INDIANAPOLIS — Despite it being his goal for as long as he can remember, Qadree Ollison’s place in the NFL was never assured.
The Niagara Falls native played just one sport growing up, and for most of his life, the NFL has been the light at the end of the tunnel that has brought him through the struggles that the world has presented him as a far-off, big-picture goal.
That goal came into focus in a big way on Thursday, as Ollison found himself face-to-face with NFL executives at the 2019 NFL Combine.
Ollison underwent medical examination, sat through interviews and performed the bench press drill on Thursday, his first full day of participation. Friday, he’ll run the 40 — he hopes to hit 4.5 seconds — and perform pass-catching drills.
The NFL is no longer a far-off dream, but an up-front, in-his-face reality.
“This is something that I’ve been working for my entire life, not just the last couple years at Pitt,” Ollison said Thursday. “You dream of this as a kid, you grow up watching this as a kid. It’s really surreal to be here. I’m embracing every moment of it and loving every moment of it.”
But that wasn’t always the case.
Back when Ollison came out of Canisius High School in Buffalo, the NFL seemed to be his destiny. A three-star prospect, he received plenty of scholarship offers, and offers from the kinds of places that have no problems sending running backs to the NFL: Boston College, Iowa, Penn State, Syracuse, Wisconsin and of course, Pitt. Old school, northern football, for a throwback type of running back, a 235-pounder that can burst through a hole and put down a linebacker with a stiff arm.
For Ollison, Pitt was it, and it was easy to see him following in the footsteps of the likes of Brandon Miree, LaRod Stephens-Howling, LeSean McCoy and Dion Lewis.
But Ollison wasn’t so good that he wouldn’t have to wait his turn in college, and so he redshirted in 2014 while James Conner transformed from a player many thought was better-suited for defense to the ACC Player of the Year.
Ollison got his chance in 2015, when Conner went down in the season opener with a knee injury. He took advantage of the opportunity, rushed for over 1,000 yards and was an all-ACC freshman.
But in 2016, Conner returned, and Ollison returned to the bench in a backup role.
The following year was a struggle on and off the field. Pitt started 2-5, and after an injury to George Aston, Ollison was asked to play fullback.
Those problems seemed trivial on Oct. 17, when his brother was shot three times and killed outside of a gas station in Niagara Falls. Lerowne Harris was only 35.
At that point, the NFL seemed a long way away. His mindset?
“Get real and get better.”
Ollison did just that in his senior season. Wearing his brother’s high school uniform No. 30 in tribute, he went out with a second 1,000-yard campaign — just the sixth player in program history to perform that feat, and re-established himself as a bona-fide NFL prospect.
“It was really motivation to try to get back to where I was as a freshman and even be better than that, because I wasn’t the best player I was. I played some of my best football my senior year. It was a lot of just putting my head down and just working.”
That doesn’t mean that he doesn’t have anything left to prove. He’s excited to show that he can catch the ball out of the backfield during combine drills, and he wants to hit that 40 time to show that a big back can still have speed.
“You definitely have got to prove it,” Ollison said. “I weighed in at 228 pounds. A lot of people compare me to James and his size and things like that. Definitely going out there and proving to them that I’m fast and that I can run. I’ve showed it on tape, but I’ve got to go out there and show it [Friday.]”
The other area Ollison is hoping to excel is in the conference room, where the fact that he played for four offensive coordinators in five years at Pitt and played four phases of special teams means that his football I.Q. is top notch.
“I’ve learned everything,” he said. “I’ve learned four different offenses. There’s not much I haven’t seen. … I’ve run every type of offensive scheme you can think of. It helps me a lot. It’s a blessing in a way, because when I go to different teams, every team has a different scheme.”
The hope for Ollison is that come the last weekend in April, one of those teams has found a fit for him in their scheme. He’ll be at home in Niagara Falls, waiting for that moment that he’s spent so long thinking about.
“Just hearing my name called, that’s the goal,” he said. “I can only imagine what it will feel like.”