Football: Former LB shines professionally in UFL

Danny Daly

The United Football League was founded to give young players spurned by the National Football League a way to prove they can compete at the highest level.

Former Northwestern linebacker Prince Kwateng is one of those players trying to stand out in football’s new minor league.

Kwateng was a senior on last year’s team that went to the Alamo Bowl. As the Wildcats are closing in on a bowl berth for the second consecutive season, he is adjusting to the cut-throat nature of pro football with the California Redwoods.

“Now it’s a job,” Kwateng said. “I still have a lot of fun playing, but it feels like a lot more is on the line every day when you step out for practice. Even if you’re in a meeting room, there’s just a lot more pressure because you want to perform.”

The day before graduation, Redwoods secondary coach Martin Bayless called Kwateng to say the team planned to draft him. Bayless, who played 14 years in the NFL himself, has a son who attends NU and was redshirted last season.

Since NFL training camps were underway and Kwateng did not have anything else lined up, he jumped at the chance.

“I had contacted (Bayless) expressing interest in the league,” Kwateng said. “They liked what they saw and decided to give me an opportunity to play.”

So far, Kwateng is making the most of it. He ranks third on the Redwoods in tackles with 17.5, earning substantial playing time and making an impact even though there are players in the league with NFL experience. Overall, California is the youngest team in the UFL.

Having Bayless’ familiar face on the coaching staff has made the transition smoother for Kwateng. He also has much in common with his roommate, former Notre Dame linebacker Maurice Crum, Jr.

“It always nice when you feel like you know someone that you can really talk to,” Kwateng said. “The whole coaching staff is great and my teammates are great. I have a little Midwest connection with my roommate, he’s a good guy, so that’s made everything a little bit easier.”

California’s head coach is Dennis Green, who spent more than a decade presiding over the Minnesota Vikings and Arizona Cardinals. A disciple of legendary San Francisco coach and West Coast offense mastermind Bill Walsh, Green also coached Stanford and NU in the college ranks.

The fiery Green might be most famous for his postgame “They are who we thought they were!” rant after his Cardinals lost to the then-undefeated Chicago Bears in 2006. He displays his passion in the UFL, too.

“He gives some really good speeches, and he’s a funny guy,” Kwateng said. “One day after practice, he gave us his fight song from high school. It was out of the blue – at the end of practice he just brought us up and started screaming his fight song, just to show how much pride he has in everything he’s associated with.”

Four years at NU were a good learning experience for Kwateng. The intense UFL atmosphere is similar to the environment of “competitive depth” coach Pat Fitzgerald encourages in Evanston.

“It prepared me a lot,” Kwateng said. “I had some great coaches throughout the years. They’ve helped me develop my skills, and almost everything that they taught me I continue to use today.”

Shortly before last April’s NFL Draft, someone from the Baltimore Ravens tried to get in touch with Kwateng. Unfortunately for Kwateng, he missed the call because he was in class, and the Ravens went in a different direction.

Fitzgerald has been impressed with Kwateng’s resolve. The 6-foot-2 linebacker is one of three former NU players in the UFL, along with safety Tim McGarrigle and quarterback C.J. Bachér.

“I’ve been following him online and texting (Kwateng),” coach Pat Fitzgerald said. “I’m really proud of him, continuing to try to fight to play.”

Fitzgerald is not the only one keeping up with Kwateng’s career. Junior linebacker Quentin Davie took over Kwateng’s Will linebacker spot, and the two have remained close – Davie referred to Kwateng as his best friend. When Kwateng was in town last weekend, he and Davie got together and talked football.

Davie said he enjoys watching his mentor play professionally.

“It’s crazy to see him on TV, because I’m used to just playing with him,” Davie said. “He definitely is someone I look up to.”

Being paid to play football for a living is something Kwateng is still getting used to as well.

“It hasn’t set in yet,” he said. “I’ll see somebody from my town, and they ask me what I do and I tell them I play football. They’re like, ‘Oh, what kind of football?’ And I’m like, ‘Professional football.’ I kind of laugh to myself, because it has a nice ring when it comes out your own mouth. The coolest part is finally getting to a level where you can call yourself a professional.”

The Redwoods’ season ends in late November, and players are free to sign with NFL teams after the UFL championship game. If Kwateng keeps up his hard work, he could end up being one of the free agents to get snatched [email protected]