By Larry Lage
DETROIT (AP) — Darren Fells dreamed of being in the NFL while he was playing professional hoops overseas.
Instead of sticking with basketball as a profession and collecting a steady six-figure salary for a sixth season, Fells decided to take a shot at playing football.
Seattle gave him his first opportunity to change sports in 2013, working him out initially as a defensive end before inviting him to training camp as a tight end. The Seahawks signed and cut him twice that year and he ended up spending a season on Arizona’s practice squad before making his NFL debut with the Cardinals in 2014.
After he spent three seasons in Arizona, usually relegated to blocking, the Detroit Lions signed him in March. He was expected to block most of the time for the Lions, but he matched a career high with four receptions in last week’s win at Minnesota.
“Every day, I pinch myself when I walk in here,” Fells said softly, standing in Detroit’s locker room. “It is still a dream.”
Fells may not be a star for the Lions (3-1) when they host the Carolina Panthers (3-1) on Sunday, but he might have the best backstory of anyone on the turf at Ford Field.
He resumed his football career five years ago after it was dormant for a decade. After being a standout tight end and defensive end at Fullerton High School in California, he ignored advice and chose to play basketball at UC Irvine instead of football at a larger college.
“Straight out of high school, everybody told me I should’ve played football over basketball,” Fells recalled. “After senior year in college, I got a call from my head coach and he told me Minnesota wanted to give me a tryout. I’m thinking, ‘Timberwolves?’ He said, ‘No, Vikings.’ I said, ‘They do know I play basketball, right? That’s weird.’
“I had a tryout and they wanted to have me come to training camp, but I had a guaranteed contract from five countries to play basketball and make about $100,000 with the team paying taxes, an apartment, a car and some food.”
Fells played basketball for two years in Belgium and went on to spend time in Finland, France, Mexico and Argentina.
While there are and have been college basketball players such as San Diego tight end Antonio Gates and former NFL star Tony Gonzalez, and track stars, including former NFL receiver Willie Gault, to make a leap to the league, it’s seems unlikely another athlete paved the way for Fells’ path.
“I can’t think of anyone that has done it like him,” said former Dallas Cowboys general manager Gil Brandt, who has six-plus decades of experience in and around the NFL.
Here are some other things to watch:
WILL HE TALK TO HER?: Panthers quarterback Cam Newtonlost an endorsement deal on Thursday because the company perceived his comments to be “sexist” to a female reporter. Newton might face questions from at least one woman on Sunday because Fox assigned Pam Oliver to be the game’s sideline reporter.
USUALLY PIVOTAL: Carolina has given up the ball five more times than it has forced turnovers, ranking ahead of only Chicago in the NFL in that key statistic. Newton has thrown five interceptions, three in a 21-point loss to New Orleans, to account for most of the Panthers’ seven turnovers. Carolina’s defense is No. 4 in yards allowed, but has forced just two turnovers to rank ahead of only Miami. The Lions, meanwhile, lead the league in forcing nine more turnovers than they have given up.
YOU AGAIN?: The Lions have seen plenty of Julius Peppers over the years, most recently in Green Bay and Chicago. Now, he’s back in Carolina and the 37-year-old defensive end doesn’t seem to be slowing down. He had his second two-sack game of the season in New England.
“I can’t get away from that guy,” Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford said. “He looks like the Julius Peppers I’ve played against my entire career.”
BYRD ON A WIRE: Carolina lost starting safety Kurt Coleman for a month to a knee injury against the Patriots. They signed three-time Pro Bowl safety Jairus Byrd to add depth, giving them another experienced player in the secondary to go along with 36-year-old safety Mike Adams. It’s unclear if Byrd will be ready to start or if the Panthers will stick with rookie Demetrious Cox, who replaced Coleman during last week’s game.
The Panthers won’t have to face rookie receiver Kenny Golladay, who was held out of practice all week with a hamstring injury and will miss a second straight game. Golladay scored two touchdowns in his NFL debut.
GROUND GAINS: Detroit is slowly improving its running game, going from among the NFL’s worst to relatively average. Ameer Abdullah had a career-high 94 yards on 20 carries in last week’s win over the Vikings and seemed to survive an injury scare. He went out late in the game with an ankle injury, but was cleared for a full practice on Thursday.
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