If you told Nic Purcell a few years ago he’d be playing offensive line in an NFL camp, his response would have been this:
“Offensive line? What’s that?”
Purcell is the most improbable player in Eagles camp this summer.
He’s a 27-year-old native of New Zealand who grew up playing basketball and rugby and never set foot on a football field until he was 24.
“It’s fun, I enjoy it, but it’s a little bit stressful for me, especially with the up-tempo offense that we have here,” Purcell said after an OTA practice earlier this week. “It’s a lot to take in.
“It’s a lot for me to understand before I even understand the game completely. Everyone has to learn new things, but I’m farther behind than anybody, so there’s a lot of catching up to do. But as I’m beginning to understand what we’re doing here and it’s coming easier, I’m really starting to enjoy it.”
Purcell’s story begins in Temple View, New Zealand, where he attended Church College, a private high school operated by the Church of the Latter-day Saints that has since closed.
As you can imagine, football isn’t very big in New Zealand, and Purcell’s exposure was limited to a few games he saw on TV.
“We watch it, but no one understands it,” he said. “We just kind of watch it to see people put on big hits.”
Purcell, whose sisters Charmian and Natalie played basketball on the New Zealand national team that played in the 2008 Beijing Olympics, got married after graduating from high school.
He and wife Madison decided to move to the U.S., where Purcell planned to study kinesiology.
“I applied to Division I universities – not to play football, but just to go to school,” he said. “But my high school grades weren’t the greatest, so I had to take the junior college route.”
That route took him to Huntington Beach, Calif., where he found himself at Golden West College, a two-year school about half an hour south of Los Angeles.
Purcell wasn’t a football player, but he was big. And at 6-foot-6, 255 pounds, he was quickly spotted by one of the Golden West football coaches.
“He just saw me walking around and said, ‘Hey, you want to come give football a go?’
“I had never played before so I was a little bit hesitant, but he said just come give it a go, if you like it, great, if you don’t, you don’t have to play.”
And that’s how Purcell became a football player.
He joined the team in spring workouts his freshman year, the spring of 2011.
All of two years ago.
“I played defense and trained there all spring and most of the summer,” Purcell said. “But I was struggling schematically with the defense, so a couple weeks before summer practices finished they asked if I wanted to change to offense.
“I didn’t really want to at the time. Offensive line? I didn’t really know anything about it. I just thought D-line was cool and O-line was dumb.
“They told me that I could stay at defensive end and be average or I could move to the offensive line and have the potential to be great.”
So he made the switch and wound up starting two seasons at left tackle for the Rustlers, and he played at a high enough level that he drew considerable Division I attention.
Among the coaches interested in Purcell was Oregon’s Chip Kelly, but before Purcell made his official visit to Eugene, the NCAA stepped in and ruled Purcell ineligible for Division I football and, thereby, ineligible to make an official visit.
“I had played organized sport in New Zealand, but I’d never been paid to play sport, but they said there was an amateurism issue,” he said.
“So I teamed up with the University of Oregon and their compliance department and we battled hard for six months, and we got denied the first time and we appealed to a higher legislative committee and that got denied.
“They were like, ‘That’s all we can do, there’s no more appeals, good luck to you,’ and that was it.”
With his college career ending abruptly, Purcell faced an uncertain future. But Kelly thought highly enough of Purcell to invite him to the Eagles’ rookie camp in late April as an unsigned tryout player.
And Purcell, now 6-6, 300 pounds, showed enough to earn a contract and a chance to remain with the team throughout the offseason.
Needless to say, with only 21 games of football experience, it’s been challenging.
But he’s gotten farther than he could have imagined just a couple years ago.
“The caliber of player that I compete against here, you can’t even compare it to a junior college,” he said. “But it’s been good. The guys are helping me along because the reality is I have a lot of catching up to do, so I try to get here early, before everyone and do some stuff on my own, and the coaches are good about helping me, going through film and teaching me the game.
“The challenging thing is you have to take in the things that you’ve already been taught and be able to retain them and apply them under the stress of the game. That’s something I really need to work hard on as someone who’s new to the game.
“The reality is I’ve never played before a couple hundred people. There’s probably more people at practice now than at our games. But hopefully I get an opportunity to play in the preseason. Do what I know how to do, do it fast and do it hard and see what happens.”