It was about 6:50 p.m. on April 28 when Chris Schleuger got the call.
Schleuger was in the stands at a West Bandits game in Sioux City, where his brother, Zac, plays linebacker.
He stepped out for just a minute, maybe less.
But it was enough to learn he’d been invited to try out for the Pittsburgh Steelers.
“Me and my agent talked and felt good about this,” Chris said. “So I had a feeling I was going to get a call but didn’t want to get all my eggs in one basket, but once I got that call, it was relieving I was going to get to go somewhere and try out.”
Schleuger sat back down with his parents, telling them the news. They wanted to save the excitement for after the game, but that wouldn’t happen.
Media outlets leaked the news, which showed up on the “I grew up in Britt, Iowa!” facebook page. Schleuger’s phone was blowing up before the end of the game.
“Everybody was texting me after that, but I was kind of wondering how they knew.” Schleuger said.
The road to signing with a team as an undrafted free agent is a long one, and he’s still got to make the team. He was one of 13 rookie free agents to sign with the Steelers.
Schleuger set his sights high after a fruitful high school career at West Hancock as the starting fullback, running for a career 5,452 yards and 76 touchdowns.
“I still remember him running that 80-yard touchdown against Garrigan his junior year,” West Hancock head coach Bob Sanger said. “I mean, we had a 250-pound kid running the ball. He was just very visible.”
Schleuger wouldn’t run the ball when he arrived at Iowa Western Community College, though. He tried his hand at tight end there, and maintain a wrestling career his first year there.
Then it came time to prioritize football, so he’d transfer to the University of Northern Iowa for spring workouts after his second season.
That’s where he’d find his home on the offensive line. The transition wasn’t a hard one physically, but he had to accept he wouldn’t be carrying the ball anymore.
“Favorite memory in high school was just running the ball and realizing now that I had the opportunity to, whereas other kids don’t,” Schleuger said. “And I was given a shot and basically took advantage of that chance.”
Knowing he wanted to make it pro, Schleuger found an opportunity for more development in his new position.
He’d transfer to the University of Alabama-Birmingham, a program looking to build from the ground up after being shut down in 2014 due to financial reasons.
“Our program got shut down and we were brought back, 48 million dollars raised,” UAB head coach Bill Clark said. “What happened is we got some Iowa Western players, and what the NCAA did allow us to do was not to lose eligibility.
“He got to come in and focus on academics for a year, and Chris, coming from having been a running back to an O-lineman, he had already made that jump. But this gave him more time to get bigger and get stronger so he was the perfect fit.”
The Blazers wouldn’t play a 2016 season, which meant the players received a red shirt year to train and develop for the next season. Schleuger would start the 2017 season, where the Blazers went 8-5 overall with a Conference USA record of 6-2. They’d play in the Bahamas Bowl and fall to Ohio 41-6.
It worked to Schleuger’s advantage. UAB held a pro day for him and three of his other teammates and the scouts piled in. Cornerback Darious Williams found his home with the Baltimore Ravens and linebacker Shaq Jones with the Cardinals. Wide receiver Darius Powell looks to sign soon.
“Some of the coaches were asking me if I had a call yet and I hadn’t, but a scout came in to see all the seniors and talk with them and get to know them,” Schleuger said. “I just sat down with the Pittsburgh Steelers guy and he talked to me the most out of all of them.”
Sanger believes Schleuger’s success traces back to his athletic nature, being quick on his feet for someone his size. It was just a matter of how far Schleuger wanted to take it.
“I’ve coached here for 50 years now and I’ve never had a kid make it to this point, I think that’s pretty special, I think it’s just getting some recognition,” Sanger said. “I saw it in his abilities, and you don’t necessarily know how far kids want to take that…He was down there at a D1 school, played in a bowl game, big shot to go on, he made the moves.”
Schleuger says he learned a lot being a multi-sport athlete, also, the hip movement he learned in wrestling and strength he gained in shot put just added to his success at being a versatile athlete.
He was exactly what Clark wanted in an offensive lineman.
“You’re really looking for athletes on the offensive line,” Clark said. “You take that athleticism and size… and he has intangibles: intelligence and work ethic. You think that thing’s a given, but it’s really not.”
Schleuger hasn’t made the roster yet, so he knows the road here only gets tougher, but he’s willing to put in the work. He’s that much closer to his dream.
“I don’t have a backup plan, so once I figure out this doesn’t work, then I’ll have a backup plan,” Schleuger said. “I’m really excited actually, when people asked me what I was going to college for, I say, ‘football.’”