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Lockout leaves former NIU standouts in lurch

Running back Chad Spann scored 50 touchdowns during his career Northern Illinois. The undrafted free agent hopes sign professional contract

Running back Chad Spann scored 50 touchdowns during his career at Northern Illinois. The undrafted free agent hopes to sign a professional contract when the NFL lockout ends. | Kyle Bursaw~The Associated Press

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Updated: July 12, 2011 2:12AM

He may be caught in lockout limbo, but Chad Spann is trying to be patient, hoping his time will come.

The Northern Illinois University running back last season rushed for 1,388 yards and won the Mid-American Conference’s Vern Smith Leadership Award as the league’s most valuable player in a vote of its coaches. Spann had naturally hoped to hear his name called when the National Football League held its annual player draft.

Seven rounds came and went and the 5-foot-9, 198-pounder with a nose for the end zone — his 50 career touchdowns rank second and fourth, respectively, in NIU and MAC history — was not selected.

“It was a little bit frustrating,” Spann admitted. “You figure you’ve done all you can to get drafted, putting up good stats, winning awards, running your best times at your pro day. To not get your name called hurts a little bit.

“At the same time, I came to Northern as a walk-on and did pretty well.”

Now he hopes to do the same thing at the next level.

Unfortunately, those plans have been put on hold by the NFL owners’ lockout of their players. With no new collective bargaining agreement in place, it prevents potential undrafted free agents like Spann and his teammate, wide receiver Landon Cox, from signing with a team.

Both were on hand Friday at Marmion Academy, helping former NIU teammate Larry English run a football camp for kids age 12 to 18.

“It’s funny, we were just talking about the lockout,” Spann said as he and Cox took a break as one group of youngsters left their work station and they waited for another to join them.

“We just saw (online) that the judge ruled today that it was legal for the owners to lock the players out,” Spann said, holding up his phone.

English, who two years ago was the first NIU player ever taken in the first round of the draft by the San Diego Chargers, had asked both Spann and Cox to help with the camp back in February. They were joined by 18 current Huskies.

“My mom and his mother, Susan, have become very close friends, too,” said Spann, who is from Indianapolis. “(English) was a teammate of ours and a mentor to us. Plus, it’s only 30 miles (from DeKalb where both players continue to live and train). It’s something we wanted to do.”

The 6-3 Cox, with just 98 career receptions for 1,109 yards and eight TDs, didn’t have as celebrated a career as Spann but still lives the dream. He need only look to the experience of another former Huskie — English’s former roommate Britt Davis.

Moved from quarterback to wideout, Davis spent time in the New York Jets’ training camp in 2009, then signed with Denver last season and spent the first 13 weeks of the season on its practice squad. He had no receptions, but did see action in the Broncos’ final three games.

“I talked with the Bears, Cleveland and Tennessee before the draft,” said Cox, a Thornton Fractional North product. “I knew if I wasn’t gonna get picked (in the draft) I might have an opportunity. That’s all I’m hoping for.”

Spann said about seven teams had been in contact with his agent before the draft.

“He told me I was probably better off not getting drafted in the sixth or seventh rounds,” Spann said. “There are no guaranteed spots for guys drafted that late, either. At least as a free agent, you may have some say in where you go and you may be able to pick a team that you think has more of a need for you.

“It’s just like college was in that regard. I had other schools I could have walked on at, but I knew Northern’s tradition of running backs and small running backs, plus I thought they would have an opening and that I might be able to compete for a spot.”

It worked once, who’s to say it can’t happen again?

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