Austin Proehl has shot to follow NFL footsteps of father, Ricky

ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. -- Austin Proehl has always wanted to get his foot in the door of the NFL.

The son of longtime NFL wide receiver Ricky Proehl attended his first game weeks after he was born in 1995 and would accompany his father in the locker room not long after he started walking.

And when Ricky -- who played for the Seattle Seahawks in 1995 and 1996, the Chicago Bears in 1997 and the St. Louis Rams beginning in 1998 -- signaled to his wife, Kelly, to keep Austin out of the dressing room after a lost game, the toddler protested.

"He would get all upset," Ricky Proehl told ESPN last week. "He loved being in the locker room, loved being around it, even at 3 [or] 4 years old. From the time he could start walking, he loved just looking at the guys, the helmet, the pads. He was all about it."

More than two decades later, Austin Proehl is again trying to nudge his way into an NFL locker room -- this time as the second-to-last pick of April's draft by the Buffalo Bills.

Unlike his father, a third-round pick of the Phoenix Cardinals in 1990 who played 17 seasons, the younger Proehl is attempting to emerge from relative obscurity by the end of his college career at North Carolina to earn a roster spot in Buffalo as the No. 255 selection in the draft.

Austin set career highs with 43 catches for 597 yards and three touchdowns in 2016 as a junior but suffered a shoulder injury in the Tar Heels' fourth game of last season that kept him sidelined until the final two games of 2017. He finished the season with 21 catches for 337 yards and one touchdown.

There were no all-star game invitations and no trip to the NFL combine. Austin was the 52nd-ranked wide receiver in the 2018 class by NFL Draft Scout and off the radar, which prompted Ricky to try his best to help his son accomplish his dream of playing in the league.

"I reached out to everybody that I knew, from [Bills general manager] Brandon [Beane], to [New York Giants general manager Dave] Gettleman, to [Carolina Panthers general manager] Marty Hurney, to [Arizona Cardinals coach] Steve Wilks, to [Miami Dolphins coach] Adam Gase," Ricky Proehl said. "All my contacts in the National Football League. I put together a video of Austin running a 40[-yard dash], showing them how fast he was, [and him] doing the [20-yard] shuttle. We did our own combine, and we had other people time [it].

"Because I knew if Austin made it to the combine, he would show people what he was capable of. And he wasn’t able to do that. He didn’t have that opportunity. So I created my own combine tape and sent it out to everybody and anybody that I knew that would look at it."

By the final day of the draft, April 28, Austin was hearing from several teams about signing as an undrafted free agent. According to his father, the most interest came from the Philadelphia Eagles, whose coach, Doug Pederson, called Austin to express interest in signing him.

Then, minutes before the draft concluded, the Bills used their seventh-round pick to select Austin.

"It was an amazing feeling," Ricky Proehl said. "Only we know as a family what Austin has gone through."

Austin, whose official North Carolina biography lists his dream job as "playing in the NFL," has been drawn to the game since he would skip team-provided daycare to watch all of his father's games with his family in the stands.

Sundays watching his dad at the stadium were soon following Saturdays at the Rams' facility as part of then-coach Dick Vermeil's weekly family days in the late 1990s. When Ricky was occupied with meetings, the equipment staff would keep an eye on the inquisitive Austin, whose curiosity turned into a job polishing helmets before games.

"I used to clean [former Rams running back] Marshall Faulk’s helmet every Saturday and shine it," Austin Proehl told ESPN last month. "I used to call it a good luck kiss."

The relationship with the Rams took a memorable turn when Austin was able to ride the shoulders of his father after a 23-16 win over Tennessee in Super Bowl XXXIV.

"Being able to be down there, and then after the Super Bowl, being able to be on his shoulders, it was like one of those things, everything was in slow motion," Austin said. "Just looking around, confetti falling. It was surreal. Just being in that moment, being in that situation. Everything he’s worked for, everything he’s earned, to be there with him and be a part of it with him, and seeing how happy he was, you can’t really put that into words."

When Ricky left St. Louis to sign with the Panthers in 2003, Austin's admiration of Faulk and then-Rams wide receiver Isaac Bruce morphed into him joining his dad in the film room to watch then-Panthers receivers Steve Smith and Muhsin Muhammad.

"He would ask me questions [such as], ‘What is he doing here?’ ‘Why are you doing that?'" Ricky Proehl said. "He was very interested in learning the game and understanding why we did the things we did we were doing. Very intrigued by the game [and] wanted to learn. [He was] a sponge."

Ricky, then 38, decided to retire after spending Christmas alone in Indianapolis in 2006, his lone season with the Colts and his 17th year in the NFL. He returned to Carolina to focus on his sports training business, Proehlific Park, and to spend more time with Austin, his son Blake and daughter Alex.

Ricky later spent six seasons, from 2011 through 2016, as an assistant coach for the Panthers before deciding again to spend more time with his family.

Austin, in high school as his dad began his coaching stint, would often stop by the Panthers' facility on afternoons.

"I would ask him, ‘Hey Dad, I know you’ve been here for 12 hours today, can we watch some film? Can we work out?'" Austin recalled last month. "That was something that really showed me how much he cared about me and my success, because he never said no. He always wanted to help me, even though his long days got longer.

"I thought I was on cloud nine every time I got to step in that building, just smelling the indoor turf field, no matter what it was. Coming here and playing by myself and acting like I was diving for pylons and stuff like that."

It was in Carolina where Austin became familiar with Bills coach Sean McDermott, who served as the Panthers' defensive coordinator from 2011 through 2016, as well as Beane, who worked in Panthers football operations from 1998 until he was hired by Buffalo last year.

Beane sees similarities between father and son as route runners.

"Both of them are very instinctive for the position," he told ESPN earlier this month. "Knowing [the] inside [part of the field], that feel for the holes and zone. ... His dad was off the charts with instincts. Early on here, you see that [with Austin] and you saw that in college."

Austin, at 5-foot-10 and 175 pounds, is smaller in stature than Ricky, who stood 6 feet and weighed 190 pounds. But Ricky believes his son, who ran a 40-yard dash in the low 4.4-second range at a regional scouting combine this spring, is faster and quicker.

Austin has an opportunity to carve a role on the Bills' 53-man roster this training camp amid a wide-open position battle behind probable starting wide receivers Kelvin Benjamin and Zay Jones, but does not feel pressure to match his father's production and longevity in the league.

"Not at all," he said. "He did what he had to do. Each and every day he came to work and proved that he was one of the best. That’s what I have to do, and that’s on me. He earned the right to be one of the best and I got to do the same."