From SRU to NFL: Brandon Fusco reflects on football career
On April 30, 2011, rounds four, five, six, and seven of the NFL Draft were taking place at Radio City Music Hall in New York City. At the same time, 366 miles away, the Ginger Hill Tavern in Slippery Rock, Pa., was packed wall-to-wall.. Along with his friends and family, Brandon Fusco stared at the television,watching the NFL Draft show and anxiously awaiting a phone call.
He didn’t have to wait long, because in the sixth round, with the 172nd overall pick in the 2011 NFL Draft, the Minnesota Vikings chose the 6-foot 4-inch, 306-pound Slippery Rock University graduate to join their squad.
“I dreamed about that phone call as a kid and I worked for it all my life,” Fusco said about receiving the call from the Vikings. “SRU is only 30 minutes from my hometown, so having a lot of my friends and family show up for my draft party meant a lot.”
As a resident of Cranberry Township, Fusco grew up as a Pittsburgh Steelers fan and loved the sport of football. During his senior year at Seneca Valley High School, Fusco was torn between continuing his football career at Youngstown State or Slippery Rock University. His choice to attend Slippery Rock is now a piece of history in his blooming career.
During his years at SRU, Fusco received All-American first-team honors two years in a row, as well as the Gene Upshaw award. In addition, Fusco became the first Slippery Rock football player to be invited to participate in the Under-Armour Senior Bowl held in Mobile, Ala.
“I received the Gene Upshaw award after my senior year for being voted the best lineman in Division II football,” Fusco said when asked about the award’s credentials. “My greatest moment playing football at SRU would have to be my senior year MVP award. Recognition from my coaches and teammates was really something special to me.”
Other notable talents that participated in the 2011 senior bowl include Colin Kaepernick, Von Miller, Christian Ponder and Dane Sanzenbacher.
“Watching some of those guys on TV and then actually playing with them was a huge honor,” Fusco said in regards to the senior bowl. “I learned a lot about the speed and strength I would be facing in the future.”
Head coach George Mihalik has been coaching football at Slippery Rock University for 25 (as well as involved with the team for nearly 40) years and has seen several of his players go onto play in the NFL, but none drafted as high as Brandon Fusco.
“I recruited him myself,” Mihalik said. “I remember visiting at his home trying to encourage him to attend and play at SRU. Clearly that worked out.”
With the Minnesota Vikings being an out-of-market team for the greater
Pittsburgh area, it is sometimes difficult to see every play that Fusco is involved in. That is, unless you are George Mihalik.
“I always try to DVR all the Vikings games and watch them later,” Mihalik said when asked about his effort to watch his former player in the NFL. “I look forward to the day when I will actually be in the stadium to watch him play live as a starter in the NFL.”
“We spent the day together recently at my house and watched this playoff game that he played against the Green Bay Packers,” Mihalik added. “It was great getting to hear his personal critiques as well as his ‘behind the scenes’ insight.”
Known for being a fierce player on the field, there is another side to Fusco that Coach Mihalik saw day-to-day.
“Off the field he is courteous, quiet, and polite,” Mihalik said about Fusco’s demeanor. “But when he puts that helmet on, he becomes a physical player.
Entering the NFL from a Division II school is not only a challenge, but also a rarity in our day and age. There is a different level of strength and speed in Division I programs, with some players in college already being near NFL caliber.
“It’s a pretty amazing story coming from a Division II school. Nobody realizes the talent in Division II because it isn’t broadcasted nationally,” Fusco said. “Representing the Rock is a great honor.”
“I have had players tell me ‘Oh, you come from a team that played high-school teams in college’ like Division II is a big joke,” Fusco mentioned about his experiences. “I am here to play for those small school guys and to show we aren’t a joke.”
Fusco started at guard for all 16 regular season games in his second year in the NFL. He also started for the Vikings in the team’s one playoff game this season against Green Bay at Lambeau Field.
“Lambeau has been my favorite stadium to play in so far,” Fusco said. “Even though our rivals play there, so much tradition and history is there.”
With Fusco’s first full season as a starter behind him he still has many more seasons to block for his star team’s star running back Adrian Peterson. “I couldn’t believe I would be blocking for him (Peterson),” Fusco said. “He is one of the best running backs in the history of the game and what he did this year is absolutely amazing.”
The story of a Division II player being scouted and drafted into the NFL is a story that is seldom heard in our society due to the over-saturation of Division I in the media.
With Fusco representing Slippery Rock so strongly in the NFL, he gives his fellow Division II players hope as well as a chance to get noticed.
“My dad always told me to chase my dreams. If you believe it then you can achieve it,” Fusco said. “I achieved my dream, I am blessed. I made it.”