The quest for DeMarcus Ware began with a snub on the Auburn campus in 2001. It may end 21 years later with a bust in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Ware became one of the NFL’s greatest pass rushers from the humblest of beginnings. I dug into my draft files and resurrected my notes from an interview I had with Ware at the 2005 NFL scouting combine. He tells his story better than I could.
Ware grew up in Auburn, Ala., and spent many a Saturday in his youth watching his beloved SEC Tigers play football.
“I lived two minutes off campus,” Ware told me that day at his combine. “Every weekend I sold Cokes there. Actually, I didn’t sell Cokes. I sat in the stands with the Cokes in my hand. I went to every Auburn game.”
Ware wanted to move from the stands to the field at Auburn and thought he had that chance after a sterling prep career at Auburn High School. But he wasn’t actively recruited by the Tigers, so he attended the school’s open scouting day on campus.
“They acted like they didn’t know me -- and I was one of the best players in the area at linebacker,” recalled Ware of that snub. “But my size hurt me a lot.”
There wasn’t a market in the SEC for 198-pound linebackers. Ware discovered there wasn’t much of a market anywhere in college football for a linebacker his size. Only one school offered him a scholarship – Troy State.
“I wasn’t a well-developed guy,” Ware said. “I went to a small (high) school. I wasn’t one of those 240-pound linebackers they were looking for.”
So Ware went to Troy and maximized his contribution to his Sun Belt Conference school. He collected nine sacks as a sophomore, six more as a junior and 10 ½ as a senior on his way to Sun Belt Conference Defensive Player of the Year honors.
That forced the NFL to pay greater attention to Ware coming out of college than the FBS schools paid to him coming out of high school. His talent was recognized when the NFL invited him to the combine to be evaluated alongside All-America pass rushers David Pollack, Shawne Merriman and Erasmus James.
Two years earlier, one of his college teammates and a school record-setting pass rusher -- Osi Umenyiora – wasn’t even invited to the combine. So Ware understood the magnitude of his moment that weekend in Indianapolis.
“It hurts your heart that they won’t look at the smaller (school) guys,” Ware said. “They want the guys who run 4.4s and 4.3s. Some guys just need a little push. That’s all it takes.
“That’s been driving me since I got in college. I wanted to set the stage for the guys in the small schools. Hey, we can play with the guys at the bigger schools. We can be just as competitive as they are.”
In Ware’s case, a small-school player proved to be more competitive than the big-school players. In his four years at Troy he blossomed physically into a 6-4, 255-pound edge rusher. The Dallas Cowboys fell in love with his size and skill and made him the first pass rusher off the draft board in 2005, taking him with the 11th overall selection.
Ware became a walk-in starter at weakside linebacker in the Dallas 3-4 scheme and started sacking quarterbacks right away, collecting eight in his rookie season to lead the Cowboys. He started going to Pro Bowls in his second season with 11 1/2 sacks – the first of his seven consecutive seasons in double figures.
Ware led the NFL with 20 sacks in 2008 and added 19 ½ more in 2011.
In 2013, the Cowboys switched from a 3-4 scheme to a 4-3. Ware suffered the first injury of his nine-year career, missing three games with a quadriceps ailment, and his sack count fell out of double figures for the first time since his rookie season with six. At 31, he became a salary-cap casualty in Dallas.
But Ware signed a three-year, $30-million contract with Denver that same day, returning to a 3-4 scheme of Wade Phillips, and returned to double figures in sacks as well with 10. Ware chipped in 7 ½ sacks in 2015 for his ninth and final Pro Bowl selection, helping the Broncos lead the NFL in defense and win a Super Bowl.
After injuries cost him six games in 2016 and held his sack count down to four, Ware, at 34 years of age, decided to retire. He leaves the NFL with the 11th most sacks in history at 138 ½ (according to the Pro Football Journal's unofficial list that includes sacks prior to 1982, see below) but the second-most by an outside linebacker, trailing only Kevin Greene at 160. But Greene played three more seasons and 50 more games than Ware.
The Hall-of-Fame selection committee loves pass rushers, having enshrined at least one in 10 of the last 11 induction classes. Jason Taylor was a first-ballot selection for the Class of 2017 with 139 ½ sacks. That’s one more than Ware, but Taylor played three more seasons and 55 more games.
Of the 11 pass rushers ahead of Ware on the all-time sack list, 10 have already been elected to the Hall of Fame. The only one without a bust is Julius Peppers – and he’s still playing, entering his 16th season in 2017 with the Carolina Panthers.
Ware proved his point. There is room in football for the small-school pass rusher. He becomes eligible for the Hall of Fame in 2022. Don’t expect Ware to wait long for his own bust.