships a couple of years ago.
One of the Tulane campers from St. Augustine when Teevens was coaching in the Big Easy was a kid named Cortez Hankton. Although he was a good enough student to get recruiting letters from Brown and Columbia as a high school senior, the young receiver wasn't high on Tulane's radar. And Teevens, who was offensive coordinator and receivers coach for the Illini by the time Hankton started hearing from recruiters, never called.
Overlooked by BCS programs, Hankton headed 450 miles to Texas Southern, one of the Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HCBUs) in Houston. There he would go on to be a four-year starter, a two-year captain, the school record-holder for season and career receiving yards, and a third-team, Division I-AA All-America.
But the NFL, like big-time football schools four years earlier, did not come calling for the 6-foot, 200-pound receiver who set a record with a 99-yard touchdown reception in college.
Undrafted out of Texas Southern, Hankton signed with the Jacksonville Jaguars and went on to catch 17 passes as a rookie. A year later he saw himself on SportsCenter after he hauled in a 14-yard fade from Byron Leftwich with 45 seconds left to give the Jags a 22-16 win over the Kansas City Chiefs.
He went on to play four years for the Jags, signed with the Minnesota Vikings in '07, and then spent the '08 season on injured reserve with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
Released in the final round of cuts by the Bucs in '09 - too late in the process to catch on with another NFL team - he instead signed with the New York Sentinels of the United Football League. He was nominated for the UFL Offensive Player of the Year the next season as a member of the Florida Tuskers and celebrated a championship with the team a year later when the Tuskers played as the Virginia Destroyers.
It was while playing his final season of pro ball that Hankton, who spent one season as a volunteer receivers coach at a high school in Orlando, Fla., was surprised to find himself catching the coaching bug while playing for head coach Marty Schottenheimer and coordinator Terry Shea.
"Before the championship game with the Destroyers I talked to Schottenheimer and Shea, who were big-time coaches," he said. "They were always asking me, 'Do you want to get into coaching?' I had just started considering it. Before that I said I would never do it. Coaches put in too much time. They are in the office too much.
"What I started to realize is they find a way to have time for their families. They have an opportunity to do something that they love. So before my last game the decision was made. I started working the next day on my package and my resume to get ready to approach the coaching profession."
For as accomplished as he was on the field, and for as bright and personable as he is face to face, Hankton didn't find doors swinging open for him. And so he did what he could do to help his chances, working as a volunteer assistant for player personnel at the University of Central Florida, evaluating and breaking down film of potential recruits among other responsibilities.
Hankton's big break came courtesy of fellow Texas Southern grad James Jones, the former Dartmouth defensive line coach now at the University of Northern Colorado.
"I was really getting frustrated because I wasn't even getting opportunities to interview for jobs," Hankton recalled. "That was hard for me. I felt if I could just get in front of somebody they would really appreciate my knowledge of the game, the way that I present and can articulate the game to players.
"James knew they were looking for somebody here and that I wanted to get into coaching. When he called and asked me if I'd be interested I said, 'Without question.'"
Dartmouth needed a replacement for Jarrail Jackson, whose departure for Washington State cost the Big Green not just its wide receivers coach but also a huge recruiting presence in Oklahoma and Texas. Although Hankton didn't have any real coaching experience, Teevens was intrigued enough by what he learned to offer him an interview. And Hankton, who always believed he would win the day if he could just get in front of a head coach, proved he was right.
"I got a good read on him from my friends in New Orleans," said Teevens. "I was very impressed when he came up. The thing that I've been excited about is his ability to communicate. I saw that when I met with him.
"He is always prepared. He has a good mind for the game. Obviously, he's a guy who played five or six years in the NFL so he has seen just about everything. I knew he'd be a very good recruiter because of his work ethic. People in New Orleans and Texas know about him and there's going to be an attraction because young men Google coaches."
He certainly gets a vote of confidence from Kirby Schoenthaler, Dartmouth's top receiver a year ago. "He played pro football for six years or so, so he knows the game," Schoenthaler said. "He's incorporated some new stuff with tennis balls and soccer balls to teach us. I've enjoyed playing for him and learning from him."
And Hankton has enjoyed every bit of his college experience, right down to helping clear equipment off the field at the end of practice.
"My parents instilled in me to always show appreciation to people for the things they do for you and I don't think I've stopped thanking Coach Teevens for this opportunity yet," he said. "I'll always be grateful."
So grateful, in fact, that when he got a call about playing again in the UFL just days before Dartmouth camp was to begin he said thanks, but no thanks. He'd rather keep learning the ropes from the veteran coaches around him while working with the Big Green's deep and talented group of receivers.
"I have a good group of guys that are really competing for playing time on Saturdays," he said. "We have 20 receivers and it is hard to pick my top six right now. They bought into the philosophy of being accountable, having a good attitude and having the right approach every single day."
Which pretty much describes the kid from St. Aug who ended up not at Tulane or Illinois or at Florida, but instead found success at an FCS school in Texas.
"Coach T didn't recruit me then," Hankton said. "I have to give him a hard time about that now. But everything happens for a reason."
Teevens might have overlooked Hankton 15 or so years ago, but he's confident that he came away with a treasure when he finally did reel him in, even if he is a rookie coach.
"People say it's taking a risk," the head coach said, "but I've got a gold mine in terms of what he's bringing to us."
A veteran writer and observer of Dartmouth athletics, Bruce Wood launched a web site in 2005, www.biggreenalert.com, specializing in Big Green football news coverage.