It was midway through the third quarter of the College Football Playoff National Championship Game when Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence lofted a 15-yard pass to his favorite target near the sideline. The receiver then cut inside before turning on the burners, splitting Alabama's defense with ease on his way to a 74-yard touchdown.
The man trotting into the end zone was wide receiver Justyn Ross, a 6-foot-4 freshman and former five-star recruit who was capitalizing on his immense potential on the biggest stage. The performance capped an extraordinary playoff run for Ross, who hauled in 12 catches for 301 yards and three scores across Clemson's victories over Notre Dame and Alabama.
This was during the 2018 season, and while he was only 14 games into his college career, the pundits were already projecting Ross to be an eventual first round pick when he became eligible. It seemed like an inevitable reality for the star playmaker, but – as it often does – life was about to throw its share of curveballs.
Ross underwent surgery for a congenital spinal fusion condition in his neck and spine in 2020 that ended his season before it even began. It was a situation that would have ended most careers, but not for Ross, who fought back to catch 46 passes for 514 yards and three scores last season while earning the ACC Brian Piccolo Award, which is presented to the most courageous player in the conference.
Despite his comeback, however, the situation – coupled with a foot injury that sidelined him for the final three games of last season – led to Ross going undrafted. This was a player who NBC Sports projected as the No. 6 overall pick as recently as last May, and who Pro Football Focus ranked as the No. 63 overall player in this year's class in February. His on-field performance spoke for itself, but factors out his control ultimately made draft weekend a forgettable one.
It was an unfortunate break for the former All-American, but despite not hearing his name called, the Chiefs gave Ross an opportunity to prove the doubters wrong as an undrafted free agent signee last week.
"[I signed here] because we have Patrick Mahomes – a great quarterback – and Andy Reid – a great head coach. It feels like a family here. I've only been here for a day, but they've treated me like family," Ross said. "Of course, I'm ready to prove everybody wrong, but I'm just trying to fill my spot on the team and see what I can do over the summer."
Ross is an intriguing addition to an already exciting rookie class that featured seven selections in PFF's top 120 players available. He's a player that The Athletic's Dane Brugler projected as a fourth or fifth round pick in his final draft guide, and while the weekend may have been disappointing for Ross at the time, his arrival in Kansas City may very well turn an unfortunate circumstance into the best situation imaginable.
"I've seen [guys find success here]. I've seen players like me – guys like Sammy [Watkins] – come in here and excel in this offense," said Ross, who added that he's healthy and ready to go. "I feel pretty good about it."
Ross had his first opportunity to show what he could do this past weekend at rookie minicamp, which spanned three days and included more than 60 players fighting to prove that they belonged. The draft picks garner the attention and acclaim, but in reality, everything is earned at this point for every player at the team facility, including Ross.
"Whether you're a first-round pick or [not], you've got to come in here and learn the playbook," said General Manager Brett Veach. "You've got to have confidence in the coaching staff to execute your assignments. You have to have confidence in [quarterback Patrick Mahomes]. If [Ross] can do that, I'd say talent-wise – as long as he stays healthy – he'll have a shot…We'll keep the best players. It doesn't matter where you're drafted or where you're selected, if that individual is going to come in here and earn a spot on the team, we'll be good with that."
There's a long road ahead for Ross, and as Veach said, nothing is guaranteed. He'll need to prove that the tremendous talent he showcased so often during his college career can translate to the National Football League, but at least so far, it appears that he's up to the task. He's no stranger to adversity, after all, and despite a rollercoaster of circumstances at Clemson, Ross donned a professional jersey this past weekend for the very first time and with plenty to prove.
"With what I had going on, I didn't know if I'd be out here at all, period. It felt really good," Ross said. "I just [want] to get my foot in the door and make plays."