With the 116th pick of the 2020 NFL draft, St. John’s tackle Ben Bartch became the first Division III player taken in five years.
Statistically, it was one of the day’s most unlikely moments.
More than one million high school football players put on the pads each fall. In a given year, approximately 7.3% of them will go on to play college football at the NCAA level.
1.6% of NCAA football players get an opportunity to play in the NFL, with the vast majority of those athletes coming through the Division I pipeline – this year was no exception. 98.8% of the 2020 draftees played at Division I schools.
Two drafted players came from Division II, after receiving at least partial scholarships to play.
Ben Bartch was the lone Division III, non-scholarship athlete selected. The 6’6”, 309lb Bartch was taken in the fourth round by the Jacksonville Jaguars.
There were approximately 16,400 draft eligible college football players this year, with nearly 6,500 coming from Division I programs. Which means that Ben Bartch, who did not receive a scholarship coming out of high school, was picked ahead of well over six thousand Division I scholarship players.
Four years and 75lbs ago, no one, including Bartch, could have imagined this.
In high school he was a 6’6”, 230lb tight end from Dayton, Oregon, dreaming that the mighty Oregon Ducks would recognize his talent. He watched his idol, Marcus Mariota, win the Heisman Trophy while leading the Ducks to national prominence.
The Ducks didn’t call. Neither did the Beavers of Oregon State. There was no offer from Portland State, or Western Oregon (Division II). Oregon was dry.
But St. John’s (in Minnesota) was interested.
St. Johns University is an historic school with one of the NCAA’s premier college football programs. Since 1900, the Johnnies have a record of 583-239-24, including 4 National Titles and 32 Conference Championships. The Division III equivalent of the Heisman is named after long-time St. John’s coach, John Gagliardi. It is a great place to play college football.
Still, a football scholarship was not in the cards.
So when the Ducks and the Beavers started their camps, Ben took off for Collegeville, Minnesota. He made his presence felt as a punishing blocker from the tight end position. After his sophomore year, the Johnnies coaching staff realized that perhaps it was his blocking, more than pass-catching or route-running, that was Bartch’s true strength. They moved him out to play left tackle. He never looked back.
He took the weightroom seriously. He studied the playbook with intent. And he ate like he had something to prove. Minnesota Start Tribune’s Andrew Krammer reported that “to add weight, Bartch loaded a blender — five days per week — with seven scrambled eggs, ‘a big tub’ of cottage cheese, quick grits, peanut butter, a banana and Gatorade.”
It worked. Bartch bulked up to 305lbs by senior year, when he earned his second All-Conference nod, Lineman of the Year honors, and an invitation to the Senior Bowl. The Senior Bowl is attended by mostly Division I athletes, so NFL scouts were able to evaluate Bartch against some of the best players in the game. He stepped up to the plate and many noted him as a true star of the week.
Though he dominated the week of practice, a knee injury kept him from playing in the game. Then there was another hurdle, which came in the form of a global pandemic.
Bartch would not have the opportunity to meet NFL coaches and perform in-person workouts. Instead, he would attend Zoom and FaceTime meetings with agents, coaches, and NFL executives.
It was a hurdle, for sure. But the 6’6” Bartch ran the 110 and 4×400 hurdles in high school. The athletic lineman was ready, and he handled the obstacles in stride.
The odds were against him. No problem. He was used to that.
When the Jaguars selected Bartch, they did so over countless players who were more highly rated coming out of high school. Oregon had only one player – 6th overall pick, Justin Hebert – selected before him. Bartch was drafted before anyone from Oregon State.
He wasn’t trying to prove people wrong. He was trying to work hard and play football.
Unlikely or not, Ben Bartch’s hard work just earned him another well-deserved chance to play.