Matt Lengel had two options after he suffered his second consecutive season-ending knee injury early in the 2013 season — end his playing career at Eastern Kentucky University or come back for a sixth year of eligibility.
He chose to come back.
That decision helped land him a spot on the Cincinnati Bengals' roster as an undrafted rookie free agent.
"It's amazing," Lengel said during a mandatory three-day Bengals minicamp last week. "After everything I went through, the injuries and stuff like that, it's pretty awesome that when you set personal goals for yourself it's pretty neat to see them come true."
The 6-foot-8, 272-pound tight end stood in the middle of the Bengals' locker room in Paul Brown Stadium after a morning practice and surveyed the room. "Some mornings you wake up; it'll be early and you'll be sore and tired from the previous day," he said, "but when I put my bag together I look at my playbook and I'm like, 'I'm a freaking Cincinnati Bengal.'"
Lengel transferred to EKU after spending one season at Northeastern as a redshirt in 2009. Because of all the injuries — which included tearing the an terior cruciate ligament in his right knee twice — Lengel played in just 37 games as a Colonel, catching the ball 33 times for 361 yards and two touchdowns.
The possibility of landing on an NFL roster seemed bleak.
"I was surprised the Bengals called me because they drafted two tight ends," he said. "I was talking to a couple other teams I thought I had a better chance of going to (the Philadelphia Eagles and New York Giants). As much as you think you have a grasp and understanding of what's going to happen, you really have no idea."
One person who knows Lengel's potential is Dane Damron, EKU's offensive coordinator.
"I'm not surprised at all," he said of the Bengals signing Lengel. "If Matt's college career at Eastern had gone the way he had hoped it would without the injuries, I think he had a chance to be a draft pick."
However, injuries did sidetrack the Pennsylvania native. He suffered a season-ending knee injury in the 2012 opener against Purdue and reinjured the knee just two games into the 2013 season.
Despite those setbacks, there Lengel stood in a Bengals practice shirt with the likes of Andy Dalton, Giovani Bernard and Devon Still walking by.
"It's wild," he said. "You kind of still feel like a little kid."
The NFL, however, is no place for kids. In the dog-eat-dog world of professional sports, dreams are often shattered. Lengel knows his place as an undrafted rookie and knows he faces an uphill battle just to make the practice squad.
"I have to fight my butt off to still make a roster," he said. "I think here I have a good opportunity to do that."
The Bengals drafted two tight ends for the first time in 30 years to add depth behind starter Tyler Eifert. They also signed rookie free agent John Peters and 2014 practice squad player Jake Murphy, has made waves during mini-camp.
In short, Lengel's chances seem slim.
"It's a business up there," Damron said. "They're going to sign a guy that fits with what they do best. I hope he makes it and I'm just glad he got a chance."
All Lengel can do is catch the attention of the coaches and hope that a strong work ethic turns heads.
"Here," he said, "you can get cut one day and they can bring in someone else who can do your job 10 times better. I think keeping that passion for it, that understanding that if I slack off one day that's one chance another guy can take over my spot."
Lengel embraces the challenge. He arrives at the stadium early every day and works hard to prove his worth, be it jogging everywhere, hitting the gym hard or "trying to do everything the right way."
Regardless of the outcome, Lengel has earned the appreciation of players and coaches. After years of setbacks and frustration, Lengel has rebounded.
As Damron said, that takes a special type of person.
"If any kid makes it I hope it's him," he said. "Just because of what he's gone through and how loyal he was to us and to his teammates. You talk to his teammates at Eastern, and I guarantee not one kid will say one bad thing. He was just phenomenal. He's what we want our football players to be."