A walk-on unicyclist from South Dakota State might be NFL draft’s top tight end prospect

MOBILE, Ala. – Dallas Goedert grew up in a one-stoplight town of 1,200 in South Dakota, a blinking red to slow down traffic at a four-way stop. It’s one of the few landmarks in tiny Britton, amid the three convenience stores, the VFW Hall and Tyler’s Motel. A Subway opened up four years ago, but Goedert needs to drive 60 miles to Aberdeen to eat at the nearest McDonald’s.

Around age 12, he began riding unicycles and performed in Fourth of July parades all around the area. At Britton-Hecla High School, Goedert played 9-man football and the grainy quality of his game film, seemingly taped from the top of bleachers, made it impossible for colleges to evaluate him.

The road to the NFL draft usually doesn’t have an open lane for walk-on unicyclists from South Dakota State. But Goedert came to the Senior Bowl as the top tight end on many NFL teams’ boards, a 6-foot-4, 260-pound target that reminds Senior Bowl director Phil Savage of Jason Witten. If it sounds like a story that required divine intervention, well, it actually did.

During Goedert’s senior year of high school, he played a road game at Milbank High School and a local minister named Carl Larson noticed him. Larson used to coach at South Dakota State and emailed coach John Stiegelmeier to recommend him.

“It’s crazy how it works,” Goedert told Yahoo Sports this week. “God has a plan. It’s fate, I guess.”

Fate took a slight twist this week, as Goedert injured his hamstring on the first day of Senior Bowl drills and won’t play in the game Saturday. But it’s safe to say few draft picks have come further than his journey from rural Britton to the cusp of the NFL.

“It’s spreading bigger than Britton,” Goedert’s mother, Mary Carlson, said in a phone interview Wednesday night. “People from 60 or 70 miles away know who Dallas is. They say, ‘Oh, we’re so proud of him. We’re cheering for him and praying for him.’

“It’s amazing the support. That’s what small-town people do.”

The folks in Britton saw Goedert perform plenty growing up. He was a state champion swimmer at age 7 and could just as easily water ski as dominate the low post in basketball. But in Britton, Dallas’ family is best known for riding unicycles. All four of Mary’s sisters ride, as do many of her nephews. Dallas even learned to ride a 6-foot unicycle, which he said requires starting off the back of a truck. In performing in wisps of South Dakota towns like Lake City, Ledgerwood and Havana, he claims the 6-foot unicycle created buzz in the crowds.

“That one gets a lot of praise at the parades,” he said. “They love to see that one.”

So can he still ride a 6-foot unicycle now that’s he’s growing into his massive 260-pound frame?

“It’s like riding a bike,” he said while a smile.

Goedert’s career at South Dakota state wasn’t quite that routine. After Stiegelmeier got the tip on Goedert, he went to watch him play basketball because the camcorder quality of his football tape made them essentially useless.

Stiegelmeier was intrigued by Goedert’s size, but thought he was lazy and didn’t offer a scholarship. Instead, he became a preferred walk-on and offered these words of encouragement: “It’s going to be hard.”

He was right. Goedert redshirted his first season and caught just eight passes as a redshirt freshman. He broke through his redshirt sophomore year, earning a partial scholarship.

Eventually, Goedert blossomed into a dominant player during his junior and senior year, earning All-American honors and, finally, a full scholarship. Stiegelmeier would split him out, play him at the traditional tight end spot and even feature him in the backfield. He joked that teams resorted to tackling him at the line of scrimmage to slow him down. It didn’t work, as he caught 92 balls for 1,293 yards as a junior and 72 balls for 1,111 last year.

“His ball skills are ridiculous,” said Illinois State coach Brock Spack, a former defensive coordinator at Purdue.

“His athleticism, skill level, size and agility are off the charts.”

The concept of the NFL didn’t appear real for Goedert’s mother until he got a call over Christmas break last season. An agent called Dallas to see if he planned on coming out. When he relayed the conversation to his mother it went like this.

Mary: “What is he asking you? Come out of what?”

Dallas: “Mom, they want to know if I’m going to go to the NFL draft.”

The notion stunned Mary, but it has soon become reality. Every NFL team went through South Dakota State this fall to watch him. Many went twice. (Wide receiver Jake Wieneke is also an NFL prospect and star Jackrabbit basketball player Mike Daum is an NBA prospect, make Brookings, South Dakota, an unlikely scouting hub).

Goedert isn’t a perfect prospect. His blocking is suspect and even he admitted that a goal for the Senior Bowl included being a “willing, able and capable” blocker. There will also be a leap of faith with the competition level, as dominating Drake and Duquesne is much different than Denver and Detroit.

Still, there’s a good chance that a unicyclist walk-on from a one-stoplight town in South Dakota will be the first tight end picked in the NFL draft.

After a meandering road and a pinch of divine intervention, Goedert projects to be performing in from of much bigger crowds than those along the parade routes in rural South Dakota. Back in Britton, they’ll know exactly how far he’s come.

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