On Monday evening, Eugene Bright walked into his former high school as a Philadelphia Eagle.
There were high-fives and back slaps for the one-time Harriton Ram. Bright was being inducted into the Lower Merion school's Hall of Fame, but the praise had more to do with his suiting up for the local football team than it did for that night's honor.
"Gene had all these people coming up to him and congratulating him on making it this far," said Hal Smith, Bright's high school coach. "But he's too humble for that. And he's not the type of guy that's going to get ahead of himself. He knows he has a lot of work left."
Bright, an undrafted free agent, graciously accepted the plaudits. But the rookie tight end knows there's a big difference between being a member of an NFL team in May than in September - even if you had an "in."
Bright played high school football with Eagles coach Andy Reid's sons, Garrett and Britt, before going to Purdue. He worked out for Reid last April before the draft, but didn't catch on with the Eagles, or with any NFL team for that matter, and spent the last year in limbo. But he had the two things almost every athlete needs to make it as a pro - talent and confidence.
"I always feel confident in every situation," Bright said. "Every time I have a shot, I feel confident. That's just my mentality and my character. There's nothing wrong with being the underdog."
Being an acquaintance of Reid may have gotten Bright in the door in the spring, but staying through the summer and into the fall will be solely up to the 25-year-old.
"I told him, 'You're there because of your athletic ability, not because you know Coach Reid. There are plenty of guys that played with his kids, but they're not there. So forget about that and take advantage of your opportunity,' " Smith said.
After post-draft minicamp and two weeks of organized team activities for rookies and selected veterans, the 6-foot-4, 268-pound Bright has stood out. Brent Celek and rookie Cornelius Ingram are locks to make the team, but Bright looks capable of pushing Matt Schobel for the third spot. Considering he's only played tight end at this level for two months, it's a pretty good start.
Bright played defensive end in college and was projected to play that position in the pros after a solid, if not spectacular, career as a Boilermaker. But he was marginal during workouts last year and failed to catch on with an NFL team. Sensing something was awry, Smith had Bright checked out and he was diagnosed with a double hernia.
"I knew he didn't want to give up," Smith said. "So we sat down one day and we had a long conversation over dinner. And I said, 'Give it a year.' "
"My mentality was 'I'll play anywhere,' " Bright said. "Arena, Canadian, wherever. I just wanted to get on the field so I could get to the NFL. I felt like I belonged."
Bright signed with a new agent in Martin Magid of Conshohocken, was signed by the Hamilton Tiger-Cats of the CFL and moved to Tennessee to rehabilitate. However, three months in, he received a call notifying him that he had been cut.
"It was disappointing, at first," Bright said. "But I reevaluated the situation and started making more plans. I was feeling so good. I'm 270 pounds. I run a 4.5 [40-yard dash]. I'm healthy. I figured, 'Let's try the NFL and see what I can do.' "
The response was lukewarm, until one March day when Bright received a call from the Eagles. They wanted to work him out at both defensive end and tight end. Bright had played some offense at Harriton, but this was different. He came home and had two weeks to work out with Smith, who brought in some college-level arms.
"He caught everything," said Smith, who now coaches at Jenkintown High.
"I always thought I could catch," Bright said. "But I think the best thing I bring to the position is my defensive-end mentality. At Purdue, our mentality was 'smash everything' and I'm going to try and bring that to offense."
First, he has to make the team - despite what his fans at Harriton may think.
"I'm glad they were excited for me," Bright said. "But I try to keep it low key. I told them, 'I haven't done anything, yet.' "