Tacoi Sumler, once the country’s 11th-ranked wide receiver recruit coming out of high school, knew what he’d be giving up by transferring from the University of Oregon to Appalachian State, but he had to do it.
His father – his No. 1 supporter – had blood clots in his legs and couldn’t make the eight-hour flight from Miami to the Pacific Northwest anymore. So Sumler, who had redshirted in his one season at Oregon, looked for a Football Championship Subdivision school where he could play immediately.
“I said, let me go down a level and tear it up there,” Sumler said.
Now, after playing in 15 games in three injury-plagued seasons with the Mountaineers, he’s leaving after his junior season to pursue an NFL dream, one of 84 players entering the draft with eligibility remaining.
In March, Sumler auditioned in front of five NFL scouts, along with with a potpourri of players unlikely to ever see an NFL training camp. Once one of the nation’s top recruits, he’s trying to catch the eye of just one NFL team.
At Oregon’s pro day, he could have performed in front of perhaps a hundred scouts, catching passes from Marcus Mariota, the Heisman Trophy winner and likely a top-two draft pick. His quarterback at Appalachian’s pro day? A guy who works as a Charlotte firefighter.
But Sumler is at peace with his decision. He is closer to home – where he needed to be – and he finished his marketing degree early.
“I’m not looking back on it with any regrets,” Sumler said. “I’m just moving forward. I wish them the best of luck, and I’m going to handle my stuff, too.”
A lot to learn
That’s how quickly Sumler consumed 40 yards at a 2010 Nike high school camp for elite football players.
That’s how quickly he devoured 100 meters in a track event, the fastest high school time in 2010.
Sumler estimated he received 50-plus scholarship offers while at Christopher Columbus High in Miami, where he had 84 catches for 1,475 yards and 21 touchdowns as a senior.
A four-star recruit, Sumler picked Chip Kelly’s high-powered Oregon offense.
But Sumler quickly realized his speed wasn’t enough in a college offense. He had plenty to learn.
Sumler opted to redshirt his freshman year and learn on the sidelines rather than waste a year of eligibility as a role player.
“At this point, I’m young and everyone’s doing this redshirt thing, so I say, why not redshirt and get the extra year to show my stuff,” Sumler said.
He roomed with Mariota, and when he couldn’t fly home for spring break his freshman year, Mariota invited him to his native Hawaii, where they spent a week.
That spring he had a solid showing, including three catches for 15 yards in the spring game.
Then Sumler’s father, Tommy, found out he had blood clots in his legs. And Sumler’s grandmother died. Then his aunt died.
“We told him to come home,” said his mother, Wanda.
She didn’t have to tell him.
A family’s plight
Tommy Sumler wears a championship ring with a bright, royal blue stone, commemorating his son’s Pop Warner national title more than a decade ago.
He’s known as Coach Bo in Florida City, Fla., where he was the athletics director for the parks and recreation department. He says he realized when Tacoi was 8 that he could no longer be his coach. He loved his son too much to be objective.
Wanda Sumler was an educator. Tacoi couldn’t play sports if he brought home anything lower than a B on his report card.
“With me being a sports director back home, it was about using him as a guide to the rest of the kids in the community,” Tommy Sumler said. “We used him as an example: If you don’t get your grades, you don’t play.”
It was tough to let their son go to Oregon, but they were supportive. The Sumlers took the nearly eight-hour flight to Oregon home games even though their son was redshirting.
Then Tommy learned of the blood clots in his leg. Anything longer than a two-hour flight would put him at risk, his doctor said. The man who had been to nearly every one of his son’s games wouldn’t be able to see another if he stayed at Oregon.
“My dad is my No. 1 supporter. If money is an issue he’s going to find a way to get to the game,” Sumler said. “When they told him that, I just wanted to get closer to home. I wanted him to be able to come to all my games. And dealing with family problems as well, I just decided to transfer.”
Time to play
Sumler wasn’t about to sit out another year.
Focusing on schools in the eastern United States, he started looking at FCS schools and found three-time national champion Appalachian State, and former coach Jerry Moore won over the family.
Sumler showed up to campus less than three weeks before the start of the 2012 season. That complicated matters for then-offensive coordinator Scott Satterfield, who had spent the previous eight months working on his offensive plan.
Now, he had a new player to work in. But at least Sumler was fast.
“We had some high expectations for him when he got here,” said Satterfield, now the head coach. “I remember the first couple of practices when he got here we threw a couple of seam (routes) and everybody oohs and we say, OK, we may have something here.”
He played in the first six games, with five catches and five kickoff returns, before an injury to his knee – iliotibial band syndrome – cut short his season. Sumler had offseason surgery, played in the first game of the next season, then had to sit out again with the knee injury.
The rehab process was frustratingly long. Tommy Sumler, retired because of his blood clots, stayed in North Carolina for months at a time during his son’s rehab.
The Mountaineers coaches didn’t rush Sumler back. He was “about 75 percent,” which in his mind still made him one of the fastest players on the field. In 2014, Sumler played in eight games, caught 13 passes for 142 yards and scored two touchdowns.
A mountain to climb
Seventy-two NFL scouts, coaches and evaluators were at Clemson’s pro day, watching the workouts of as many as 10 players who will be drafted.
Five made the trip north to Boone the next day.
Along with Sumler, Johnson C. Smith’s Michael Rhynes (who has been out of football for nearly two years) and Wofford’s Tarek Odom, a 258-pound defensive tackle working as a fullback, caught passes from Mark Jones, a former college basketball player who works as a firefighter in Charlotte and had been training with Rhynes.
Sumler was the class of the group, with his fluid hips and quick change of direction. He had a nice over-the-shoulder grab during drills, and his only drop came on a wobbly, low pass from Jones. At 5-foot-8 and 187 pounds, Sumler has the build and speed of an NFL slot receiver.
But when he needed to shine, Sumler didn’t. One scout clocked Sumler with an unofficial 40 time of 4.48 seconds. That’s nearly a quarter of a second slower than what he ran in 2010, when he was five years younger, 30 pounds lighter and with no history of knee trouble.
Before the pro day, Sumler boasted on Twitter that he would have run the fastest 40 at the NFL scouting combine, possibly breaking Chris Johnson’s record time of 4.24 seconds.
Had Sumler run that at the combine – he was not invited – his time would have ranked 19th of the 39 receivers who ran.
Sumler had one more year of eligibility remaining but elected to enter the NFL draft.
Sumler’s high school teammate John Brown, an Arizona Cardinals receiver out of Pittsburg State, has reminded Sumler that he doesn’t need all 32 teams to like him – he just needs one.
The odds are against Sumler hearing his name called during the draft. He doesn’t have much game tape, and he didn’t run the blindingly fast 40.
All he wants is a chance – one chance – to show he can still be the player everyone thought he could be at Oregon.
“If a team takes a chance on me and invites me out for a private workout, they’re going to love me,” Sumler said. “I’m coming in and trying to threaten people’s positions. I know people will say he didn’t do this or he didn’t go to the combine or play much in college. I don’t care about that.
“I just need one team.”
Jones: 704-358-5323; Twitter: @jjones9