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Tuesday, May 6, 2008 | Eric Bakhtiari, a Chargers’ undrafted free agent, finally caught up with Antoine Cason, the Bolts’ first-round draft pick.

It was last weekend at the Chargers’ mini-camp, although meeting Cason or any other Pac-10 player wasn’t Bakhtiari’s goal when he backed out on plans to enroll at Arizona as a plain, old student and instead play non-scholarship football as a walk-on candidate at the University of San Diego.

Hey, you never know where NFL players come from, and look no further than the story lines of how Bakhtiari and Cason arrived at the same NFL mini-camp dressed in the blue practice jerseys of the Chargers’ defense for examples.

By now, every Chargers fan knows about Cason. The Arizona cornerback was a first-round draft pick after winning the 2007 Jim Thorpe Award as the nation’s top defensive back.

Bakhtiari, a defensive end at USD who is converting to outside linebacker, ended up playing college football by accident. On spring break, he visited USD’s campus on a lark with a friend who was planning to attend the school.

That’s when he got the bug to try to walk-on at USD instead of attending Arizona, although he arrived at USD an unknown to the coaches as a 200-pound defensive end from Burlingame High in the Bay Area.

“It’s funny how things work out,” Bakhtiari said after Sunday’s final mini-camp workout. “It just goes to show you it’s not where you start that matters, it’s where you finish. Hopefully I’ve still got a career ahead of me. I’ve got a lot of work to do.” 

So far Cason and Bakhtiari haven’t had time to do much more than exchange greetings in the whirlwind of events since the draft and free agent signings that led to their mini-camp reservations. 

But when told a little about Bakhtiari’s background, Cason smiled. He’s an Arizona alumnus, so how could he not like the story of a guy who wanted to attend his alma mater? 

“That’s pretty crazy,” he said. “If he would have come to Arizona, he would have had fun playing for us. If he’s here (with the Chargers), then I know he would have been a good player at Arizona, too.”

Actually, Bakhtiari says he wouldn’t have developed into the NFL prospect he is today if he had tried to walk on at Arizona or another scholarship program. At USD, a Football Championship Subdivision (formerly Division I-AA) school, he had time to learn the game and mature physically. 

“I didn’t play very much in high school,” Bakhtiari said. “Going to USD gave me time to catch up and learn the position.” 

Bakhtiari is now a 6-foot-3, 253-pounder. He redshirted in 2003, his first year on campus, and grew to 210, 225, 235 and 255, racking up impressive numbers and honors for the Toreros. 

He was an All-American on the FCS team that is made up almost entirely of scholarship school athletes. He set an NCAA record for FCS schools as a senior with 19.5 sacks.

He was not only a finalist for the Buck Buchanan Award that goes to the nation’s top FCS defensive player, he was the first player from a non-Football Bowl Subdivision (formerly Division I-A) school to be a finalist for the Ted Hendricks Award, which goes to the nation’s top defensive end.

Cason says he can appreciate the story of a player who overcame not being recruited or drafted. As one of the top recruits in the west out of Los Alamitos High, he saw plenty of examples of top recruits who failed to develop or reach their potential in college.

“There’s always a story of a guy who walks on, works his butt off and earns an opportunity at the NFL,” Cason said. “That’s always amazing to see guys do that.” 

If you look at Arizona’s roster, you could say for every Eric Bakhtiari there are a dozen or more college scholarship athletes who didn’t make it to the NFL.

Do the math: Colleges can sign up to 25 players to a scholarship class. Cason was one of four players drafted out of Arizona, but according to Arizona’s Sports Information Department, no other Wildcats player signed as an undrafted free agent.

A big-name school like Alabama didn’t have any players drafted. Bakhtiari’s longshot at making the Chargers’ roster or earning a place on the practice squad at the very least allows him time to put off joining the real world like other college graduates. In fact, he’s ahead of some of Cason’s scholarship teammates who finished their eligibility without a chance at the NFL.

“I don’t care about not being drafted,” Bakhtiari said. “I’m just really happy the Chargers called and signed me.”

Tom Shanahan is voiceofsandiego.org‘s sports columnist. He is the media coordinator for the San Diego Hall of Champions and an occasional writer for Chargers.com. You can e-mail him at toms@sdhoc.com. Or send a letter to the editor.

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