Danny Verdun Wheeler got just the Christmas gift he wanted.
And it came a few days early.
He landed a new job - not just any job, but one playing in the National Football League with the Washington Redskins.
"I couldn't have asked for a better Christmas gift than this," said Verdun Wheeler in a telephone interview with The McDuffie Mirror. The interview immediately followed his first practice with the Redskins, who are hoping to make this year's playoffs as a wildcard team. "I'm a little tired, but I feel good about having a job. It's great to be doing what I wanted to do - play professional football."
Verdun Wheeler - a former standout linebacker at Thomson High School, who later became an outstanding defensive player at the same position for four years at the University of Georgia - said he feels blessed by God to have the opportunity to once again play for a team in the NFL.
"I'd waited almost four months for this to happen," said Verdun Wheeler, who was a member of the 2002 Class AAAA State Championship Football Team at Thomson High School. "I really wasn't expecting a call this close to Christmas, though."
Verdun Wheeler was this close to realizing his dream months earlier. Just hours after missing out in the 2007 NFL draft in April, he signed a contract with the Chicago Bears. That relationship lasted until early September, when the Bears announced their final roster - and Verdun Wheeler wasn't on it.
Verdun Wheeler immediately began searching for a new job. It became a long waiting game, he recalled. He tried to hitch on with two other teams - the Detroit Lions and Green Bay Packers. Nothing ever materialized from talks with either of those teams, however. He later received word from officials with the Georgia Force of the Arena Football League in Atlanta, interested in him playing both fullback and linebacker.
"The Georgia Force was real interested in me playing for them, but I just couldn't give up my dream of someday playing football in the NFL," added Verdun Wheeler.
Instead, he declined the offer to play in the arena league. He opted to pursue his real dream, even though it wore on him.
"It was real tough knowing that I was good enough to play in the NFL, but not being able to get with a team that saw that in me," said Verdun Wheeler. "I knew that my faith was strong and that God had a plan for me; I just didn't know what it was until now."
Verdun Wheeler said he learned what that plan was while traveling with his girlfriend, Tiffany Davenport, of Atlanta, to her sister's basketball game at Winthrop College in South Carolina on Monday, Dec. 17.
"I was just driving along the highway when my cell phone rang," said Verdun Wheeler from the Washington Redskins' practice facility in Ashburn, Va. "A man on the other end of the line said he was head scout of the Redskins and wanted to know if I could catch the last flight out of Atlanta that night to Washington. Even though I was excited about getting his call, I knew I couldn't make that flight that night. I asked him could I make the first flight out of Atlanta that Tuesday morning, instead."
The coach agreed.
"I didn't get but a couple of hours of sleep before I had to board the plane for Washington," said Verdun Wheeler. "I'm not complaining, though. All of this was in God's plan and I'm so thankful to Him."
Verdun Wheeler is on the Redskins' practice team right now, and he's working with the coaching staff to learn the playbook.
"They're really cramming my head with a lot of stuff," admitted Verdun Wheeler.
Adding Verdun Wheeler to the practice team is expected to boost the Redskins depth at linebacker since Rocky McIntosh's recent knee injury. He has been lost for the season due to a pair of torn ligaments which will require surgery. Taking McIntosh's place in the starting lineup is H.B. Blades, who will see action on running downs and Khary Campbell, who will work passing downs.
"They have plans to activate me for the Dallas Cowboys' game on Dec. 30 in Washington," said Verdun Wheeler. "That's a lot of pressure, but I like playing under a lot of pressure. I want everything on my back."