BURLINGTON — As a boy, writing with a fat pencil on lined paper, Terrell Hudgins spelled out his future plans: "I am Terrell Hudgins. I want to play in the NFL."
"Since I was a kid I wanted to play something professionally," he said last week. "When I was around 12, I figured I want to play in the NFL."
Hudgins, a record-breaking wide receiver at Elon, is closer to making that dream come true than at any other time in his life. With the start of the NFL draft on Thursday, he could be selected by one of the league's 32 teams and offered the opportunity to vie for a roster spot on Sundays.
As a four-year starter at Elon, he set the NCAA Division I record for career receptions (395) and career receiving yards (5,250), overtaking NFL Hall of Famer Jerry Rice in the record books.
Hudgins, a 6-foot-2, 229-pound senior and former Rocky Mount High three-sport standout, ended his collegiate career in 2009 as one of the most accomplished Football Championship Subdivision players of all time, holding 10 NCAA records.
Still, he enters the NFL draft as a virtual unknown, his school and Southern Conference roots meaning little to the teams that must evaluate his talent. Is he fast enough? Is he quick enough? Is he a true play-maker?
Many will compare Hudgins against the top receivers entering the draft and automatically question if his accomplishments should include an asterisk because they weren't compiled against Football Bowl Subdivision competition.
"His numbers speak for themselves," Hudgins' agent David Sullivan said. "Everyone knows Terrell can dominate as a receiver and has for the past four years. What they wanted to see was Terrell in a workout ... so they could evaluate him on their terms."
Since January, Hudgins has worked out for several professional teams, including the Carolina Panthers, Denver Broncos and New York Giants during Elon's pro day. He is projected to go in the second half of the draft, somewhere between the fourth and seventh round, though he might be forced to sign as a free agent.
"I'd love to get drafted, I think I deserve to," Hudgins said, "but if I don't and go the free-agent route, I'll pick a team and go with it."
Hands trump speed
Hudgins understands the business he's trying to enter.
"Since I'm I-AA [FCS] and I didn't have these numbers at an FBS school, I really feel like I have to prove myself," he said, "and convince people that I'm not just some somewhat gifted I-AA guy who's slightly better than the guys he's going against. ... I'm willing to do it."
So as he prepared for the draft, Hudgins set out to answer the No. 1 question from NFL scouts: What's his 40-yard dash time?
He trained to improve speed in the months before Elon's pro day on March 17. Squats and more squats. Sprints and more sprints. He increased his fastest time to a reported 4.52 seconds. He ran the 40-yard dash three times for scouts, clocking 4.52, 4.56 and 4.6.
Sullivan, a lawyer with the Virginia firm Kaufman and Canoles, said they were happy with the times, even though his client was sick on the day of the testing. Hudgins, though, doesn't offer any excuses.
Hudgins said football speed is different than track speed. He said he has made guys miss because he held the advantage of knowing where he was going and having the quickness to beat them to the spot.
And, of course, the hands to catch the ball in the first place.
Few question Hudgins' hands. He owns the FBC record with 8.8 career receptions per game.
"He can put his big body in front of defenders and he has great hands," Appalachian State senior quarterback Armanti Edwards said. "I don't think I've seen him drop a ball."
Hudgins said he carried a laser-like focus on the field as a senior and was just to answer any doubts about his ability.
"There shouldn't be any questions about my hands," he said. "I caught a lot of catches now."
Rice a role model
Hudgins was recruited by East Carolina after a stellar career as a quarterback at Rocky Mount. He transferred to Elon to play receiver after being told he would likely play on defense for ECU.
As a sophomore at Elon Hudgins ended the season as the conference's top receiver. That prompted him to look up national records where he discovered Jerry Rice's accomplishments at Mississippi Valley State. From 1981-84, Rice had amassed 4,693 career yards.
"Whew, I don't know about that one," Hudgins said at the time. Two seasons later he surpassed the receiver.
In many ways, Hudgins wants to be like Rice, the superstar whose San Francisco 49ers jersey he wore as a child. Rice, another FBC player, entered the NFL and shattered the standard for receivers.
Rice, too, excelled without the blessing of a blazing 40-yard dash. "They say that Jerry Rice was a 4.6, 4.7, but on the field ...," Hudgins said, his voice tapering off, figuring there was no need to state the obvious.
Rice sent Hudgins a copy of his book and autographed a photo. He signed it: "To Terrell Jerry Rice #80 SF 49ers Congrats keep working hard!"
Steve Young, the former 49ers quarterback, visited Elon in March and shared some insight on Rice with Hudgins.
Young, on campus for a business trip, took a few moments to talk with him, explaining how Rice ran the same speed with or without his pads, virtually every game, throughout his 20-year NFL career.
No matter his status at the conclusion of the draft, Hudgins said he's preparing his mind for a career in the NFL.
"I want to start," he said. "I don't just want to go to the NFL to say I went. I want to be somebody. I want to be out there making plays. I want to be on somebody's fantasy draft."
Love for the game
Hudgins will watch the four days of NFL draft coverage from his off-campus apartment where on his bedroom wall hangs the message: "Love ... is when it's not just a game anymore."
That's how he views football.
"When it means everything to you," he said. "The only way you wouldn't do it is if you couldn't do it. That's the only way you'd give it up."
So he enters this important week without anxiety. His parents, Leslie and Darius Hudgins, are on alert to drive from Rocky Mount if he is drafted.
If not, he has talked with Sullivan, his agent, about what the contingency plan is if he were to become a free agent.
Their main concern is landing with a team that offers him a real chance of earning a roster spot.
"I pray that it works out for him because of his love for it and his hard work," Leslie Hudgins said. "It's his dream. He's put in the work."
Hudgins believes he has a chance.
"It can happen," Hudgins said. "I can see myself there. I know it's going to take more work when I get there. A lot of things I'm going to have to learn, but at the same time I'm ready to do it."
In many ways, he's still that little boy writing his own story.
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