When he was younger, Austin Tennessee would get in shape for the upcoming football season by climbing a ladder that was propped against the back of his home in Columbia, Md.
"It was all about the hard work and dedication," Tennessee said. "It was the hours that I put in behind my house doing endless ladder drills until 2 a.m., when my mom was calling me to come in and I told her that I needed to keep working. Life is short, so you definitely want to work and make sure that you can look back on it and say that I put in the work that I needed to do."
Tennessee's ladder workouts helped build him into a two-time All-Howard County selection at Atholton High School and eventually an All-American at Stevenson University. His dedication and work ethic may lift him to the next level.
Tennessee's football future will become clearer April 27-29, when the NFL holds its annual draft in Philadelphia, Pa. The 6-foot-1, 195-pound defensive back, who sparked Stevenson to a 9-2 record and the program's first conference title and NCAA Division III tournament appearance during his senior season, could become the first player in the Mustangs' six-year football history to receive an NFL opportunity.
"Teams have been contacting me every other week," Tennessee said. "They're texting and calling me. It's been a whirlwind, but I'm excited for it."
The league has certainly shown an interest in Tennessee's talents. All 32 NFL teams have visited Tennessee at Stevenson's Owings Mills, Md., campus, and he also participated in the Baltimore Ravens' Pro Day for local players.
If Tennessee winds up with Baltimore, it won't be the first time he has been a Raven. Tennessee spent his formative years as a member of the Columbia Ravens' youth football program, which produced Baltimore Ravens receiver Michael Campanaro. Houston Texans defensive back Kevin Johnson was one of Tennessee's Columbia Ravens' teammates.
Campanaro and Johnson went on to standout careers at Wake Forest. Campanaro was the Ravens' seventh-round selection in the 2014 draft, while Johnson went to the Texans with the 16th overall pick a year later.
"My dream was to play in the NFL," Tennessee said. "It came true for two of my friends, and once I saw that I knew I could do it myself."
Tennessee started his college career at Concord (W. Va.) University. He transferred to Stevenson prior to the 2013 season and became a four-year starter with the Mustangs. Tennessee first earned national recognition during his freshman season, when his 99-yard fumble return against Albright was chosen as one of ESPN Sports Center's Top 10 Plays Sept. 14, 2013.
During his junior season, Tennessee earned first-team All-Middle Atlantic Conference recognition for the second straight year. He was nominated for the Cliff Harris Award that goes to the top defensive player in Division III after finishing with 41 tackles, a team-high six interceptions and 12 pass breakups from his cornerback position.
Tennessee moved from cornerback to safety for his senior year, when he tied for the team lead with six interceptions (including two returned for touchdowns) and also recorded 57 tackles and eight pass breakups. He was named to the All-Middle Atlantic Conference first team for the third consecutive season and was chosen as the conference's Defensive Player of the Year. Tennessee earned first-team All-America honors from the American Football Coaches Association and D3football.com, which also named him its East Region Defensive Player of the Year. Tennessee was again nominated for the Cliff Harris Award and capped his senior season by winning the ECAC's Division III Defensive Back of the Year award.
Tennessee credited Stevenson head coach Ed Hottle and defensive coordinator Dustin Johnson for his personal and professional growth.
"I grew here, as a man," Tennessee said. "Coach Hottle and Coach Johnson were great mentors who laid a great amount of wisdom on me every day."
The NFL's interest in Tennessee didn't start at the end of Stevenson's 2016 season. On the first day of the Mustangs' 2016 summer training camp, the Washington Redskins became the first team to contact Tennessee.
"We were doing our conditioning tests when they came to speak with me," Tennessee said. "It was an honor to have a team out there on the first day of camp, and I knew it was going to be a good season after that."
The visit from the Redskins was quickly followed by meetings with the New England Patriots and Houston Texans. The Minnesota Vikings and New York Giants were the next teams to show interest in Tennessee.
While his standout Stevenson career put Tennessee on the NFL's radar, it is unusual for a player from the Division III ranks to be selected on draft day. The most recent NFL draftee from a Division III school was former Hobart College offensive guard Ali Marpet, who was taken in the second round of the 2015 draft by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Chris Greenwood, who played at Albion (Mich.) College and was a fifth-round pick by the Detroit Lions during the 2012 draft, was the last Division III defensive back to be selected.
Despite the draft-day odds, former Division III players have made their mark in the NFL. Marpet has started 29 games during his first two seasons with the Buccaneers. Former Mount Union (Oh.) wide receiver Pierre Garcon, who was a sixth-round pick of the Indianapolis Colts in the 2008 draft, played four seasons with the Colts and five years with the Washington Redskins before signing a lucrative free-agent contract with the San Francisco 49ers following the 2016 campaign.
The NFL draft isn't Tennessee's only NFL option. If he goes undrafted, Tennessee could be signed as a free agent.
"There are two different routes," said Tennessee, who will graduate from Stevenson Ma with a degree in business administration May 18. "It's a great opportunity and a blessing for a team to choose you [through the draft], but if you go undrafted you can choose where you're going. Wherever I go, I'm going to make something."