When Darren Fells’ heart told him not to play football in college, even though he had been an all-state receiver at Fullerton High and had his pick of scholarships from UCLA and other schools, he followed his instincts and accepted a basketball scholarship from UC Irvine.
When his heart again told him he was playing the wrong sport, this time after a solid college basketball career and five seasons in Europe, he listened once more. His latest switch, more surprising than his first, seems to be right for him — and it has put him in a wonderfully improbable position.
Fells, 28, is poised to make his NFL debut at tight end with the Arizona Cardinals on Sunday, about 18 months after he returned to football. Told by coaches there’s a possibility he will be activated and in uniform against the San Francisco 49ers, he would be the first athlete from UCI — which doesn’t have a football team — to appear in the NFL. His path has been unconventional, but he’s enjoying where he is and how he got there.
“It’s still, to this day, pretty surreal to me,” he said during a phone interview. “I hadn’t been on a football field in nine years and now here I am, playing for the Arizona Cardinals.”
Fells, whose older brother Daniel is a tight end with the New York Giants, finally feels he’s in the right place and has the right motivation. That’s as important to his success as his ability to learn routes and relearn the game’s nuances.
“He’s worked really hard and he’s asking questions. He wants to be good,” Cardinals quarterback Drew Stanton said of Fells, who played in four preseason games and caught seven passes for 68 yards and one touchdown. “Sometimes that gets lost in translation for guys like that because they don’t realize what a different level this is. He takes it very serious and works very hard at what he does.”
Though Fells excelled at football in high school, he was never completely happy.
“I knew that he didn’t like the hitting and that sort of thing as much as getting out there on the basketball court and being physical on the basketball court,” said Tod Murphy, a former Irvine assistant coach who now coaches the men’s team at Gordon College in Wenham, Mass.
“He was great to work with. He was always very interested in what I could teach him and always trying to implement it into his game and the way he played. He was just a big, old, 6-6, 250-pound teddy bear. He always had that big smile.”
Fells earned second-team All-Big West honors in his senior year at Irvine, in 2008, ranks third in school history in rebounds (780) and 12th in scoring (1,252 points). He played professionally in Belgium, Finland and Argentina. It wasn’t a bad life but it lost its appeal.
“Every year I spent overseas I felt the game just wasn’t the way I expected it to turn out to be, so that drive to continue with basketball started to fade a little bit,” he said. “I started talking to my brother and he told me to give football a shot. That’s when I started training, and here I am.”
It wasn’t quite that simple. First, his agent, Ron Slavin, arranged for him to begin football-specific workouts in Los Angeles at the Athletes Performance facility. Slavin got him a tryout with the Seattle Seahawks, who saw him as a defensive end.
Fells, now 6-7 and 281 pounds, had other ideas. He saw precedents in San Diego’s Antonio Gates, who didn’t play college football but became a Pro Bowl tight end, and New Orleans’ Jimmy Graham, who played one year of college football after four years of basketball but became a standout tight end.
Fells’ workout at defensive end lasted about 30 minutes. “Then the tight ends coach came up to me and had me run some routes and told me I looked a lot more natural as a tight end than I do as a defensive end,” Fells said.
The Seahawks signed and waived him, re-signed him and then released him in their final cuts last year. The Cardinals signed him for their practice squad nine days later and signed him to a futures contract on Jan. 1 this year.
“He’s come a long way in a short period of time,” Stanton said.
And has opened many eyes along the way. “He can actually block,” Stanton said. “When he gets his hands on you, you’re not going anywhere. That’s what guys said toward the end of last year. Some of our DBs were like, ‘Dude, who is this guy?’ He came out of nowhere and they’re like, ‘He’s unstoppable.’”
Fells is just starting, or so he hopes. “I feel physically I’m ready at any time but mentally is the hardest part to get ready for the game,” he said. “They told me patiently wait until your time and when your number’s called, that’s when you come in and produce. So I’m just waiting until they let me off my leash so I can just go.”
Follow Helene Elliott on Twitter @helenenothelen
Times staff writer Sam Farmer contributed to this report.