As a sports fan, we tend to be very jaded. The emotions of competition bring about joy and pain, but also the objectification of the competitors themselves. We see not 22 individual people on the football field, but 22 pawns in a game for our amusement.
No more obvious is the fan’s objectification of athletes than around NFL training camp. Sure, there may be 90 people invited to practice with the team, but fans typically care about maybe 60 of them. Most don’t even bother to learn the names of nearly half of the roster and, if they do, all they know is their name and whatever opinion they’ve gathered from a four minute YouTube video of their highlights.
And it’s easy to understand why fans don’t bother putting the emotional investment into these players. Undrafted free agents come and go so quickly in the cruel, fast-paced NFL. Players often spend just days on a roster before being thrown back into the pool of free agency. And often times these players have so little public game film or local profiles that even if one did want to learn everything about a free agency pickup, the information just may not be available. The effort to get to know each and every one of the 90 individuals is an exhausting task, even for those that get paid to do it.
But the fact remains: each year in the NFL, hundreds of people jump from job to job and are sometimes left without employment. The annual HBO miniseries "Hard Knocks" does a great job of reminding NFL fans of that cruel fact, but even then, only the most buzz-worthy individuals are given screen time and usually just for a few moments.
Of course, the plight of the undrafted free agent doesn’t always end with a sad story. It seems that more and more often, teams are able to find and develop diamonds in the rough. Doug Baldwin, a former undrafted free agent, just received a rather rich four-year, $46 million extension from the Seattle Seahawks. Detroit is no stranger to the underdog story; just last year, undrafted free agent Zach Zenner earned his way onto the roster and even made some significant contributions before an injury shortened his season.
Over the course of the past two weeks, we at Pride Of Detroit have indirectly learned more about one of the 90 men looking to find their way onto the Lions’ roster. Jace Billingsley, an undrafted free agent out of Eastern Oregon University, somehow became a sensation in our annual Detroit Lions’ Name Bracket tournament. What started out as just a name amongst a field of names, quickly became a story about something much, much more.
Billingsley is a native of Winnemucca, Nevada. Winnemucca stands nearly 500 miles north of Las Vegas, but bears little resemblance to the tourist trap. The city holds just over 7,000 people, who — according to their own website — are the friendliest people in Nevada. While the town isn’t free of the gambling attractions that the state is internationally renowned for, they draw more pride from their outdoorsy activities. Whether it be their passionate hunting community or just their breathtaking views of the terrain, Winnemucca is a place nearly altogether removed from the glitz and glam of the city to the south.
Jace is a fourth-generation Nevadan on his mother’s side. His father, Jim, moved to the small town when he was 10 years old and never left. His mother grew up in a small ranching town outside of Winnemucca. "We have [...] deep roots in this community," Jim said to Pride Of Detroit in a phone interview.
(Listen to the entire Jim Billingsley interview below)
It is that grassroots kind of support that caused Jace to become a hit in our Name Bracket tournament, a March Madness-like contest where readers would vote on which Detroit Lions’ player had the best name on the team. Once Winnemucca got word of the contest, Jace’s votes skyrocketed. He was consistently receiving well over 70 percent of the votes in each contest, while each poll featuring Billingsley was receiving double the votes of any other poll in the tournament.
On social media, Winnemucca residents rallied for votes. Support came from everywhere: cousins, friends, former teammates, his agent, even a local restaurant threw their support behind the Billingsley name (twice!):
One of the biggest supporters of Jace throughout the tournament was family friend, and current high school basketball coach, Chad Peters. "I was one of your cheaters," Peters said with a laugh when asked what his role was in the Name Bracket tournament. Peters made sure the entire town knew about the tournament, sharing the link on Facebook and making sure he voted several times in each poll. "In Winnemucca, everybody knows everybody’s business," Peters said. Soon, Jace was in the finals against fellow Nevadan and Lions’ rookie safety, Miles Killebrew
But why was such a seemingly insignificant contest such a big deal to the people in Winnemucca? "Well apparently you don’t know Winnemucca, Nevada," Billingsley said when I asked him. "It’s quite a little town and we’re really really supportive of anything that has to do with our town."
He isn’t kidding. Jim Billingsley is the founder of a charity foundation called The Dream Keeper Foundation which raises money in an effort to fulfill dreams of handicapped children by offering them a unique hunting expedition. In one banquet, the tiny town raised over $25,000 with the auction of a single rifle.
But the groundswell of support for Jace doesn’t come solely from the groupthink of a motivated small town; he has earned a reputation worth defending. At Lowry High School, Billingsley averaged over 20 touchdowns a season, but he really drew the attention of the town with his wrestling career. "He’s got one of the most stellar wrestling careers in the history of Nevada," Peters said. Jace won four straight individual wrestling championships in high school, the first person ever from Lowry High School, and just the 29th Nevadan to ever accomplish the feat.
At Eastern Oregon University, Jace focused on football, and his dominance continued. "They say that he was the most prolific offensive player that’s ever been to Eastern Oregon," Jace’s father said. It’s hard to argue against that. Splitting time between running back and wide receiver, Jace set school records for receptions, receiving yards, all-purpose yards and touchdowns.
But at a small NAIA school, Jace’s chances of making an impression with an NFL team were pretty low; Jace needed a break. When he was invited to participate in the University of Nevada pro day, he was given the opportunity he needed. It was there the Lions got there first glimpse of the Winnemucca product. Jace did not squander the opportunity. Billingsley reportedly (and unofficially) ran a blazing 4.39 40-yard dash and had 25 reps of 225 pounds on the bench press, a great accomplishment for a receiver his size. The leading wide receiver at the 2016 NFL Combine in bench press, Aaron Burbridge, only had 20 reps. Every step of the way, Jace has earned his success. Peters said of his friend’s accomplishments, "Everywhere he’s been, he’s proven that he’s the guy because of his effort, his work ethic and the kind of person he is."
And it’s that last point that has made Jace such an inspirational figure in his hometown. His character is just as impressive as his athleticism. "A lot of people know obviously his name and who he is," Peters said, "But it’s because of his actions and his personality more so than his athletic endeavors."
Throughout my research of the small town receiver, I was showered with stories of Jace’s humbleness and generosity. "What I love the most about him," Peters said, "It doesn’t matter if he’s talking to me or a seven-year-old or a seventy-year-old, his demeanor and attitude and his persona never changes." Despite all of the athletic accolades, Jace’s humble identity never faltered.
But Jace still has a lot of work to do to climb his way up the Lions’ wide receiver depth chart. Even among UDFA wide receivers, Billingsley initially got second-billing behind Jay Lee, who was touted as one of the Lions’ best undrafted rookie signings. But Lee has the advantage of being a part of the high-flying, highly-televised Baylor offense in college. Billingsley’s successes at his NAIA college were completely off of most analysts’ radar. With Calvin Johnson’s recent retirement, the Lions are definitely looking for a new receiver to take the team by storm. But with 11 other receivers currently under contract in Detroit, Jace will have to beat out several, more-experienced players to land on the final roster.
The support of Winnemucca will not dwindle in the face of such odds. In our Name Bracket, Jace ended up winning by a considerable margin. Despite a counter attack from many Detroit fans who favored the name of his competition, Miles Killebrew, Jace ended up receiving over 13,000 votes in the contest, almost double the population of his home town. To Lions fans, Jace Billingsley may be just a name, but to his hometown, he is the pinnacle of both athleticism and generosity. And they will go to great lengths to support that.