By Kate Zackary, NAIA Marketing/Communications Intern, email@example.com
Every season, student-athletes begin their search for college. They often have the desire to “go big,” play for the large university and get on ESPN. Four years ago, Justin Bartlett did not want to go big, a smaller school was just fine.
Better known as Bubba by his family and teammates, this recent Carroll (Mont.) College graduate has now packed his bags to take on the next branch of life in the NFL.
Throughout his high school football career, Bubba was always told he was too small to play tight end and that an offensive playbook would never be in his hands. But, he continued to play and excel, doing what he could, in his control and not focusing on the external elements. Despite the constant focal point being his lack of height, Bubba was approached by Carroll Offensive Coordinator, Nick Howlett.
“In speaking with his high school coaches, they all said the same thing,” said Howlett, “he has a tremendous work effort and is never satisfied with his performance.”
No matter his size, Howlett offered Bubba an offensive position, placing him at tight end.
“I never thought I would play offense in college, I was prepared to play linebacker.”
According to Bubba, there was no question, the decision “just felt right.”
The next four years were not easy.
“Bubba had to pay his dues,” said Head Coach Mike Van Diest.
His freshman year was spent bouncing between tight end and full back, playing behind All-American tight end Marshall McEwen, who now coaches for Carroll. One of the highlights of Bubba’s freshman year came about four games into the season when he had an ear-ringing tackle.
“I was way up in the press box with a closed door and window, yet I could hear the smack of the collision through my microphone,” said Howlett. “He was an outstanding blocker and that hit sprung for a touchdown.”
At the end of his junior year, NFL coaches began to notice this undersized tight end, and when senior year rolled around, the pressure to play “better and harder” in order to impress recruiters should have been top priority.
Not according to Bubba. “You have to focus on what is in your control, and I needed to focus on my team.”
Over his collegiate career Bubba was not only a two-time NAIA All-American and leading offensive threat for the Saints, he was an Academic All-Conference athlete that enjoyed spending time participating in volunteer activities and hanging out with his “little brothers.”
Each incoming freshman, traveling far from home, is set up with a host family by Carroll’s football staff. Being only four hours from home, this program was not offered to Bubba. However with his noted determination and engagement with the Helena community, one family reached out after his freshman year. They would have him over for dinner and holiday celebrations. Sometimes Bubba would take their boys to the movies, and he even lived with them upon his graduation from Carroll.
“He was easily one of the most liked kids on campus and around town, very humble, and was also active in community work,” said Van Diest.
After graduating with a degree in Community Health, Bubba was finally ready to shift gears and focus on the NFL.
“I have always had the dream to play at this level, you know, can I really get that far?”
It was not an easy road, especially being unpicked heading into the lockout that took place most of the spring and summer months.
“He never stopped training though,” said Van Diest, “it was just like he was preparing to come back for another season.”
Bubba hired agent, Chris Gittings who has also represented Carroll College standout, Casey FitzSimmons. Once the lockout was over, neither knew what to expect because there had been no contact allowed for the entirety of the lockout. But when Houston Texans called and made their offer, “it just felt right.”
Now two weeks into camp and it is stressful as ever according to Bubba.
“I don’t know what’s next, if I’m going to make it or if the coaches saw me make a mistake.”
The team begins training at 5:30 a.m. practicing, working out and studying the extensive playbook until after 9 p.m.
“With the lockout it has been fast paced and a lot of catch-up.”
“Down here I have to remind myself: worry about what is in your control, and focus on your teammates; the other stuff will work out.”