A Portland coach laughed when Danny Sargent said he wanted to walk on to the MTSU football team in 2015.
Some classmates cracked jokes. The dream seemed out of reach to them, and they had a point.
Sargent was a solid player at Portland High School, but his marginal size (6-foot-2, 170 pounds) and limited athleticism did not make him much of a college prospect. And outside of producing NBA veteran Corey Brewer, the 12,000-person town isn’t known as an athletics factory.
But Sargent saw things differently and had a plan in mind – one that didn’t put much stock in the opinions of naysayers.
“It didn’t faze me,” he said. “I had these goals and I wanted to accomplish them. I wanted to prove the people that invested in me right. You can’t listen to the critics.”
Sargent is now heading into his fifth and final season as a long snapper for the Blue Raiders, though it has been anything but a smooth journey to get to this point.
He dealt with his parents’ divorce as a kid and lost one of his grandmothers to cancer in high school. Not a single college team offered him a scholarship. Sargent’s father and brother, two of his biggest supporters, are military members and have been deployed overseas at different points in time.
But none of those difficulties kept Sargent from realizing his dreams, even when internal and external voices tried to tell him he wasn’t good enough.
The improbable tryout
Plans were set for Sargent to attend nearby Western Kentucky and get a business degree along with several Portland friends.
Joining the Hilltopper football team was a long shot. Sargent’s maternal grandmother was dying of cancer and he couldn’t afford to attend recruiting camps, so most college coaches hadn’t heard of him.
But during baseball season in the spring of 2015, Sargent’s best friend and teammate, Dach Diseker, pulled him aside. Diseker wanted to get away and go to MTSU, a less common college choice for Portland students. It was a chance for the pals to experience life on their own while still being close to home.
Sargent thought that sounded like a plan. He spent the summer working out and training with Portland officer Justin Toth and former Panther Colin Lamberth, who played at Tennessee Tech, to be ready for a walk-on opportunity, if it ever came.
Sargent’s emails to the MTSU coaching staff went unanswered. He wrote it off and figured they were busy, but his dreams of joining the team were fading. Sargent’s middle school coach from Portland West, Kyle Lane, told him he should keep trying.
Shortly after he arrived on campus in August, Sargent found a flyer announcing walk-on tryouts outside the football facility. He quickly snapped a pictured with his phone to make sure he knew the details.
He kept training and took all the steps to be ready for his opportunity. However, Sargent got cold feet on the day of the tryout and wanted to back out. Diseker wouldn’t let him give up that easily.
“He sat me down and gave me a life talk,” Sargent said. “He said, ‘Here’s your choice: you can go and deal with the fear and find out you’re not good enough, or you can make the team and accomplish the dream you kind of gave up on.’”
Diseker’s advice worked, and Sargent still went to the tryout. He was not the biggest or strongest player in attendance. The speed and agility drills also did him no favors.
But Sargent had an advantage because of a highly-specialized skill that Portland assistant Miguel Almendarez had encouraged him to try: long snapping.
“If you stick with this, it’s a talent that can pay for your school one day,” Almendarez told Sargent.
Making the cut
That advice proved to be prescient, as MTSU was thin at long snapper in 2015.
Sargent had a few brief conversations with the coaches at the tryout. He was told to expect a call whether he made the team or not.
A few days later, multiple athletes from the tryout told Sargent they had made the team, though Sargent’s phone still had not rung.
“I was fired up for them, but in the back of my mind I was thinking I didn’t make it,” he said.
Finally, while sitting in his freshman literature class, Sargent received a call from an MTSU number. He stepped out of the room and picked up. It was Director of Football Operations Chris Matusek.
“I need you to leave class as soon as you can and come down to the office and fill out paperwork,” Matusek told Sargent.
That was it, and Sargent was the newest member of the Blue Raiders. He quickly made his way to the football facility, filled out the necessary forms and suited up for practice that afternoon, just two days before MTSU's season opener against Jackson State.
“Things went faster than I expected them to,” he said.
As soon as Sargent got to the field, he was summoned to practice snaps with none other than MTSU head coach Rick Stockstill. Sargent barely had time to warm up.
“I had literally just laced up my cleats for the first time,” he said. “As soon as I got out on the field, they called me out there. It was pretty intimidating, but I fared well.”
From outsider to starter
Sargent felt like he didn’t belong at first. The Blue Raiders had many physically-imposing players, some highly-touted recruits that just missed out on attending major D-I schools and a few players bound for the NFL, including future Tennessee Titans safety Kevin Byard.
Self-doubt started to creep in again. He stuck to the back of the weight room during one of his first team workouts. Senior defensive end Ykeem Wells took notice and tried to encourage Sargent.
He pulled the wide-eyed freshman aside for what proved to be a pivotal pep talk.
“He said, ‘Sarge, there is no difference between you, me or anyone else on this team. We all play with a chip on our shoulder and are chasing the same dream,’” Sargent recounted.
“That was what I needed. I just needed a confidence boost because I had gotten knocked down for so long.”
After spending the 2015 season on the scout team, Sargent worked his way into the backup long snapper role behind senior William Eads, one of his key mentors.
Other players took him under their wings, too. That group included kicker Canon Rooker, holder Jim Cardwell, linebacker Darius Harris, offensive lineman DJ Johnson and defensive lineman Malik Manciel. Sargent had found his second family.
“It’s a totally different atmosphere in college,” he said. “Everyone in that locker room grew up under different circumstances. The relationships you build are unreal, because you’re together just about every day.”
Sargent was included on the team’s travel roster for an October 2016 contest at North Texas. That was the first true road game he didn’t have to watch from home, and it was a turning point for his career.
“I ran on to the field at Vanderbilt (three weeks earlier), but I was suited up head to toe this time,” he said. “That was when I realized I was meant to be here.”
Eads graduated after the 2016 season and Sargent earned the starting nod the following year. He played in all 13 games and earned the Grinder Award for specialists thanks to his intensity in drills and the weight room.
The starter earns a scholarship
After spring practice wrapped up in 2018, Sargent had an exit interview with Stockstill. He wanted to ask about being put on scholarship, but before he could, Stockstill brought it up. The coach said that Sargent was deserving of a scholarship, and he was going to see what he could do.
“Those words meant more than the scholarship ever would,” Sargent said. “It meant belief, respect, motivation. It was extremely humbling to know that I had gotten to that stage.”
Months passed, and the tuition due date arrived in August. Sargent went ahead and paid the fees. He felt awkward asking about the scholarship and figured he might get one the next year instead.
But as luck would have it, Stockstill called Sargent into his office just two days later.
“I had no idea what it was for – there’s so much going on when you’re preparing for the season,” he said. “We talked about how I had progressed as a player and as a person.
“He then got a big grin on his face and told me that I would be on a full-ride scholarship.”
Sargent was shocked. He didn’t know what to say, so he just put his face in his hands. Stockstill hugged him. His dream of being a D-I scholarship player had been realized.
Sargent’s father, Christopher, was deployed at the time, so he immediately called his grandmother, Patricia Alves, who lives in California.
She had been helping Sargent pay for school. He happily told her that would no longer be necessary.
“I was like, ‘Grams, you know that money you gave me for school? I can’t accept it. I’m going to have to send it back to you,’” he said.
Sargent told his dad the news over FaceTime a few days later. Word quickly spread to his step mother and older brother, Thomas, who was deployed in Afghanistan. The entire Sargent clan was overjoyed.
“My family is always proud of me even when I’m not proud of myself,” he said. “They’re the greatest supporting cast in the world. Family is everything to me.”
He played in 13 games in 2018 and helped the Blue Raiders to eight wins and a berth in the New Orleans Bowl.
The next chapter
Sargentand the Blue Raiders will open their season at Michigan on Saturday, Aug. 31.
His father, a Hendersonville resident, is home and will attend every game. His brother is splitting time between Fort Knox and Fort Carson and will watch the broadcasts.
Those two men serve as Sargent’s biggest motivation. He attributes his work ethic, faith and persevering qualities to the example they set.
“I’ve always looked up to them,” he said. “I’m proud of them, and I want them to be proud of me. Those relationships are critical to everything that I’ve ever done.”
Sargent is currently interning with the Nashville Predators and hopes to eventually have a career in the sports industry. But first, he’s thinking about participating in MTSU’s Pro Day and giving the NFL a shot next spring.
“When you make it this far, it’s kind of hard to say you can’t make it to the next step,” he said. “I’ve beaten the odds before, and there could be an opportunity for me to beat them again.
“Who knows, maybe my story will affect someone, and they can be the next Corey Brewer.”