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HBCU Football

Growing up in Saudi Arabia taught Tennessee State tackle Cameron Durley to make the most of his opportunities

He elevated his game after leaving Kansas, and that’s why he’s playing in the HBCU Legacy Bowl

Cameron Durley was only a two-star football recruit when he arrived at the University of Kansas six years ago. And, at times, his coaches may have wondered whether even that modest player-skills ranking may have been too high.

Durley had the size, 6-feet-6, 315 pounds, and the talent while leading his Texas high school to consecutive state semifinal appearances. But something was missing, and he received a disappointing suggestion.

“One of the offensive line assistants said I should think about doing something else, maybe get a job,” said Durley, who transferred to Tennessee State in 2019. “He was basically telling me to give up football because I didn’t look like I was focused.”

Durley was not only undeterred by those who doubted his ability, but he also overcame sitting out two full seasons with injuries to become one of the few players from the nation’s 107 historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) expected to be drafted into the NFL.

And Durley, like so many other HBCU prospects, hopes to attract the NFL’s attention on Saturday in New Orleans during the HBCU Legacy Bowl, a showcase of the best NFL-draft eligible players from HBCUs.

Since the NFL has only drafted 12 HBCU players over the last six years — and none last season — the league wants to give often overlooked players a better opportunity to gain an NFL team’s attention. The coronavirus pandemic shortened or canceled seasons, and reduced travel for NFL scouts eliminated pro day workouts. The hope is that this year’s Legacy Bowl and last month’s NFL HBCU Combine in Mobile, Alabama, will change that.

“It’s truly amazing just to see how much effort has been put in to help give HBCU players an opportunity,” Durley said. “This is really going to show people that there’s some good talent and good young men at HBCUs.”

But Durley’s chance to extend his career in the NFL would likely have faded if he hadn’t redirected himself after comments from his former coach. 

“I was immature when I started at Kansas,” Durley said. “But after the coach talked to me about doing something else, I had to prove him wrong.”

That meant more film work, more time in the weight room and more focus on his technique.

A year later, that same assistant coach, who moved on to another school, spoke with Durley after a game. 

“He said how he’d been watching me, and from what he saw he now believed I was going to make it [to the NFL],” Durley said. “His whole perspective about me changed . . . Him doubting me was one of the best things to happen in my life related to football.”

Durley said he did his best in last month’s combine. It allowed him to display his physical skills during drills and the chance to meet NFL personnel from around the league.

Tennessee State offensive tackle Cameron Durley does a bench press at the NFL HBCU Combine at the University of South Alabama in Mobile, Alabama, on Jan. 29.

Dan Anderson/AP Images for NFL

“I did well and got some good feedback at the combine,” Durley said. “But I must say, I never ‘speed-dated’ men before, but the interviews with all 32 teams for 10 to 15 minutes was like that. It gave many of those scouts a chance to get to know us. It was awesome.”

And Durley’s participation in the Legacy Bowl means he’ll be on the field for the first time in more than a year due to injuries. It will be refreshing.

“I can’t even explain how much I miss being on the field,” Durley said. “I love watching film and all, but it’s totally different than being on the field where you’re able to pick up blitzes and sense that [defensive] end trying to take the edge to get the quarterback. It’s just totally different.”

Durley certainly had an uncommon road to the brink of the NFL draft compared with his peers. He was born in Houston and spent most of his childhood in Saudi Arabia with his family, who were expatriate employees of a Saudi national oil company. They lived in a compound in Dhahran. It was a culture shock for Durley.

“I really loved my experience over there,” Durley said of a country where Islam is the main religion. “The only thing my big behind worried about was that I couldn’t eat bacon and I couldn’t get any pork chops. I’m thinking, ‘No Jimmy Dean sausage?’ ”

Fortunately, Durley managed to satisfy his pork cravings from time to time when his family frequented a nearby commissary that catered to U.S. citizens.

Time overseas is also where Durley found his first love — baseball. Durley’s dad coached the Arabian American Little League team. In 2006, Durley’s older brother, Aaron, made headlines as the tallest player in the Little League World Series at 6-feet-8. In 2008 and 2009, Durley was also one of the tallest 12-year-old Little League players at 6-feet-3.

Fond memories of Little League World Series participation remain with Durley. And he’ll never forget the team’s painful fashion statement.

Cameron Durley pitches in the Little League World Series for the Arabian American team in 2008 in Williamsport, Pennsylvania.

Cameron Durley family

“There was a tradition on the Saudi team where you had to bleach your hair blond,” Durley said. “The moms gathered us all in the kitchen and they put bleach in our hair. I had no idea that my head was going to burn. We were a bunch of young kids running around the house screaming in pain.”

Durley outgrew the sport because of his size and instead picked up a basketball like his older brother. After eighth grade, Durley relocated to a prep school in New Hampshire because the compound didn’t have a high school. And that was the year he tried football.

He made an immediate impression. 

“I was playing defensive end for the JV,” Durley said. “On the first play, I burst through the line and I broke the quarterback’s collarbone. You had all of the moms yelling from the stands how I shouldn’t be on this level and what is my age. I was moved to varsity with the quickness.”

Durley transferred from prep school to Houston by his junior year, where he rejoined his family. That’s where he continued to develop enough to earn scholarship offers from several schools, including Kansas. But his time at Kansas had its ups and downs, which included a right Achilles injury, limited play, and that coach’s question about his dedication.

Durley sought more opportunity when he transferred to Tennessee State and became a two-time All-Ohio Valley Conference lineman.

“His length makes him a really good pass protector,” said TSU offensive line coach Russ Ehrenfeld, who has developed five linemen over the past 10 years into NFL draft picks. “He’s getting more confident since [his injuries] and I’ve been impressed on how he’s overcome that. The abilities to play in the NFL are there.”

Which made last fall’s season that much more important for Durley. Not only was he looking forward to playing for former NFL coach Hue Jackson, who was TSU’s offensive coordinator before he became Grambling’s coach, but also for new TSU coach Eddie George. But a left ACL injury late in the summer ended Durley’s college career.

“I was looking forward to playing to show how I could be the person everybody knew I could be on the field and as a leader,” Durley said. “Plus, I knew Coach Ehrenfeld put guys in the league, and I knew this would be a good place for me to grow as a ballplayer and a man.”

Now that growth would have to happen without being a player. So Durley took on a role that impressed coach George even more. Durley remained at TSU. He studied the game and encouraged his teammates.

“He could have said, ‘Hey, I’m going to leave and get ready for the combine and move forward,’ ” said George, a former NFL running back and Heisman Trophy winner. “But he stuck around, still soaked up the knowledge and gave the coaching staff support. He displayed an unselfishness that I constantly preach here in terms of who we are: our spirit, our soul, selflessness, oneness, unity and a larger purpose. And he exemplifies all of that.”

Durley earned all of George’s accolades, but they didn’t come easy. And despite the NFL’s willingness to create opportunities for often-overlooked HBCU players, it isn’t something Durley takes for granted.

“I want to continue to get better, work on my game and enjoy the process on my way to the next level,” said Durley, who trains in Houston. “I’m trying to learn everything, take advantage of every opportunity, and get back into the swing of football.”

Branson Wright is a filmmaker and freelance multimedia sports reporter.