It was a day to remember for a long time.
Zach Laskey took a draft phone call during Georgia Tech’s graduation ceremonies at McCamish Pavilion, which wouldn’t have been so big a deal except for that Laskey happened to be sitting in the center of the front row of the graduating class, right in front of the stage where students were receiving their diplomas.
Said Laskey, “Some of the people were looking at me like, Why is this guy answering his phone?”
The All-ACC B-back felt badly about it, as he wanted to show respect to his classmates for their hard work, but understandably felt it necessary to take the call, which turned out to be the Tennessee Titans telling him they might take him with one of their remaining picks.
“I was trying to talk quietly, but it was hard because I was excited,” Laskey said.
Synjyn Days was driving to Benihana in Buckhead to celebrate his girlfriend’s birthday. The draft had just ended, and he had not been selected. As he pulled up to the parking lot, his phone rang. It was the Dallas Cowboys. Days got out of the car and was told that Dallas wanted to sign him as an undrafted free agent. He would be the only running back the team would sign after the draft, with none taken during it.
“They said I’m a hard worker and we’re going to have fun while we work,” Days said. “I said, ‘Yes, sir, that’s what I’m all about.’”
Around the same time, having gone undrafted, Laskey chose between the Titans and St. Louis, which wanted to bring him in as a fullback. Laskey went with the Rams, whose running backs coach described wanting an athletic player and that he fit the mold. An NFL roster spot and a Tech degree in the same afternoon – not bad.
“It was an overall good day,” Laskey said. “I got good interest, I signed with a good team, I’m excited about the opportunity.”
Laskey even got something of an absolution from school president G.P. “Bud” Peterson. The two made eye contact after Laskey took the phone call, and Laskey said “he gave me a little smirk” and then shared a brief word on the stage.
“He said, ‘Hey, Zach, I wish you the best of luck,’” Laskey said.
Laskey and Days, two driving forces behind Tech’s Orange Bowl championship team, will get their chance to play professionally, which for both was no certainty a year ago. For Days, it was in jeopardy even halfway through last season. In an unusual twist, it was an injury to Laskey – a separated A/C joint in his shoulder – that helped Days get his shot.
“The way I look at it, it’s all in God’s hands,” Laskey said. “God has a plan for all of us. That injury that happened to me gave Synjyn an opportunity. He took full advantage of it. That’s awesome, because right now, we’re both signed with teams, we both have an opportunity to pursue something we’ve wanted to do since we were little kids.”
Prior to the North Carolina game, when Laskey fell directly on his shoulder with a Tar Heels defensive lineman on top of him, Days had carried the ball 13 times that season. He had played one season as a backup quarterback. He had played two seasons as an A-back, showing improvement but not standing out. He had six regular-season games and the postseason to show scouts what he could do.
“I guess when they moved me from quarterback to A-back, that was probably the most frustrating time when I was at Tech,” Days said Sunday. “I felt like I really didn’t know why I was moving positions, but coach (Paul) Johnson, he saw something there with me knowing I could be a good A-back, and then him having enough trust in me to play B-back and starting me.”
Days seized the opportunity. He ran for 110 yards against Pittsburgh in the next game. He followed it with 147 yards and a touchdown against Virginia and 157 yards (on just 19 carries) and another touchdown against N.C. State, a 53-yarder. He showed burst, power and a little elusiveness.
After Laskey returned for the Clemson game, Days added 89 yards against the Tigers, 94 against Georgia, 67 against Florida State in the ACC championship game and a memorable 171 against Mississippi State in the Orange Bowl, including his highlight-reel 69-yard run down the left sideline to open the second half. The strong finish helped Days earn an invitation to a pre-draft all-star game, giving him more exposure to scouts.
“That kind of opened the door for me, and luckily, us two together was a pretty good tandem for Tech,” Days said.
Days and Laskey’s willingness to share the position and not grumble about playing time was emblematic of the chemistry that the Jackets thrived on last season. Further, having two powerful B-backs ready to go proved invaluable at the end of the season. They combined for 234 yards (190 of them Laskey’s) against Georgia and the exact same total against Mississippi State.
When Days took the starting job at B-back, “I was so happy for him,” Laskey said Monday, “because Synjyn works hard, just as hard as anybody else on the team. That’s a perfect example of someone who gets an opportunity and take advantage of it. … He told me he was going to play for me. You can’t wish anything but the best for him.”
Together, they ran for 1,775 yards and 18 touchdowns. Laskey made All-ACC and Days earned honorable mention.
It’s obviously impossible to know what would have happened had Laskey not gotten injured, but it’s hardly unreasonable to think that there wouldn’t have been a post-draft phone call. It’s likewise impossible to guess at what might have happened had Days taken the fairly commonplace route and transferred after being asked to switch from quarterback, or just sulked through his final three seasons.
Coming to Tech from Hillgrove High in Cobb County, “I never saw myself playing anything besides (quarterback),” Days said. “But I’m happy the way it turned out.”
Sunday, Days had already communicated with Laskey and his other Tech teammates who had found landing spots – DeAndre Smelter, Shaquille Mason, Darren Waller and Quayshawn Nealy.
“I’m just glad that everybody in our senior class is with somebody,” Days said. “It’s a blessing. It really is.”