Amini Silatolu and Stanley Arukwe, both 2007 graduates of West High, are now focused on impressing the NFL coaches who picked them out of the crowd.
Silatolu, 23, was a second-round draft pick for the Carolina Panthers as an offensive lineman while Arukwe, 23, was signed by the Arizona Cardinals as a wide receiver and undrafted free agent almost immediately after the three-day draft finished on Saturday, April 28, in New York City.
The two former teammates from West High’s 2005 and 2006 football teams share two Tri-City Athletic League championship seasons and two trips deep into the Sac-Joaquin Section playoffs. Since then, they have taken different paths to get to where they are today.
Now, they must individually focus on how to stand out among other NFL rookies at their teams’ mini camps that begin next weekend.
“Everyone is going in with a chip on their shoulder expecting to play,” said Silatolu, a 6-foot-3, 320-pound lineman. “There are going to be free agents who will want to take my spot. You’ve just got to do what you’ve been doing since college.”
Silatolu said it’s the work ethic that has moved him forward and help him with his future career.
“You have to work hard every day, every practice and every season,” he said.
For Silatolu, the NFL was a far-away dream when he joined the San Joaquin Delta College football team in 2007. But the dream was always in the back of his mind.
“I was focused on the present time and having a good season, he said. “Thinking like that always leads to good things.”
He learned to relish the role of the offensive lineman while at Delta College. He would transfer to Midwestern State University in Wichita, Texas, and by the end of his junior year, earned the first of two consecutive Lone Star Conference Offensive Lineman of the Year titles.
Then, the pro football agents started calling.
By the end of his senior season in 2011, the MSU team had its first undefeated year and the Mustangs led the NCAA Division II in total offensive yards with 531.9 yards per game.
After his performance at the NFL Combine in February, NFL scouts and coaches from about a dozen teams wanted a closer look at him, and it was clear he would be among the first offensive linemen to be drafted.
Arukwe’s path involved much less time on the football field and centered more around a distinguished track and field career as a sprinter — first at Modesto Junior College, and then at NCAA Division I Troy University in Alabama.
At 6-foot, 180 pounds, it was his speed at wide out that impressed college and NFL coaches.
“I wanted to play football the whole time I was in college, but things didn’t turn out the way I wanted them to,” he said. “I ended up running track for two years, knowing that I would have a fifth year and could give it another shot after track season.”
The track and field coaches were worried that their fastest sprinter would be injured on the football field, but football coaches saw his potential for special teams and as a wide receiver.
“The coaches said I could come out, so I went with it,” he said, adding at that point the NFL was still just a dream that all college football players share. “I was really worried about graduating, which I did, finishing up school and having a chance to play.”
In his first college game, the Trojans’ first game of the 2011 season against Clemson, he only had to make a couple tackles on special teams to convince himself that he was indeed a threat on the field.
“That was a big deal, he said. “You can show that you can hit and do things, and I showed them my speed during that game. After that, the coaches said, ‘You’ve really got a shot to go to the NFL with your speed and the way you play.’”
Arukwe established his presence on the field during the Trojans’ second game against Arkansas. As a wide receiver, he finished the game with four catches for 84 yards in the first half.
After the 2011 football season and fall semester ended in December, Arukwe immediately immersed himself into training for TU’s Pro Day, which was in March.
“I came back to California and was working hard every day,” he said. “I saw signs of getting better and better. I knew it was going to be a good day. Once I hit the 40 (yard dash), that’s when it showed that all of the hard work had paid off.”
Timers clocked him a 4.19 seconds, the fastest of the day and one of the fastest times of any NFL prospect.
In the time between meeting the Panther coaches after they selected him on Friday, April 27, and reporting for mini camp on May 10, Silatolu will be immersed in the Carolina playbook.
His goal is to make sure that the Panther players he looks up to, including five-year veteran center Ryan Kalil and nine-year veteran left tackle Jordan Gross, both Pro Bowl players, know that he is physically and mentally prepared for pro football.
“Getting an early start with the playbook is big,” Silatolu said. “That’s the main thing for any rookie.”
“The first year playing in the league is the hardest year by far, just because of the learning curve coming from college.”
Arukwe, on the other hand, hasn’t seen the Cardinals playbook yet, but he knows he can cope with a steep learning curve, because that’s what he had to do at Troy.
“I had to learn everything so quick, because I had never played (at the college level) before. It’s on the ball fast. If you’re not looking at the sideline and don’t get to the line quick, you’re going to miss the play,” he said.
Now he will have more plays to learn in a faster-paced game. Arukwe added that the learning experience will be the most rewarding part.
“I’m getting the opportunity to learn from Larry Fitzgerald, one of the best receivers in the NFL right now,” Arukwe said. “That’s one thing that makes me want to work harder.”