He broke every conceivable receiving record at Viera High School on Florida’s Space Coast and was twice named second-team all-state. Still, he had only cursory interest from Division I programs, and no scholarship offers.
After briefly considering quitting football, Sean Atkins accepted a preferred walk-on offer from USF in 2019.
“One guy (recruiter) had said he wanted to be realistic and he thought I wasn’t capable of playing at that (Division I) level,” Atkins said. “All these other guys from my team and area were going everywhere and I had better numbers and production. I got the walk-on offer and I never heard from the USF coaches again. I wondered if they forgot about me.
“My first time seeing the USF campus was my first day there. We had this orientation for the athletes and that was the first time guys like Kelley Joiner and Xavier Weaver saw me. They said, ‘What sport do you play?’ I said, ‘Football … I’m your teammate.’ They looked at each other and they were like, ‘What? For real?’ ”
That’s how it began.
Here’s how it’s going.
Atkins, a 5-foot-9, 180-pound pass-catching dynamo, has secured USF’s single-season record for receptions. He has 69 — and counting — as the Bulls (5-5, 3-3 AAC) prepare for Friday night’s ESPN2 road date with the UTSA Roadrunners (7-3, 6-0 AAC) at the Alamodome in San Antonio, Texas.
He needs 72 yards to break the USF single-season receiving yards mark (879, Marquez Valdes-Scantling, 2017) and has a realistic shot at becoming USF’s first 1,000-yard receiver, particularly if the Bulls earn a sixth victory and get a bowl-game invitation.
Additionally, Atkins is among the 10 semifinalists for the Burlsworth Trophy, given to the most outstanding player in Division I who began their career as a walk-on.
“Getting a scholarship is one thing (Atkins earned one in 2021), but being in the record books is something that’s just unreal,” Atkins said. “It doesn’t seem real, honestly. I’m just playing football and it doesn’t change the way I approach it. I know it will mean a lot later in life. But right now, it’s just surreal.
“I think you should never put limitations on yourself. Don’t ever feel like you’re locked in a box, even when it seems hopeless. Just grind and believe in yourself. That’s how I live. If you believe in yourself and work hard, you’re going to achieve something special eventually. I’m living proof of that.”
Atkins has done more than earn a scholarship and set records. He has won everyone’s respect.
“Sean leads by his actions,” running back Nay’Quan Wright said. “He puts his head down and comes to work every day. He motivated me to go to work.”
“He’s always in the right spot at the right time,” quarterback Byrum Brown said. “He makes big plays. He blocks. He works hard. He’s a big part of this team.”
And that approach is appreciated by another noted grinder, head coach Alex Golesh.
“We have empowered Sean because of the way he works and the way he attacks his process,” Golesh said. “I think he has a long way to go in terms of being a complete player. But this is the first time in his career where he’s like, ‘All right, I can do some things here. They’re counting on me.’ We think he’s really dynamic with the ball in his hands.”
Small Frame, Big Heart
Every neighborhood has a kid like Sean Atkins — high-energy, perpetual motion, a twinkle in his eye as he thrives in every sport imaginable.
You should’ve seen him play soccer. He was an attacker, a scorer, a guy who had college-level ability. You should’ve seen him play basketball. He and a travel-team buddy were known as the “splash brothers” for their uncanny knack at long-range shooting. You could’ve skipped seeing him play baseball. Too slow. Too boring. He didn’t last.
Football was his true home. Early on, after a frustrating practice, he quit the game — for one whole day. Then he was back. He still plays like he’s making up for that lost day.
By the time he began playing tackle football at age 12 — after years of flag — he was a seasoned baller. He won Viera’s starting quarterback job as a freshman. The spring game could’ve gone better. His first pass attempt was a pick-six and he was trampled trying to make the tackle.
When quarterback Tim DeMorat transferred to Viera from Merritt Island — enroute to becoming a Football Championship Subdivision All-American at Fordham University, then an NFL free agent — Atkins was shifted to receiver.
No hard feelings. Atkins understood. DeMorat was expanding into a body now listed at 6-4, 220 pounds. Atkins kept waiting for a growth spurt that never came.
But he compensated. If he was going to be a receiver, he might as well be the best one. His success wasn’t accidental. How many thousands of passes had he caught at practice and in the front yard from his parents?
“Sometimes, my dad was working and my mom threw to me,” Atkins said. “I owe her a lot. She gave me a lot of bad balls, so I got good at making those catches, too.”
One Viera teacher said watching Atkins’ pass patterns was like “poetry in motion.” Every step was precise. Every angle mattered. That’s still true.
Nobody could guard Sean Atkins, who shattered all the Viera records of Tre Nixon, who played at Ole Miss and UCF before being drafted into the NFL.
But ultimately — outside of Division II West Florida — no college football team had a scholarship for Atkins.
“I know recruiting is a business and if coaches don’t get the right players, they lose their jobs,” Atkins said. “I’m not sure how deep they look sometimes, beyond the obvious size and speed. I think if I’m 6-3, we’re not even having this conversation.
“It’s the way of the world. Ask anybody my size and they’ve dealt with the same thing in football. Some people take one look at me and assume they know what I’m like. Some things you can’t measure.”
Atkins tapped his chest.
“If you have heart, you can accomplish big things,” Atkins said. “I’ve always believed that.”
Man At Work
Atkins said he was “confident from the jump” in his first USF training camp, where he immediately turned heads with his ability to catch almost every pass and defeat defensive coverage.
By his second year, USF defensive backs raved about the little scout-team receiver. Others were more pointed, some even asking coaches, “How does Sean Atkins not have a scholarship? He’s the toughest guy out there to cover.”
Atkins didn’t get caught up in anything other than doing his job. Make that … jobs. For the first few years at USF, besides classwork and football practice, Atkins also worked about 40 hours per week.
“Gotta pay the rent,” he said with a smile.
He worked nights at Duckweed Urban Grocery in downtown Tampa, usually heading home at midnight during weekdays. He was on staff at Planet Fitness. Even after earning the USF football scholarship, he continued as a food runner at Meat Market Steakhouse in Hyde Park.
Until Golesh found out shortly after his hiring.
“Like, dude, what are you even doing?” Golesh told him. “Let’s just concentrate on the football and get better at that.”
Atkins agreed — grudgingly. Once a walk-on, always a walk-on. He was given No. 38 — an awkward jersey for a skill-position player — then refused the change to a more flashy single-digit look. He wanted to make 38 his own. Teammates still call him “38 Baby,” a nickname bestowed by offensive tackle Donovan Jennings after a popular rap song.
More like 38 Special.
“There were times I worried about Sean because he wasn’t getting enough sleep at night,” said his father, Dennis, retired from a career as a painter and handyman with Brevard County. “He still kept his grades up. He created a role for himself in football. None of this was easy. That kid has crazy determination.”
“The word ‘can’t’ is not in Sean’s vocabulary,” said his mother, Jenny, a dental hygienist. “He always strives to be the best and won’t stop until he is. He has pretty much proven to all of us he can do this. What has happened … I almost can’t believe it. I believe in his talent. But the odds were stacked against him. Those situations almost bring out the best in him.”
If there’s a dropped pass at practice, Atkins said it sometimes keeps him awake at night. He relishes every angle of football’s competitive aspect, but really loves putting a creative spin on his role.
“You can’t guard me if you can’t touch me,” Atkins said. “No matter what I look like, you better respect me on the field. My big things are deception and movement. I don’t run a 4.3 (in the 40-yard dash), but I’m quick. I have good lateral movement. I can start and stop. I can escape from people.
“Most of all, I don’t doubt myself. I never have. After my first day at USF, I said to myself, ‘I’m here to stay. I can do this.’ That’s always my attitude. I will make myself good enough to belong and I will do what it takes to be successful in life.”
The NFL has smaller receivers, too. For Atkins, that’s the next impossible dream — and he will chase it.
“I’m never going to sell myself short,” said Atkins, who has a degree in marketing and is pursuing his MBA. “I think I have the capabilities. I’m always going to be the underdog.
“But you know what? That just makes for a better story.”