After Shawn Loiseau’s freshman season at Merrimack College, during which he saw limited time on defense for the Division 2 football program, he met with coach John Perry.
Perry meets with his student-athletes at the end of every semester to discuss their short-term and long-term academic and athletic goals.
When he sat down with Loiseau, the Shrewsbury-raised linebacker who was his first recruit when Perry took over at Merrimack, the linebacker wrote, “I want to play in the NFL.’’
Perry knew Loiseau could be a high-level college player - he first saw him play while he was an assistant at New Hampshire and was responsible for scouting the Worcester area - but considering at that point Loiseau was a special-teamer learning how to read offensive cues, the coach thought maybe his young player should have a couple of other, more realistic, goals.
“He pushed the piece of paper back across my desk and said, ‘No, I’m set with my goal,’ ’’ Perry recalled recently. “I think he has always thought that way, and we chuckle about it now.’’
It’s easy for the two to laugh about it now because Loiseau has made playing in the NFL a realistic possibility. The 22-year-old from the tiny school with the football program that has played just 16 seasons could hear his name called in the later rounds of the draft.
Loiseau became a full-time starter as a sophomore and wound up setting a school record for tackles, with 123, and tied for the national lead with 12.3 tackles per game. He was second nationally in tackles as a junior and senior.
Loiseau earned an invite to the East-West Shrine Game, and then to the annual NFL Combine, an honor bestowed upon just a couple of Division 2 players a year.
At the Shrine game, Loiseau was affectionately dubbed “Rudy’’ after the Notre Dame walk-on immortalized in a movie of the same name. It was an eye-opening experience for Loiseau, who never had flown before (the game was in St. Petersburg, Fla.), and had no idea what a per diem was when $150 was placed in his hand at check-in.
The 6-foot-1-inch, 244-pound Loiseau notes that he isn’t as small as the 5-6 Rudy Ruettiger, but he believes he earned the nickname because there is something in common.
“I think they were just comparing the heart that I had and that’s one of my biggest things in football that I’ve been saying since high school: people can measure how tall you are, how big you are, but they can’t measure your heart,’’ Loiseau said. “And I think I showed it down there, just my love for the game and how important the game of football is to me in my life.’’
“I coached [former Patriots, Eagles, Steelers, and Cardinals special teams standout] Sean Morey at Brown University, and one of the things that I always said about Sean was that what separated him was his work ethic and his heart; he had the heart of a lion,’’ Perry said. “And I never thought I’d have another opportunity to coach a kid of that caliber again, and Shawn Loiseau is the same kind of kid.
“The day he walked in [to Merrimack], he worked harder than anyone else on the field.’’
Loiseau has dreamed of playing in the NFL since he was 7, grew up watching the Patriots with his family, and was receiving attention for his play at Shrewsbury High, when one night almost derailed things for him.
As a junior, a fight outside his house left Loiseau with a cut in his head requiring 28 stitches after he was struck with a pipe; in retaliation, Loiseau slammed his assailant’s head to the ground, and he was out cold, and in a coma for a while.
The charges - assault and battery with a deadly weapon - were dropped eventually, but the damage to Loiseau’s football future was done, at least temporarily: the Division 1-AA schools that were looking at him looked away, not interested in taking on a potential problem kid.
When Perry, a first-year coach at Merrimack, called, Loiseau listened. The coach offered the chance to play early and start quickly.
The fight likely was a big reason Loiseau ended up playing for him, but Perry believes Loiseau dealt with it as well as could be expected.
“He really handled that whole situation so well that the maturity level to be able to handle that at that point in somebody’s life, getting in that circumstance, I really felt like he was a kid that had a lot of character and that would serve him well in life,’’ Perry said.
Loiseau admits to carrying a large chip on his shoulder, born of the slight of being overlooked by bigger programs, of having even those he considers friends laugh at the idea that someday he’d reach the NFL.
And now, that day could be less than a week away.
Perry traveled to Florida to watch his star play with and against players from major programs such as Georgia, Florida, Penn State, and Texas. When he saw that Loiseau didn’t look out of place in terms of the speed of the game, he knew he would be OK in the NFL.
Loiseau said he was “foaming at the mouth’’ for the opportunity, and holding his own gave him a boost of confidence.
All but three NFL teams sent scouts to Merrimack last fall to get a look at Loiseau, and because of his success, the school held its first Pro Day last month. Perry believes the inside linebacker represents not just the current Warriors players and coaches, but all the alums of the program.
Loiseau has no problem carrying Merrimack football on his shoulders.
“As much as I’ve always believed in him, the odds are stacked against him,’’ Perry said. “To watch somebody rise to the heights that he’s risen to has been one of the most rewarding experiences of my coaching career.’’
Whether he is drafted or is an undrafted free agent (he’ll watch the draft proceedings at his parents’ house in Shrewsbury), Loiseau faces more challenges - competing against the bigger, faster, stronger players he’s been told he can’t hang with. He’s prepared for any circumstance, loves to play special teams, which is where he would have to earn a roster spot, and can guarantee one thing to any team that gives him a chance.
“They’ll get a guy that’s going to bring intensity and a high motor every single day,’’ he said. “Football to me is life. The second I step on the football field and have the pads on, or the moment I come off the football field, my whole life revolves around football. My favorite thing to do outside of [play] football is I’m in the gym.
“A lot of people make fun of me because my life is pretty boring - all I do is eat, sleep, and go to the gym and talk about football. But this is something I’ve wanted since I was a little boy, so whatever team picks me or whatever team I pick in the free agent process, is going to get a guy that comes ready to work every single day.’’Shalise Manza Young can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @shalisemyoung.