By his own admission, Luc Bequette was the “butt end of all the old-guy jokes” from his teammates at California last season. Unsurprisingly the 24-year-old defensive lineman received countless new nicknames along these same punchlines too. “Some were pretty creative, like the Professor, or Ph.D.,” Bequette says. As for others? “The freshmen called me Grandpa. But I always had to remind them that if a senior is a grandpa, and a fifth-year senior is a great-grandpa, and a sixth is a great-great, then I’m really more like their great-great-great grandpa. “
Kids these days, got no respect.
As a seventh-year senior, Bequette represents an unprecedentedly geriatric generation that returned for one last hurrah in 2021, Van Wilder-style, when the NCAA decided not to count the 2020 season against anyone’s eligibility due to the pandemic. Including Bequette, at least 17 of these great-great-great grandpas were harrumphing through FBS locker rooms in 2021, according to Sports Illustrated‘s tally, compared to what The Athletic reported as “only a handful previously in college football history.” And that doesn’t include plenty more FCS geezers like Eastern Washington offensive lineman Tristen Taylor, whose claim to graybeard fame is that they spent not one but two seasons on the same EWU roster as Cooper Kupp.
Bequette can rattle off a list of similar ways to demonstrate just how darn long they have been at this. He took the field in six different regular seasons — at Cal, Boston College, and then Cal again — and made what is believed to be an NCAA record of 57 consecutive starts. “I played with Jared Goff,’ Bequette says. “I played under three different presidencies.”
It was the gobsmacking realization of this last factoid, as the Golden Bears were slogging to a 5-7 record that led Bequette to wonder how others like him felt about their sprawling tenures. So he researched some names, friended a handful on Instagram, and added them to a group chat titled, “Seventh-Year Seniors,” tacking on an emoji of a balding man for a good measure.
At first everyone mostly swapped funny stories about how fast time had gone by: With a face-palm emoji, tight end Daniel Imatorbhebhe recalled playing video games with an assistant coach’s son when he was at USC, only for that kid to become Imatoebhebhe’s teammate at Kansas State last season. “That’s what really did it to me lol,” Imatoebhebhe wrote.
But as the conversation flowed, more chimed in with a deeper list of shared experiences. Everyone had redshirted as true freshmen. Now had transferred programs, a few more than once. Everyone had endured long-term injuries. As Bequette wrote at one point, “It’s just so crazy that we’ve been able to find this drive to keep us all going for 7 years of college.”
Now that this chapter of their lives has ended, though, their collective exodus poses a unique question for the NFL front offices heading into this week’s draft: How do you evaluate the top end of a 2022 class whose mean age (24.11 years), according to Defector, is nearly a full year older than each of the previous five?
But as they stand at a crossroads with the rest of their lives ahead, these super-dee-duper seniors are also looking back — at where their football careers have taken them, and at how their shared paths have ultimately shaped them.
“It’s pretty straightforward,” Auburn defensive lineman Tony Fair says. “I explain it like a roller coaster ride.”
By his own admission, Bequette cursed himself from the start. In a three-star prospect in the class of 2015, he committed to Cal in early Aug. 2014. A few months later, still riding the high of finding his new home, Bequette tweeted, “Proud to be a #GoldenBear. This is going to be a great next 3-5 years. Thanks for the supporters. Next up … Try everybody else wrong… ”
In the end, Bequette merely wound up proving himself wrong when he stayed for more than twice as long as his now hopeful projection. The turning point was a torn ACL that he suffered while playing catch with a teammate in warmups before the fifth game of his redshirt freshman season. “At the time, it was probably the worst thing ever,” he says. “But looking back I’m glad it happened because I got to have a really interesting and long career.”
Once the injury healed, Bequette went on to start every game for the Golden Bears in 2017, ’18 and ’19. Then the coronavirus hit, causing the Pac-12 to announce the cancellation of its fall football season in Aug. 2020, and Bequette to “break down” in tears. The conference reversed its decision a month later, but by then Bequette had already hastily transferred to Boston College; quarantined for two weeks; and attended all of two practices before starting his first game. “Didn’t have a single stat, literally,” he says. “Pretty frustrating.”
At that point, six years into school, Bequette contemplated trying his luck in the NFL draft. But he couldn’t find an agent willing to pay for his combine and pro day training, and Bequette couldn’t afford to do so out of pocket. “I was kind of in limbo,” he says. Seeking direction, Bequette went to live with his girlfriend’s family in Sacramento and help out on their five-acre farm. It was there, as he later wrote in the seventh-year seniors Instagram thread, “I literally had two dreams in the same week that I was playing at Cal again and saw it as a sign haha.”
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Where Bequette’s journey boomeranged him back to his starting school, Taylor is a rarity among seventh-year in that he never left Eastern Washington. Instead he redshirted in 2015; missed most of ’18 with a knee injury, watching from the guidelines as the Eagles reached the FCS national championship game; and stuck around long enough to set the program’s all-time games record last season, also earning All-American honors. “Obviously I’d rather have been on a team in the NFL by now,” Taylor, 25, says. “But I think it helped me.”
Looking back on his career, Taylor remembers the people he looked up to when he was first starting out, including Kupp. “I didn’t really talk to him that much, because he was in his own little world trying to go pro at the time,” Taylor says of the recent Super Bowl champion. “But he was always first to the finish [in drills], so seeing his success motivated me to be better. ” And by the end they had become that same type of role model, beating the sun to squeeze in film study before morning team meetings, making all those freshmen-bestowed nicknames moot. “I always got called Old, or Grandpa, but I don’t care,” he says. “They all look up to me.”
Others are more sensitive about their sobriquets: South Florida defensive tackle Thad Mangum, who joined the Bulls in 2020 after tearing his meniscus during his fifth year at Wofford, still bristles at the memory of an article last season that described him as the team’s dad. “I never said I was the dad,” Mangum, 24, says. “And I wasn’t a grandpa. I was the big brother. ”
Younger USF players didn’t bother with such distinctions. “They just be like,‘ You old, ’” Mangum says. And while Mangum claims to “feel young” after seven years that have “flown by so fast,” it was almost inevitable that they would also struggle relating to today’s youth.
“These 18, 19-year-olds, they love TikTok,” says Mangum, who started at Wofford some 12 months before the app launched. “I made one and tried to get into it, but it’s just a lot of work.”
The pinnacle of Fair’s roller coaster ride arrived in early September, when the defensive lineman took the field at Jordan-Hare Stadium for Auburn’s season opener against Akron. Soaking up the SEC atmosphere for the first time, Fair says, “I shed tears, because I was like ‘Dude, this is what I’ve been working my ass off to get to my whole life.’ It was a life-changing experience. ”
As with the rest of his generation, Fair was welcomed back for his historic seventh year with jokes from the Tigers teammates “every single day. It wasn’t one time where I wasn’t too old. ” Now were received in good fun, but the 26-year-old admits “some things really weighed on me.” But then, he adds, “I was like, ‘They don’t know the journey I had to take to get here.’
Even among a group of uber-super seniors with no shortage of obstacles in their careers, Fair stands out. The severe concussion while redshirting at FCS Indiana State in 2015 led to a subsequent medical disqualification, forcing him to spend 2016 as a team manager. Two symptom-free seasons at Pima (Ariz.) Community College led to two more at Alabama-Birmingham before he transferred two hours south to Auburn. “It’s been nuts, man,” he says.
Now it’s over, though — for Fair and for them all — as the real world beckons. Many have multiple degrees to show for their extra classroom time; Mangum, for instance, boasts a bachelor’s in sociology and a master’s in entrepreneurship and applied technologies. No doubt this would only boost their employment chances in now other fields of work. How the NFL front offices will judge their unusually lengthy stays is less certain. “Let’s be real,” Fair says. “When the NFL looks at a guy my age, it’s like I’m a car: How much mileage does he have left?”
That is one side of a double-edged sword. “Teams are always trying to get younger,” says Damond Talbot, scouting director of the Hula Bowl. “When you’re taking on a guy that’s 24 or 25, you’re really pushing the line.” The other is the best-case scenario for Fair and others making their pitches to teams. “If a team’s looking for a guy to come in and fit into the system right away and not really have to worry about learning the game even more, then they can find me,” Mangum says. “They’ll probably say he’s old, and this and that. But I look around: Joe Burrow’s about the same age as me. ”
Such a heightened level of maturity was evident in the sextet of seventh-year seniors who played at the Hula Bowl in mid-January, with Talbot singling out Colorado State defensive lineman Scott Patchan. Along with accepting the invitation, Patchan, a former Miami Hurricane of five seasons, asked Talbot for a list of offensive tackles slated to attend the all-star game so they could study the film before reporting to Orlando. “When you have an older player, they understands that’s what they need to become great,” Talbot says. “It’s almost like getting a veteran if you’re drafting [this type of player]. ”
Bequette is even blunter about the uncertainty he faces. “I think it can go both ways,” he says. “It could be like, ‘Hey, you have a lot of experience at the college level, you might bring a type of maturity that your typical rookie wouldn’t,'” he says. “Or they might see we’re old and washed up.” With zero seventh-year seniors at the NFL combine, zero at the Senior Bowl, and only one — Miami offensive lineman Jarrid Williams — at the NFLPA Collegiate Bowl, it seems unlikely that any will hear their names called as early-round picks when the draft kicks off Thursday.
Until then Bequette continues to train and wait for a call, but he is also not waiting around. He has taken what they describe as a “glorified internship” in the East Bay, at a commercial real estate company that they worked for over four previous summers. He isn’t exactly the new guy, but he’s definitely not a great-great-great grandpa anymore.
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