Growing up in a state without a professional football team, Tyler Starr didn't have a rooting interest as a child.
"I just kind of was a fan of the game," said Starr at the NFL Combine. "I guess I couldn't call myself a true fan. I had a Cowboys jersey, a Packers jersey. I kind of had all of them. I just knew that football was my first love, and it always will be."
The Packers jersey? Emblazoned with No. 4 for Brett Favre. And very soon Starr will have his own NFL jersey.
A native of Little Rock, Iowa, Starr has become used to the obscurity of small-town America. He wasn't recruited heavily coming out of high school and remains under the radar heading into this week's NFL Draft.
"I've always been the underdog in my life, so I'm kind of used to getting pushed aside or set on the back burner, but I just use it to my advantage," said Starr. "Guys aren't expecting me to make plays; guys aren't expecting me to perform well. I just kind of accept that and worry about what I have to do and go out there and make some noise."
Over time, Starr became the proverbial big fish in a small pond while playing outside linebacker at the University of South Dakota
As a sophomore in 2011, Starr led the Missouri Valley Conference with 14 sacks and contributed seven forced fumbles.
Opponents started to take notice and Starr's production dipped as a junior in 2012 with just four sacks, but that didn't stop him from being named second-team all-conference.
Then as a senior, Starr made 71 tackles, 15 for a loss, nine sacks, four forced fumbles and two interceptions on his way to being honored as the conference's Defensive Player of the Year.
Following a decorated college career, Starr was invited to the East-West Shrine Game and then the NFL Combine, where he did everything in his power to raise his stock.
All Starr did was have the best three-cone drill time of any linebacker at the Combine, clocking in at 6.64 seconds, showing that his change-of-direction skills are among the best in this year's rookie class. His 4.15 seconds in the short shuttle was among the top perfomers too.
"Just for a linebacker, you're not really opening up on a 40, running with a receiver on a fade route," said Starr. "You're getting off the ball; you're getting five yards, trying to turn the corner on a pass rush. Or you're getting up the field, and you're recognizing it's a pass then you open up and get back and drop, being able to change direction. Things happen laterally along the line of scrimmage. It's something I think is key for a linebacker."
At 6' 4", 250 lbs. and long blond hair flowing out the back of his helmet, Starr looks a little like Clay Matthews rushing the passer off the line of scrimmage, but he another small-town Iowa product from the Detroit Lions among his influences.
Starr isn't as big as Kyle Vanden Bosch, but pretty soon when they're playing together at the highest level of professional football, Starr hopes to bring more visibility to those trying to make the same leap from small town to the biggest stage.
"Not long ago I was thinking about Kyle Vanden Bosch, he was a guy that came out of a school near us and how I wanted to be like that," said Starr. "Not only do I want to make a name for myself, I want to be able to show these kids, you can do it as long as you put your mind to it."
Brian Carriveau is the author of the book "It's Just a Game: Big League Drama in Small Town America," and editor of Cheesehead TV's "Pro Football Draft Preview." To contact Brian, email email@example.com.
Photo: South Dakota outside linebacker Tyler Starr by Brian Carriveau.
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