BOONE — Doug Middleton and Ronald Blair shared an apartment as Appalachian State seniors. Last month, they swapped game-worn jerseys after the New York Jets beat the San Francisco 49ers.
App State had two alums play in the NFL this season as rookies, with Blair developing into a productive defensive lineman after being a fifth-round draft pick of the 49ers. The rise of Middleton, who graduated from Winston-Salem’s Parkland High School before enrolling at Appalachian, was more of a surprise.
Undrafted as an App State safety, Middleton signed with the Jets and spent the first 12 games on their practice squad. Added to the active roster Dec. 8, he made his NFL debut against his former roommate and capped a memorable end to the season by scoring an unorthodox touchdown as a member of the Jets’ kickoff coverage unit.
“I always think about trying to find a way to get a turnover to help my team win, but I’m not going to lie, I hadn’t dreamed as extreme as touchdowns recently,” Middleton said during a phone interview.
“Things just change quickly, from going to practice squad to all of a sudden I’m playing snaps on defense a couple days later. You just always have to be prepared mentally and be ready to go.”
Whether he was returning kicks and interceptions as a versatile Parkland athlete or scoring defensive touchdowns as an App State safety, Middleton has had a knack for finding the end zone.
How he ended up there with the ball in his hands against the Buffalo Bills was certainly different.
On special teams, Middleton said his primary job as a “penetrator” was to quickly sprint to the other end of the field and occupy as many blockers as possible. Running down to cover a fourth-quarter kickoff — and hesitating for a moment because of some rules uncertainty — he fell on a ball that had bounced into the end zone without being touched by returner Mike Gillislee.
This wasn’t like downing a punt. The live ball was available for a long-shot touchdown.
“A couple of my teammates swear they were right there to recover it, too, in case I had missed it — at least that’s their story,” Middleton said. “People will go over that rule in every meeting room through the entire NFL, so that’s one of the coolest things about that. Hearing from some of my boys on other teams, their coaches went over it.”
Middleton is only the third App State alum to score a non-offensive touchdown in the NFL, and the other two players had their jerseys retired by the school. Defensive lineman Larry Hand returned three interceptions for scores as a member of the Detroit Lions from 1967-70, and Dexter Coakley scored five defensive touchdowns for the Dallas Cowboys from 1997-2002.
Middleton scored twice in his college career, returning interceptions 97 yards against North Carolina A&T as a true freshman and 52 yards against Campbell during a standout redshirt junior year. Playing free safety, he made 74 tackles, intercepted four passes and broke up six more to become a legitimate pro prospect in 2014.
Middleton switched to strong safety as a senior, and teams rarely threw toward him during a year in which he totaled 53 tackles and broke up three passes without making an interception.
Blair received an invitation to the NFL draft combine after posting 71 tackles with 19 stops behind the line of scrimmage. Middleton wasn’t invited to the combine, but he said the experience from his senior year taught him a valuable lesson about pushing through adversity.
“He never lost his faith that not only would he make it to the NFL, but that he would contribute to a team and play in the NFL,” said Scot Sloan, App State’s secondary coach and recruiting coordinator.
Despite going undrafted, Middleton made a positive impression with the Jets by recording 14 tackles, returning an interception 40 yards and making one fumble recovery during the preseason. He didn’t make the 53-man roster, though, instead spending his initial time on the practice squad recovering from an injury.
An injury to center Nick Mangold in early December triggered a timely promotion for Middleton, as the Jets were only three days away from facing the 49ers. After Blair contributed to a sack for San Francisco and Middleton made one stop in an overtime win for the Jets, the former roommates traded jerseys, with a No. 98 in red and white being exchanged for a No. 36 in white and green.
“After I started the season on the practice squad, one of my goals was, if I’m going to be on the practice squad, at least let me be moved up by the time we play Blair,” Middleton said. “Watching him play, of course I’m cheering for my team, but deep down inside, when he got that sack, I was like, ‘That’s my boy.’
“When we’re exchanging jerseys, I thought about all the work it took us to get here and all the time we’d go up and do extra together on our off days in college. Everything we’ve done was shared in that moment right there.”
For Middleton, who also broke up a pass against Miami and posted five tackles in a lopsided loss to New England, his first year as a pro gave him a chance to reflect on where he started and how far he had come.
Working with Middleton early in his varsity career at Parkland, defensive backs coach Lamar Wilkerson immediately saw potential in him.
“Doug had the tenacity, and he wanted to learn,” Wilkerson said. “When he set his mind to it, he gave you all he had, and he was willing to follow at first in order to become a leader.”
The approach that facilitated after-hours workouts with Blair at Appalachian State and carried Middleton to NFL success as an undrafted rookie was rooted in Winston-Salem. There, in his hometown, he learned about the value of going the extra mile.
By running all the way to the end zone in Buffalo and recovering the loose ball, he was rewarded with a strange but well-earned score.
“This is something I’ve wanted to do my entire life, and growing up in Winston taught me early on that I was going to have to work for everything I wanted,” Middleton said. “Me putting in the same amount of work as everybody else wasn’t going to get the job done. There were tons of people who said they wanted to go to the NFL, but their actions weren’t following what they were saying. The extra time I put in, it was about how much more I put in than somebody else who wanted the same dream.”