In terms of production Justise Hairston did just about all he could last fall in his first-and-only season at I-AA Central Connecticut State University. New England's third of four sixth-round selections on draft weekend (208th overall), Hairston set a school and Northeast Conference record leading the nation with 1,847 yards after transferring late last summer from Rutgers. He also set an NCAA mark with a 197-yard first quarter on the way to a 332-yard performance against St. Francis (Pa.). All told he had eight 100-yard games, including four 200-yard contests.
Production like that will get a player noticed by the NFL, regardless of the level of competition. By midseason the Eagles, Colts, 49ers, Giants, Bengals and Patriots were all showing interest in the under-the-radar ball carrier.
Hairston wasn't always the small-school phenom looking for big-league attention, though. While returning to the Constitution State paid off for the former New Britain High star who closed his school days with consecutive 1,000-yard campaigns, Hairston's career at Rutgers actually got off to a pretty productive start as well. He hit the ground running in 2003, earning All-Freshman Big East honors while rushing for 550 yards on 137 carries (4.0 avg.) with eight touchdowns. He initially beat out fellow freshman Brian Leonard and despite a disappointing knee injury seemed on his way to a solid collegiate career as he graced the team's media guide cover.
Then he carried the ball just 53 times as a sophomore and by his junior season was playing only special teams while Leonard was building a Heisman hopeful resume. Knowing he'd be behind both Leonard and star-in-the-making Ray Rice heading into 2006, Hairston considered moving on to New Hampshire and other I-AA schools before choosing to join CCSU's run-first offense. The move also allowed him to once again be near his brother in New Britain.
"It was very disappointing because I'm not the one to give up," Hairston said. "I hung in there as long as I could. I just said to myself, if this is going to be where college football ends for me I'd like to enjoy it."
At that point, becoming just the second Blue Devil player drafted by the NFL wasn't even on Hairston's radar. He did, though, head into his senior season with some otherwise lofty goals.
"I didn't reach the goal that I had intended, which was 2,000-plus," Hairston said. "We only went 8-3. I would have liked to have gone undefeated. I set the bar really high. That's just how I've always been, I always set the bar extremely high."
According to CCSU head football coach Jeff McInerney, Hairston's lofty goals didn't come with any sense of entitlement. The coach raves about his player's work ethic, ability to blend in with his teammates and willingness to work in the team environment.
Hairston comes to New England knowing a bit about the organization. Patriots vice president of player personnel Scott Pioli is a fellow CCSU football alum. Pioli attended a game and met with the back after receiving an award at the school last fall. Hairston has also followed the team from afar for a while and spent much of the spring working out four days a week with a guy he was compared to often in his scholastic career, fellow former New Britain High star and former Patriot Tebucky Jones.
"Just watching them over the years and how they did things I grew a great amount of respect for them because of the way they ran the organization," Hairston said. "Growing up I never heard the big-name stars besides maybe one or two guys. Then they are winning all these championships. It's just intriguing because the way my life has gone, I've always been sort of the under dog. For a while the Patriots were the underdog because people didn't see them being able to win because they didn't have the big name guys but they always got it done."
While New England is no longer an underdog, Hairston knows he will be when training camp opens. He's just happy to have the chance to do whatever the coaches ask of him, a chance at the NFL that not even he'd really thought of less than a year ago.
"It's a great opportunity," Hairston said. "I would love to play special teams. I would love to get on the field and do whatever it is they ask of me just because it's the National Football League. I don't think people realize the opportunity it is to play at that level. I'll do whatever it takes to get field. I think that once I have the opportunity to just go out and play, everything will take care of itself."
Does Hairston have a chance of making it, taking the unlikely leap from a little known I-AA transfer to a job in the NFL?
"I'll give you what Erk Russell told me, the famous coach from Georgia Southern." McInerney responded. "Time will tell, crap will smell and water will seek its own level. Do I think he has a shot? Heck, yeah. Does he have the tools to make it? Yes. Will he make it? We'll see."