NASHVILLE, Tenn. – It takes the right balance of patience, persistence and luck in order to earn an opportunity. Not everybody gets their big break, and few are prepared enough to take advantage when it comes around.
Just two years ago, Bishop Sankey got his chance – one that began the rookie tailback's meteoric rise from second string that year to the second round of the 2014 NFL Draft.
The Titans traded down 12 spots with the Eagles in the second round, but still snagged Washington RB Bishop Sankey. (AP Photos)
Once a four-star recruit out of Gonzaga Prep High School in Spokane, Wash., Sankey decided to keep rooted in the northwest and signed to play football at the University of Washington.
"I'd formed a good relationship with the running backs coach there, Joel Thomas," Sankey said going through his decision. "Also having my family in the state of Washington, I felt like it was close enough to home, but not too close. I wanted them to be able come to watch me play on Saturdays."
Sankey had a modest freshman year from the bottom of the running back pecking order. In 2011, Sankey carried the ball 28 times for 187 yards and one touchdown. Although he displayed a 6.7 yards-per-carry average, there simply weren't many touches to be had behind star running back Chris Polk.
"I learned a lot from Chris Polk about what it took to be a college running back and be a great running back at a high level," said Sankey. "He was kind of like a big brother to me."
Polk finished his senior season with the second best rushing total in Washington history and earned first-team All-Pac-12 honors. With Polk graduating, Husky fans worried about how the team was going to replace one of the greatest backs in school annals.
In 2012, the University of Washington transitioned to life after Chris Polk as well as life in a temporary home. With a complete remodel to Husky Stadium underway, the team moved across Lake Union to play its season at the home of the Seattle Seahawks – Century Link Field. Sankey expected a bigger role in his sophomore season, but still sat second on the depth chart behind junior back Jesse Callier.
"I just wanted to make the most of my opportunities," Sankey said. "I wasn't sure how many times I was going to touch the ball every game. Each practice it was just my mindset to compete and try to make an impression each and every day to better my chances of getting on the field."
However, it didn't take even a full quarter of football before Sankey found his name on top of the depth chart. Callier suffered a torn ACL in Washington's season opener against San Diego State, ending his 2012 season.
"I didn't really know what happened. I still remember he caught the ball on a flat route, turned up field and all of a sudden he just fell," Sankey reminisced.
Suddenly all eyes were on Sankey, a relative unknown to everyone, including his head coach Steve Sarkisian.
"Obviously, we're going to find out more about Bishop Sankey in a hurry," said Sarkisian the following week.
Washington came out of that game with a 21-12 win, but Sankey's line of 22 carries for 66 yards and a touchdown didn't necessarily win the hearts or calm the nerves of the Husky faithful.
"It all happened so fast," Sankey said. "I was just thrown in the fire. Those first three weeks were definitely an adjustment. It was up to me to take it upon myself to produce for the team."
And produce he did – quickly changing everyone's tune. Sankey went from unfamiliar to unstoppable seemingly overnight. By season's end, Sankey had racked up 1,439 rushing yards (third-most all-time UW history) and 16 touchdowns. Those 16 scores were four more than Polk posted in 2012.
The MAACO Bowl Las Vegas served as another stage for Sankey to shine. The sophomore back set a bowl record with 205 rushing yards and was named the game's MVP – an impressive feat, but Bishop was just getting started.
Sankey's junior season wasn't merely an encore, but rather the main event.
"I felt like I had way more confidence going into my junior year. The great thing about it is that there were still so many other running backs pushing me and competing against me," he said. "I took it upon myself to not get too comfortable and still get better. I felt like a more mature and better player overall."
The newest Pacific Northwest Superstar rolled out arguably the finest campaign of any running back in University of Washington history. Sankey logged 1,870 rushing yards, shattering Corey Dillon's school record of 1,695 yards set back in 1996. His 20 rushing touchdowns gave him 37 for his career, another school record. Sankey also rushed for 200 yards in a game on four different occasions throughout his Washington career – again, a school record.
With first-team All-Pac-12 and second team All-American honors under his belt, Sankey decided to forgo his senior season and set his sights on the NFL.
"With some of the things I was able to accomplish my junior year, I just felt like I was ready to take my chances at the next level," said Sankey. "I talked to my parents and they were supportive of it. I felt like I was ready."
During pre-draft workouts, Sankey's stock continued to soar. NFL expert Mike Mayock held a conference call for media members around the nation and explained that Sankey was a player he was most excited to watch in the combine.
"He's a great combination of make-you-miss and north-south production," Mayock said. "He's tough, but he can make you miss in the open field. [He's got] really good balance, quickness and instincts."
Sankey didn't disappoint, finishing as the top running back in both the 20-yard shuttle (4.00 seconds) and the three cone drill (6.75 seconds), second in bench press (26 reps), and fourth in the broad jump (126.0 inches). He continued to impress in the individual drills, showcasing his ability to catch the ball out of the backfield. His elite vision, quickness, and acceleration convinced Mayock that Sankey was the number one running back in his draft class.
"I felt good about it. I knew if I hit the mark I wanted on the 40 [yard dash] which I did (4.49 seconds), I knew everything else would fall into place," Sankey said. "I was real pleased coming out of the combine and happy that all the hard work paid off."
Fast-forward to May 9th and the second day of the NFL Draft; the Titans were on the clock in the second-round at pick 54. After parting ways with Chris Johnson earlier in the offseason, it was no secret that the team could be in the market for a running back.
"They were the only team that flew me in for a visit so I definitely felt like it was a possibility," said a smiling Sankey.
The Titans decided that Sankey was their guy, making him the first running back taken in the draft.
"Once I got the phone call I was just excited and relieved that I finally knew where I was going to go. It was really a great experience," he said.
The Titans brass was just as pleased to have Sankey in a Titans uniform.
"What he brings to us is a great deal of versatility with his vision, feet, and ability to catch the football," said Titans general manager Ruston Webster following the draft. "That's what we were looking for."
Upon arriving in Nashville, the journey started all over for Sankey just as it did at Washington. No longer is he the four-star recruit out of Gonzaga Prep, but a rookie on football's grandest platform.
"It's a little different because I feel more mature and definitely as a player I'm more mature and better than I used to be," said Sankey before conceding that there are some feelings of déjà vu. "But being a rookie is similar to being a freshman in terms of picking up a new system, a new environment, new coaches and new teammates – but so far so good. I'm just trying to take it one day at a time."
Sankey is joined in Tennessee by fellow Washington alum Jake Locker, who still watches as much Husky football as he can. Locker discussed how impressive Sankey was game in and game out.
"The one thing about him is that he was always there," Locker said about Sankey. "He was always on the field getting 30 carries a game. It seemed like every week he was doing it running for 150 or 200 yards. It was impressive to watch, so I'm excited about the opportunity to hand the ball off to him."
The two former Huskies, who were never on the same team at Washington, now share the same goal of getting the Titans back to the playoffs for the first time since 2008.
"It feels good just having that Husky legacy here," said Sankey of his new quarterback. "I was watching him in high school before I even committed to Washington. I know what a great athlete and quarterback he is. I'm just excited to play with him and it's cool because I know what he's done for the University of Washington and what he continues to do for the Titans."
Training camp is shifting into high gear and Sankey's rookie season is finally upon him. The wait is over and the dream is realized. Now it's time to set new goals and new benchmarks. Amidst all the competition that comes with the preseason, opportunity is bound to come knocking at Bishop's door once again.
"This training camp is going to be filled with opportunity," Sankey finished. "I want to show the coaches and my teammates that I can be relied on and accountable. I'll do whatever it takes to help the team win."
Nothing is deserved in the NFL – only earned. Sankey wouldn't have it any other way.