Donnie Ernsberger is an undrafted rookie on a 90-man NFL roster that, within a few months, will be cut almost in half. He would seem like a bit of a long shot to be playing on Sundays this fall. In reality, though, Ernsberger is tantalizingly close to realizing a dream he's been nurturing since he was a little boy in Battle Creek, Michigan.
In that regard, Ernsberger is probably very much like almost all of his 89 current teammates with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. NFL aspirations are far from unique, and it takes an incredible amount of hard work and talent to make them come true. Even by those standards, though, Ernsberger's story is one of serious perseverance.
"There are always struggles and setbacks, whether they're minor or major," said the Western Michigan standout who signed with the Buccaneers shortly after the conclusion of the 2018 NFL Draft. "You've just got to have the heart to get through them, step over them and just give it your all every day. I started from the bottom. You've just got to always give your heart and effort to the game."
Ernsberger was barely recruited out of Lakeview High School, where he played linebacker and running back, the latter position the result of an injury to a teammate. He had been serving as a blocking tight end on offense but he took an opportunity at a bigger role and ran with it, which has essentially become his defining trait as a football player. Ernsberger won honorable mention all-state honors and his single mother stretched the family dollar to get him into every football camp possible, but he still didn't get a single scholarship offer from a Division I school.
He did, however, get some interest from Western Michigan and their new, young and highly energetic head coach, P.J. Fleck, coincidentally a former member of the Buccaneers' coaching staff under Greg Schiano. The Broncos didn't have a spot for Ernsberger in Fleck's first recruiting class, but they liked his approach to the game. Western Michigan was only 20 miles from Battle Creek, and it offered a chance at Division I play, so Ernsberger took Fleck up on his offer to be a "grayshirt," coming to campus without a scholarship and waiting a year to join the next class.
It was a fateful decision. Ernsberger was somewhat of a player without a really defined position. The Broncos started him out as a fullback and later made him a blocking tight end. Near the end of his college career, he became more involved in the passing game and was named the team's Offensive MVP after a 34-catch, 394-yard season as a senior. Throughout it all, he was a willing and impactful player on special teams.
More important than the numbers or his specific spot on the depth chart was Ernsberger's support system. He had a mentor in offensive line/tight ends coach Bill Kenney, and he had the unwavering support of his parents, Kara and Lonnie, who had divorced when he was five. Both of his parents made it to almost all of his college games, home and away. His sister, Shalene, briefly earned a national spotlight when she ran onto the field to hug him after the second of his two touchdown catches in an incredible 71-68, five-overtime win over Buffalo.
"Growing up with some tough times with some great parents, they helped produce the player that I am today and the person that I am today," said Ernsberger. "Any adversity that comes my way, I'm ready to step over it."
The Buccaneers have a talented tight end corps headlined by 2017 first-round pick O.J. Howard and prolific pass-catcher Cameron Brate, who recently got a lucrative new contract. They also have a couple of young contributors in Antony Auclair and Alan Cross both of whom, like Brate, originally arrived as undrafted free agents. But there's a potential role for Ernsberger as a do-everything tight end/H-back/fullback/special teams type. He's essentially been a do-anything-and-everything player since his high school days, so that idea is quite appealing as he tries to take one more step into the NFL.
"I would play a little bit of tight end, but I would be a hybrid type," said Ernsberger of what the Buccaneers told him of his possible role with the team. "I would play the 'F.' So I would take reps at both positions. So there's an opportunity for me to play both spots and then play on special teams, too. I was actually a defensive player [in high school], a linebacker. I still have a defensive-minded game. I love special teams and I think that's one of my strengths. I use that mentality out on the field, even on offense."
As far as taking that next step, Ernsberger is reassured by the history of players in his position getting a real shot at the 53-man roster in Tampa. The fact that he'll be working with a unit full of players with similarly undrafted backgrounds – Brate, Auclair, Cross – tells him that there is a "light at the end of the tunnel" for an undrafted rookie trying to overcome the odds.
There are currently 16 undrafted rookies on the Buccaneers' roster hoping to get through that tunnel and see the light on the other side. They are all underdogs of a sort, as Ernsberger has been since Western Michigan gave him that grayshirt opportunity. History suggests that one or more of them will make it, as is the case almost every season. If Ernsberger is one of those, it will be because he never stopped fighting to make those childhood dreams come true.
"I've wanted to play in the NFL since I was little," he said. "Every night I used to wish for the same thing, and that was to play in the NFL. I just never lost focus on my goal."