By now, Ben Powers is used to hearing he can’t do something on the football field.
No Division I football team offered him a scholarship coming out of Kapaun Mount Carmel because they thought he was too slow on the offensive line, not a good enough athlete and his school’s competition level was subpar.
After a dominant prove-it season at Butler Community College, nearly every Big 12 team wanted Powers. He ultimately chose Oklahoma, where he just wrapped up a career that saw the Wichita native become a three-year starter, consensus All-American at guard, Outland Trophy semifinalist and team captain for a group that won the Joe Moore Award for college football’s best offensive line.
Still, doubts about Powers (6-foot-4, 314 pounds) persisted.
“He has no power, doesn’t generate movement, and offers nothing as a run blocker while not being good in pass protection,” read one scouting report. “Limited athletically with below-average lateral moment,” another one said.
Once again, Powers overcame the odds and was selected in the fourth round with the No. 123 overall pick by the Baltimore Ravens in last weekend’s NFL Draft.
“It’s not even about proving other people wrong at this point,” Powers said. “Now I want to be the best. It’s personal for me. Now I’m in the NFL, great, now I want to be the best guard, the best center, the best whatever.
“I want to look back in 20 years and be proud of my accomplishments and know that I did everything I could to achieve those.”
“Wrestling made him”
The first time Powers was told he couldn’t do something was when he was in high school and inquired about trying out for the basketball team. “It’s OK, we don’t need you,” the coach told him.
Powers may be a football player, but he comes from a basketball family. His father, Todd, was a star player for Kapaun and his grandfather, Bob, played for Ralph Miller and was on Wichita State’s 1965 Final Four team. All of his aunts and uncles also played basketball.
“To hear, ‘No, we don’t need you’ was tough,” Powers said. “But if he didn’t tell me that, honestly I don’t think I would be here talking to you.”
Instead of joining the basketball team, Powers became the varsity heavyweight for Kapaun’s wrestling team. He had no experience and joined two weeks prior to the first meet his junior year.
As fate would have it, the first dual of the season at Arkansas City, a Kansas wrestling powerhouse, came down to the last match with Powers’ debut. Kapaun coach Tim Dryden was actually resigned to forfeiting the match before talking with Powers.
“Wrestling is a humbling sport,” Dryden said. “The last thing I wanted was for his first experience to have him get beat in a do-or-die match that will cost us the dual. He might not have wanted to come back after that.”
The pressure made Powers nervous, but he couldn’t stomach the idea of backing down from a challenge. Powers scored a takedown and won the match.
“I had no idea how to score, so I was basing what I did off the crowd cheering,” Powers said. “When I won, the crowd went crazy. The floor was shaking. It was so cool. It was a moment I’ll never forget.”
That was the first time Dryden witnessed how even the slightest trace of doubt can motivate Powers.
“It was almost like, ‘Oh yeah? That’s what you think? Oh, I’m going to show you,’” Dryden said. “One time he told me that he loved having the dual come down to him because then he knew we were going to win. I loved that attitude. I don’t know if I’ve ever had a kid that wanted the pressure and wanted the moment and seized it like Ben did. He just blew my mind.”
Powers qualified for the state tournament that first season, then came back as one of the state’s best heavyweights as a senior. He reached the state championship match and lost in overtime.
Reflecting on his career, Powers credited the grappling skills he developed as a wrestler as one of the main reasons why he took off as an offensive lineman.
“Wrestling made him, I’m a firm believer in that,” said his father, Todd Powers. “Wrestling teaches you to not be afraid and I believe it gave him the emotional strength he needed to go into these battles. You can’t hide on the wrestling mat. People know when you’re not in shape and they know when you suck. Competing in wrestling is how Ben learned to win those 1-on-1 battles on the football field.”
“He’s had to prove it again and again”
Long before Ben Powers became an NFL lineman, he was a chubby 16-year-old who had yet to make an impact on the football field.
His father was longtime friends with athletic trainer Kerry Rosenboom, now the head trainer at Wichita State. Ben started working out with Rosenboom and he quickly started to see a transformation.
“The biggest thing about Ben is he has this silent drive,” Rosenboom said. “He wasn’t a talker. He reminds me of (former WSU basketball star) Fred (VanVleet) in that way. They both knew what they wanted to achieve and they worked hard until they achieved it. There wasn’t any talking. No wasted time. It was all business with them.”
Rosenboom recognized the potential in Powers. He told him as a 16-year-old that he had a ceiling of an NFL player, which caught Powers’ attention.
“He told me I was at about 20 percent of what I could be,” Powers said. “I was 16 at the time and I didn’t know what that even meant. But I heard NFL and heard him say, ‘You have possibilities’ and when you hear that, it sticks with you.”
Kapaun football coach Dan Adelhardt noticed the progress when Powers returned for his junior season as a monster on the offensive line.
Powers was Kapaun’s best lineman for two years, but his recruitment never gained traction. Todd drove his son to the Tulsa team camp, but left with no interest. He made the 14-hour round trip to a Western Illinois camp, only for them to pass. The in-state Division I programs, Kansas State and Kansas, not only declined to offer Powers a scholarship, but also declined to extend a preferred walk-on offer.
Pittsburg State offered nearly a full scholarship, a rarity at the Division II level, which tempted Powers, but ultimately he wanted to prove he belonged at the Division I level. So he bet on himself and took a lesser offer at Butler.
“Kids go to these camps and there’s no pads on and they put them through these drills and then make a final judgment on them when they’re sophomores, juniors,” Adelhardt said. “It’s just not the same as getting out there in pads and snapping a football. One college coach told me Ben had slow feet. Well, have you looked at his film? Have you seen him clean up?
“What those camps don’t show you is the nastiness that it takes to play football. It doesn’t always translate, but with Ben, it’s carried over and he’s had to prove it again and again.”
“He’s made a living on proving people wrong”
Powers stole national headlines at Big 12 media day last fall when he told reporters, “I love taking a grown man’s dreams and crushing them.”
It was a peak into the alpha male persona of Powers. But he didn’t always have that type of confidence. Coming out of Kapaun as an unheralded prospect, Powers called home to his father worried in the fall that Butler coaches were going to redshirt him his first year.
“It wasn’t like I came in right away and knew I was going to start right away,” Powers said. “I didn’t want to get stuck for two, three years in junior college. I wanted to be in and out. That was always my goal. I knew I just needed a bigger stage.”
Even by the standards of Butler, a top Division I factory, Powers was a rarity. He ascended to the starter at right tackle, was chosen first-team all-conference, and saw his recruiting take off. He signed with Oklahoma in December and enrolled in January. In total, Powers was in and out of Butler in four months — unheard of even at Butler.
“From the moment I met him in the recruiting process, I was taken aback by his desire and the chip on his shoulder by being overlooked,” Butler football coach Tim Schaffner said. “He plays kind of like Wichita State basketball. He plays angry on the football field and when you do that, you’re going to do some damage. He’s always been told for whatever reason he wouldn’t be able to do something and he’s made a living on proving people wrong.”
At Oklahoma, Powers and his linemates would gather on Sunday mornings to watch film of the previous day’s games. It was an internal competition between who could drive the most defenders into the ground. Powers has always had a liking for that feeling.
“I love finishing people, love putting people in the dirt,” Powers said, gleefully. “We would watch game tape together and we would just laugh. We’d laugh so hard watching people get put in the ground. We absolutely loved it.”
Now he’ll try to do the same in the NFL for the rival of his favorite team growing up. Todd Powers’ mother is from Pittsburgh. The family’s wifi network is called “Pittsburgh Steelers.” Todd Powers is on the waiting list for season tickets.
The family has had to do some redecorating since Saturday.
“My whole family is huge Steelers fans,” Powers said. “But that’s all about to change now.”
It was a touching moment for Todd Powers to watch his son be drafted.
“I just didn’t want to see him disappointed,” the father said. “Ben Powers is going to have a successful life whether he plays a down in the NFL or not. So when they called him and I knew he wasn’t going to be disappointed, that’s all I cared about. I just wanted to see him happy.”
Along the way, Powers had become an example of how hard work and dedication can win out in the end as he overcame the odds at Kapaun, Butler and Oklahoma.
“I’m not even talking football, Ben can be an example for anybody,” Adelhardt said. “I don’t care if it’s a job interview or applying for a scholarship or whatever you’re trying to do, it doesn’t matter if someone tells you that you can’t do something. Ben Powers is an example that anything is possible with hard work.”