Getting to the National Football League from a division two program is not impossible.
Out of 1696 players in the league, 120 come from D2 schools, according to Hero Sports.
Some make a big impact, many don’t, but to even be on a practice squad will make the athlete a league minimum $7,200 per week.
This equates to around $150,000 for the regular season alone – quite the entry-level pay wage for a 23-year-old.
Meet Andrew Spencer, a 23-year-old student/athlete at Winona State University who majors in recreational tourism – a degree that earns an average of $40,000 a year.
If he had to pick between careers, Spencer said he is interested in the former.
This past season, Spencer was a first-team All-American on numerous publications, earned NSIC Conference Defensive Player of the Year honors and captained a 10-2 Winona State team that forced the second most turnovers in all of NCAA football – D1 included.
Because of these accomplishments, Spencer’s recreational tourism degree may have to wait because he has signed an agent and is training for the NFL combine at the end of February.
“That’s the only occupation I want to do,” Spencer said.
If all goes well, he may join his cousin, Clay Harbor, who plays for the New Orleans Saints and has enjoyed a 10-year career in the league.
Spencer said his driving force throughout this journey is to reimburse those who have invested in him; a shortlist that starts with his mother.
Spencer was born to a single mother with many siblings and not much money to go around.
His father has been incarcerated his whole life.
That is not something he gives much energy to – he said he would rather focus on what his Mom has provided.
“We kind of struggled a lot. We had to grind for money,” Spencer said. “I just think this is how life came out for us. We had it harder than other people, but I feel like this is just hard work paying off.”
Spencer described taking care of his mother with his first check not as something he wants to do, but something he is going to do.
“I just have to do it,” Spencer said. “My mom gave me a good life… she’s just a blue-collar woman who worked hard. She got put in a s*** position, I’m gonna pay her back,” Spencer said laughing.
Loyalty is important to Spencer.
He said it took a community to get him to where he is today and is committed to giving a return on others’ investments in him.
“I got a lot of help and support from my friend’s families so I pay a lot of respect to them for actually getting me to this spot,” Spencer said.
Among those friends is a man who has seen Spencer’s development from the beginning, high school and college teammate, Justin Bergeron.
“He just always had that mentality whether it was pickup basketball in the driveway, football, golf, video games, it was like he was going to win,” Bergeron said. “That’s something that’s always been in him and that’s cool to see.”
It’s never been a question for Bergeron that Spencer is made for sports, but what has increased dramatically over the years is the maturation of Andrew Spencer.
“Along with his maturity changing, the seriousness of his engagement with understanding the purpose of working out and the importance of doing the little things right,” Bergeron said.
Spencer earned second-team All NSIC honors his junior year and Bergeron said this lit a fire under him.
“That’s something that just hit him like, ‘I’m way better than that, something needs to change’,” Bergeron said.
Winona State head football coach Tom Sawyer said he recalls recruiting an immature high school kid with infinite potential.
“I think he’s one of the biggest success stories that we’ve had,” Sawyer said. “I don’t think very many people gave him a chance to get a college degree and play at this level because he didn’t understand the importance of a college degree at that point.”
Sawyer said Spencer came to Winona State as a kid with tons of energy, but developing into a man with direction has been a process.
“We saw the transformation take place. We saw him start to grow as a student and as an athlete,” Sawyer said. “He all of a sudden realized people were looking at him for answers instead of just playing. That’s when he started to become a complete athlete.”
Sawyer explained once Spencer started to focus on the technique of the game, the whole thing opened up for him.
“One is the academic piece – he understood that education is important, then he started understanding technique and doing things right is important, now the culmination of that is one of our most decorated student-athletes we’ve ever had here.”
Heading into the combine in the next few weeks, Winona State defensive backs coach Brian Curtin explained the importance of testing well and stressed the importance of Spencer believing in himself.
“He needs to understand that he can play at that level and have that confidence to go out there and not get caught up in ‘this guy played here that guy played there.’ Just get out there and play ball,” Curtin said.
Spencer said he is confident in his abilities. He admitted to being concerned about his 40-yard dash.
NFL scouts don’t really give D2 guys the benefit of the doubt, so it’s imperative Spencer uses these upcoming weeks wisely.
“We were just there to help him with the football part, now he has people to help him with the combine,” Curtin said. “It’s like in school when they teach for the test, that’s what he’ll be doing for the next couple months is preparing for that test.”