Carmel's McGrath earns Chiefs' attention
Before he became someone you might consider adding to your fantasy football team, Kansas City Chiefs tight end Sean McGrath blocked, blocked and blocked some more for Carmel High School's option offense.
"We don't throw the ball a heck of a lot," Carmel varsity head coach Andy Bitto said.
Blocking remains part of McGrath's job description these days, but it is his pass catching that been a revelation for the unbeaten Chiefs, who claimed him off waivers a little more than a month ago from the Seattle Seahawks. Pressed into service because of injuries at tight end, the 25-year-old McGrath has proved a capable receiving threat. In the last two games, the Mundelein native has 9 receptions for 95 yards, including his first NFL regular-season TD in a 31-7 victory against New York Giants.
"Coming in and having to play right away, I think he's done an excellent job of just going out and playing," Chiefs quarterback Alex Smith told reporters after the win against the Giants. "… He didn't blink, just stepped in and went and we didn't even notice, didn't skip a beat. I've been really impressed with him."
McGrath's journey from modestly recruited prospect to professional player gaining an NFL foothold included stops at two universities and some setbacks along the way.
McGrath began his collegiate career at Eastern Illinois in 2006. He redshirted his first season, saw some snaps as a reserve in 2007, then moved into a bigger role in 2008, catching 30 passes. However, he was dismissed from the Panthers for "violating team rules," as he termed it, after his redshirt sophomore season.
He declined to go into specifics on what happened, but McGrath said: "You can put two-and-two together. I'm a young college kid, just getting fresh out of high school."
McGrath said he learned a valuable lesson from it.
"You really don't realize how important something is to you until you get it taken away from you," he said in a phone interview this week. "In that short time when I was just kind of in limbo there, it was pretty scary. Something I had been doing since third grade was kind of just taken away from me because of some stupid mistakes that you make."
With the help of late Eastern Illinois assistant coach Jeff Hoover, McGrath landed at Division II Henderson State University in Arkansas. Hoover, who passed away in an auto accident in 2009, had coached at Henderson State and "put in a good word for me," McGrath said.
After missing the '09 season as a transfer, McGrath had a productive 2010 season for Henderson State, catching 55 passes for 656 yards and 4 touchdowns. In his final season, a foot injury limited him to 7 games and 6 catches.
After going undrafted in April 2012, McGrath signed with the Seahawks, who kept him on their practice squad for the majority of the season. Last December he was promoted to the roster, where he stayed for two regular-season and two postseason games, seeing work in each game.
He opened the 2013 season with the Seahawks, catching 4 passes in the preseason. However, he was waived on Aug. 31 as Seattle trimmed its roster to the 53-player limit.
The Chiefs claimed him the next day and immediately worked him into the tight end rotation. His role increased with veteran Anthony Fasano and rookie Travis Kelce both dealing with injuries.
McGrath has made the most of his opportunities, catching 11-of-13 passes thrown his way, according to NFL statistics. Smith has shown a willingness to look his way in some key spots. For instance, McGrath's touchdown came on third-and-goal play from the Giants' 5-yard line.
"He throws a great ball," McGrath said of Smith. " All I had to do was catch the ball. He threw it between my numbers every single time."
With success on a winning team comes attention, and McGrath is starting to get more of it. His bushy beard, which extends well outside his face mask, has become the object of some fascination.
"Touchdown, Sean McGrath, beard and all," said Fox announcer Kevin Burkhardt as McGrath celebrated his TD against the Giants.
"He's a pretty free-spirit guy," Bitto, Carmel's athletic director, said of McGrath.
But Bitto, who sees McGrath on occasion, has noticed a change in his former player.
"The last few times I talked to him, he's a different person," Bitto said this week. "He's not a kid anymore."
The beard drives home that point. But so does McGrath's unique path to the NFL.
"It wasn't thrust upon him," Bitto said. "He had to earn it."
• Mike Wilkening has covered the NFL for more than a decade. You can read his work at Pro Football Talk, The Linemakers at Sporting News and NBC New York, among other publications. He can be followed on Twitter @mikewilkening. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.