Ryan Chartrand

Don’t look now, but a former Division I-AA football player is a darkhorse candidate for NFL MVP honors, although the award should undoubtedly go to San Diego running back LaDainian Tomlinson.

You might have seen him tie a Dallas Cowboys franchise record with five touchdown passes on Thanksgiving Day.

On the season, Tony Romo has completed 69.4 percent of his passes for 1,656 yards and 13 touchdowns with five interceptions. His passer rating of 110.8 leads the NFL and, more importantly, the Cowboys are 4-1 since he took over as their starting quarterback.

Romo must have played at USC, Michigan, Ohio State, Texas, Florida or some other perennial power, right?

Wrong.

In fact, Romo – the 2002 Walter Payton Award winner – went undrafted out of Eastern Illinois.

But he’s an exception, right? Pro Bowlers can’t come from I-AA schools, right?

Wrong again.

In fact, there will likely be at least two former I-AA standouts playing defense for the AFC alone in Honolulu come February. They are bull-rushing Kansas City defensive end Jared Allen (52 tackles, six sacks) and Jacksonville ball-hawking cornerback Rashean Mathis (44 tackles, six interceptions for 139 yards).

Allen won the Buck Buchanan Award at Idaho State in 2003. He was the last player from a school other than Cal Poly to take the honor.

Mathis won the Buchanan as a free safety at Bethune-Cookman in 2002, a year in which he returned 14 picks for 445 yards and four touchdowns.

As ridiculous as those numbers are, Mathis is doing a lot of the same in Jacksonville – he has picked off 16 passes for 260 yards and a score in the last three seasons.

Champ Bailey and DeAngelo Hall are probably the two best corners in the NFL, but Mathis is not as far back as most people think.

Having a higher rating on a Madden video game should not determine who is the better player.

The prominence of former I-AA players on the current NFL landscape is not limited to Romo, Allen and Mathis.

Others include Dallas receiver Terrell Owens (Tennessee-Chattanooga), Baltimore quarterback Steve McNair (Alcorn State), Philadelphia running back Brian Westbrook (Villanova), St. Louis linebacker Dexter Coakley (Appalachian State) and Atlanta linebacker Edgerton Hartwell (Western Illinois).

Oh, by the way, the people the division’s top two awards were named after – Pro Football Hall of Famers Walter Payton and Buck Buchanan – weren’t so bad, either.

Not to mention a guy named Jerry Rice, who played his college ball at I-AA Mississippi Valley State.

Even Tomlinson played at a I-A mid-major school (TCU).

And starting at free safety for the NFC favorite Chicago Bears is rookie Danieal Manning, who played at (gasp!) a Division II school (Abilene Christian).

Indeed, a trend is taking over the NFL. General managers, scouts and the like are tired of drafting busts from big-name schools sometimes over less-heralded players from smaller schools simply because they have not received equal exposure.

They know that between the hash marks, when it comes time to make an impact, a player’s potential has nothing to do with what logo was on their helmet in college.

The bottom line is that, contrary to what many think, it doesn’t matter where NFL players come from.

It’s where they’re going that counts.

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