'I see a player who deserves to be drafted': Aqeel Glass' chance to become an HBCU trendsetter

'I see a player who deserves to be drafted': Aqeel Glass' chance to become an HBCU trendsetter

ATLANTA — Inside his childhood bedroom in St. Louis that was once painted Florida orange and blue, where the walls were plastered with Tim Tebow fatheads, the floors covered in NFL cards and the closet filled with intricate puzzles, a young Aqeel Glass would fire up NCAA Football and create a custom team with Alabama A&M — his dad’s alma mater — that would go on to win the national title in the video game.

In the living room, his mom, Wendy, who grew up in the Washington, D.C., area, would play a VHS tape with interviews of the 1987-88 Washington Super Bowl-winning team featuring Grambling State quarterback Doug Williams — the first Black quarterback to win an NFL title.

Glass knew that for as long as he can remember, he wanted to play football and he wanted to play quarterback. What he didn’t expect was that trying to realize that dream would have him follow his father’s footsteps to an HBCU, or end up with Williams as a mentor. By Glass’ senior season at Lutheran North High School, he thought he had his college career mapped out at Florida International University.

Things changed quickly. In late September 2016, FIU fired coach Ron Turner and hired Butch Davis nearly a month later. When Glass got in touch with the new staff, they were clear about the direction they wanted to take the offense.

“They told me they wanted more of a dual-threat guy,” Glass said. “They weren’t looking for a pocket passer.”

Glass, 23, has spent the past few months living and training in the Atlanta suburbs with other players from historically Black colleges and universities, as well as Division I schools ahead of the NFL draft. As a 6-foot-5 pocket passer who is biracial, Glass said he’s accustomed to not exactly fitting the mold. He took the FIU fallout in stride and looked for an opportunity to get on the field as soon as possible. In November of that year, he visited Alabama A&M and was offered.

“It wasn’t the first option for me, but it would end up being the best,” Glass said.

Glass isn’t atop any rankings, but after two seasons of over 3,500 yards and over 30 touchdowns at A&M, his track record and arm both give him a shot at fulfilling part of his childhood dream — one that could be historic.

Zero HBCU players were taken in the NFL draft last year, and while the league grapples with the disconnect between the talent at HBCUs and the disparity in how often the players are being drafted, Glass is doing everything in his power to become the first HBCU quarterback drafted since Tarvaris Jackson in 2006. He has had film sessions with Donovan McNabb and developed a relationship with Williams. He has trained under the guidance of both Ron Veal — who has worked with Justin Fields and Trevor Lawrence — as well as Chip Smith, whose resume features working with over 3,500 draft prospects, including Colin Kaepernick.

“I think the NFL needs to do a better job of identifying the talent that is in those schools,” Smith said. “Aqeel has the arm and he can play with anybody. Hopefully, he gets that shot.”

NINE-YEAR-OLD Glass was not allowed to play quarterback. Little league tackle football rules stipulated that to carry, catch or throw the ball, a player could not be above a certain weight. And as his dad, Demetrius, put it, Aqeel’s height and build made him a heavier kid from an early age. He had no choice but to learn to play linebacker.

One day after practice, Demetrius remembers Aqeel getting in the car and telling him that he thought he was better than the kid who was playing quarterback. “What are we going to do about it?” Demetrius asked his son. Together, they got to work.

“It became cut season,” Glass said. “Every night, I put on a sweatsuit, get on the treadmill, and I was eating chicken breast, salad and all that stuff.”

Glass’ work paid off. He changed teams and became the starting quarterback. “He took his 10-year-old team to the little league Super Bowl,” Demetrius said.

Though Aqeel wasn’t the fastest, the elder Glass realized his son could throw the ball 40 yards at that age and, with the right training, had the potential to be an effective quarterback. As he got older and played in little leagues and camps, Demetrius wanted Aqeel to be trained in a pro-style offense and the two of them would make the drives to Chicago in the summer to keep training. By the time he got to high school and excelled, Division I ball was within reach.

When FIU fell through, Demetrius and Aqeel took a tour of Alabama A&M and the former got to show the latter where he lived, played and spent four years of his life. Demetrius wanted Glass to understand the relevance of HBCUs in the Black community, to represent it wherever his career took him. The history resonated with Glass, and once he met with A&M head coach Connell Maynor, the offense did too.

“They Googled me and looked me up to see what kind of offense I ran,” Maynor said. “No option, no wishbone, my offense always put up numbers, always had a great quarterback … it’s a system he wanted to play in.”

Maynor’s offense fit Glass like a glove, and he had the starting job as a freshman. A&M’s coaching staff quickly realized Glass had an arm that could leave a receiver’s hands stinging, so they focused on improving his timing, technique and movement inside the pocket as well as his leadership skills. For Glass, who acknowledged his disposition is quiet, often shy, it took time to step up verbally. As Maynor put it, he went from telling coaches that his wide receivers ran the wrong route in his first year to directly taking it up with them.

Glass’ quiet demeanor can’t hide his competitiveness. When he was younger, having played linebacker allowed him to have a useful perspective when trying to break down a defense. In college, he would get excited talking about the weak spots he’d found in a defense while watching film. And training here in Atlanta, the only thing that gets him to stop throwing the ball on any given day is if his receivers have tired legs.

“I’m a perfectionist,” said Glass, who has a civil engineering degree. “As a quarterback, throwing over and over again and working on all the different pieces of your motion, it scratches that itch.”

IT’S A WARM late-February day in Norcross and Glass’ ball is slicing through the air into receivers’ arms at Greater Atlanta Christian High School. Flanking Glass on each side are his trainers, Veal and Ramon Robinson, both of whom have been working with Glass during the pre-draft process.

“You pushed that one, baby, you didn’t throw that,” Robinson says, after a missed throw.

Pushing the ball in passes over the middle of the field, as well as his mobility, are concerns scouts have about Glass that he has been trying to improve.

Every time he drops back, Glass is working inside a small chamber in which his every step, hip movement and throw at different arm angles are closely analyzed by Veal and Robinson. They are able to diagnose exactly what went wrong if a pass isn’t perfect. They’re also the first to acknowledge, loudly, when a throw is just that.

“Whooooo,” Robinson says as Glass nails a deep route toward the sideline. Veal adds: “Which scout said he didn’t have the arm strength?”

Watching Glass train up close illustrates his desire to be flawless. Everything from his hand placement while he practices the 40-yard dash at Chip Smith’s facility, to his mental resilience coaching once a week, to every move he makes in the pocket while training with Veal and Robinson, aims at perfection.

“I know I do what the white quarterbacks do well, but that also means [NFL scouts are] going to judge me that much harder,” Glass said, citing how Justin Fields, a Black QB, was doubted in last year’s draft. “I’m not a runner so they’re going to say you have to be even more accurate, they’re going to nitpick everything. I have to have this sense of urgency to try to be as perfect as I can.”

Last month, Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson touched on that sentiment on LeBron James’ HBO show “The Shop.”

“It’s dying off, but it’s still there,” Jackson said of bias shown toward Black NFL quarterbacks. “It’s why I need that championship.”

Glass has a long way to go to get there but he feels he has done enough to get on NFL teams’ radar. Scouts praise his leadership, as well as his ability to perform in big moments at A&M. And while some scouts said his mobility is a question mark and his arm and accuracy are things he can still improve on, Glass, echoing Jackson’s sentiment, said teams are more focused on questions about his and other Black quarterback’s minds in the pre-draft process.

“Every team that I’ve talked to has asked me how I process information. They’ve asked me to break down plays,” Glass said. “It’s never been a problem for me. I always had to make up for my physical deficiencies with my mind. If I can’t be quicker with my feet, I’ll be quicker with my mind. I think teams underestimate how good I am at that.”

Glass is not the type of player to fully lean into the narrative of being doubted at every turn, but history has shown that coming from an HBCU does make him underestimated. The NFL says it’s trying to fix that. This year, it held its first HBCU combine in January. Glass was unable to attend the event in Mobile, Alabama, because he had been invited to the NFLPA Bowl in California around the same time and believed the latter would help his exposure more. He finished the game 9-of-11 for 147 years and touchdown and felt as though his performance was worthy of an NFL combine invitation.

Glass did not make the cut for the 15 quarterbacks who were invited to Indianapolis in March. His agent, Robert Smith, as well as Veal and Williams all reasoned that the league still doesn’t respect the level of competition at HBCUs.

“When it comes to even the best Black quarterbacks, I guarantee you they all caught pure hell from people at some point,” Veal said. “And at the HBCU level, I think there’s a lot of talent that has been overlooked.”

Other players who attended the HBCU combine pointed out that they were given a short amount of time from when their season ended to when they were expected to be tested. While their season ended in early December, they had to be ready to test at the HBCU combine in late January. By comparison, the main NFL combine was on March 1 — three months after the FBS season ended.

“The timing was not right. They had guys that had been out of their season for one month,” Smith said. “That needs to be addressed … they should do it in conjunction with the NFL combine, either three days before or three days after.”

Agents and trainers advised some players who attended the HBCU combine to not run the 40-yard dash, among other measured exercises, for fear that it would be the number they would be judged by through the rest of the pre-draft process, especially since their pro days would be sparsely attended.

Williams’ perspective on the matter is different: “Coming from an HBCU, you should know by now you’re not going to get the same opportunity as if you were coming from a Power 5 program,” he said. “This is the first time HBCUs have even had a combine. I’m not an agent, I’m just a player. And to me, you gotta take the opportunity and do what you can with it.”

“YOU’RE NOT GOING to use a piece of drywall on an overpass row, right? You’re going to use concrete and steel, because they’re stronger,” Glass says. “So we’re not going to put our tight end on all deep routes all game, right?”

A fishing rod in his left hand, his right hand motioning as he speaks, Glass is comparing football to engineering while sitting on a dock at a lake in Monroe. Whether it’s a puzzle or a go-kart as a kid, an offensive game plan as a player or a haul of thrifted clothes for his start-up shop back home, Glass’ natural disposition is to be resourceful in putting things together.

When the HBCU season was canceled in 2020 then shortened in spring of 2023 because of the pandemic, Glass briefly pondered transferring. But even after having his high school coach, Carl Reed, put out feelers to see if there was interest in bringing in Glass, patience and familiarity won out. He stayed at A&M.

To Glass, it had also become increasingly important to see his path through an HBCU. Once he got on campus and learned about the history of A&M, how it was founded by a former slave, and what the football program meant to people like the manager that had been there since his dad played, Glass wanted his goals to be realized as an HBCU alumni, not a transfer for a bigger program.

“Being there, I realized I was carrying on a legacy that’s deeper than just me,” Glass said. “I felt like I was already getting buzz and exposure off what I had done, and I wanted to keep going up in the situation I was in.”

Exposure is a big buzz word in the HBCU world. Williams said scouts are often afraid of giving HBCU players grades out of fear that they’ll be wrong after not having seen enough of them. But the tide appears to be shifting. With Deion Sanders turning Jackson State into a program that is getting Division I-type attention as well as the top recruit in the country, there has been a trickle-down effect that has brought more exposure to the rest of the SWAC. Glass said this was the first season he had played in games broadcast on ESPN.

Williams, who won three SWAC titles at Grambling State, is quick to point out that Sanders is a unique phenomenon who can only be respected and not replicated. His presence is helpful but it isn’t remedial. It’s why the legendary former NFL quarterback wanted to create the HBCU Legacy Bowl to give under-the-radar prospects a stage where scouts could watch them practice and play.

“We have always said that the scouts wouldn’t go to these schools, they usually grade school and not the player,” Williams said. “We didn’t believe there weren’t any HBCU players who deserved to be drafted last year.”

After Glass put together a 3,600-yard, 37-touchdown senior season and won the Deacon Jones Trophy as the best HBCU player of the season for the second year in a row, the buzz among HBCU circles continued to grow. When Williams and fellow Grambling alum James “Shack” Harris wanted to find somebody who embodied what they were trying to do with the first-ever Legacy Bowl in New Orleans, Glass was the obvious choice to be the first player invited.

“I see a player who deserves to be drafted,” Williams said, citing Glass’ résumé. “I think it’s going to take him some time, but he has what few others have — the kid can really throw a football.”

As of now, Glass isn’t projected to get picked. Beyond the concerns with Glass’ mobility, scouts and analysts say he’s not helped by the lack of a successful track record from HBCU quarterbacks since Steve McNair, who spent 13 years in the league and came within a yard of leading the Tennessee Titans to a victory in Super Bowl XXXIV. However, they believe that his raw skills will get him a shot at making a roster this upcoming season.

If Glass doesn’t hear his name called among the 259 players selected in the draft, it won’t dilute the childhood dream he has been living over the past year. Wherever he ends up, it won’t be the first time he’ll have to go beyond to get what he wants.