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Meet Donald Parham, the Redskins’ undrafted rookie tight end with a 7-foot wingspan

Redskins tight end Donald Parham's long strides hide what is actually impressive speed. (John McDonnell/The Washington Post)
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RICHMOND — Jordan Reed’s eyes grew big. The Washington Redskins veteran had just been asked about another of the team’s tight ends, a 6-foot-8 tower of a man from Stetson University named Donald Parham who mysteriously showed up for a tryout during a late spring practice and can snatch impossibly high passes without leaving his feet.

Had he been watching Parham in practice? Absolutely he had been watching.

“Man, he’s an athletic dude,” Reed said. “He has all the ability in the world. So the coaches are polishing him up, and he has the potential to be a great player.”

Reed shook his head in disbelief.

“He’s just got long arms,” Reed continued. “Even when a guy’s in his chest, he can still reach his arm up and make a catch. It’s hard to stop him.”

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Every NFL training camp has a Donald Parham, a player seemingly from nowhere who has something so intriguing about him that a team just has to bring him in, because you never know. And how could someone not take a chance on Parham? He has a 7-foot wingspan and a 36-inch vertical leap, and he runs the 40-yard dash in 4.6 seconds. Last year he led all of Division I college football (both the Football Bowl Subdivision and the lower-tier Football Championship Subdivision, where Parham played) with averages of 9.4 catches and 146.6 yards per game. The Redskins are hoping he can translate all of that potential to the pros.

“They said they could really see the potential in me and they could see me grow, and I was just happy,” Parham said at the end of one recent practice.

If he had gone to a big college from one of the major conferences, he probably would have been picked in this spring’s draft. But because he came from a fledgling FCS program in Florida that has only been playing games for six seasons, and because he is relatively new to the sport, NFL teams don’t seem to know what to make of him. It took four failed tryouts with other teams before the Redskins finally signed him late in their offseason workouts.

And yet in four days of training camp practice, Parham has been hard to ignore, and not just because he stands a whole helmet taller than the rest of the team. On Sunday, the first day Washington’s players were in full pads, he caught three touchdowns in red zone drills — all on passes that no defender would have been able to bring in.

“I told all the NFL scouts who came by, ‘If you’ll be patient with him, he will make a practice squad,’ ” Stetson Coach Roger Hughes said in a phone interview. “I said to them, ‘If you give him an opportunity to develop, he has always risen to the level around him.’ ”

Hughes wasn’t just the first person to give Parham a chance; he was the only one. No other school offered Parham an opportunity to play college football after his senior year in Lakeland, Fla. Back then he was a gangly 6-7, 200-pound basketball player turned tight end who had only played regularly for one season. It was hard to see what he could be for a college team.

“When he turned sideways and stuck his tongue out, he looked like a zipper,” Hughes said.

Hughes was desperate, though. He had been the coach at Princeton for 10 seasons before going to Stetson to revive a program in 2013 that had been dormant for 57 years. The school was just finishing its second season when one of Hughes’s defensive coaches spotted Parham and imagined he could be a defensive end. Once Parham got to campus, the Stetson coaches realized he caught every ball thrown to him, so they moved him back to tight end and worked on building his strength.

At first, Hughes recalled, Parham was “not the hardest worker” — he talked about a dream of playing professional football but didn’t seem to know how to get there. The coaches encouraged him to spend lots of time in the weight room and slowly he got stronger, putting on 10 pounds each of his four years at the school, eventually adding 43 pounds of what the school’s tight ends coach, Clay Mazza, calls “all muscle.”

As Parham got stronger, “his confidence went through the roof,” Mazza said.

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In the first game of Parham’s sophomore year, he dived and caught a pass near the goal line, hitting the pylon for a touchdown. “An unbelievable catch,” Mazza said. After that, Parham seemed to get better and better. He started a few games his sophomore year, started every game his junior season and became a sensation last fall, catching 85 passes for 1,319 yards and 13 touchdowns in only nine games. Many of those catches came with Parham lined up as a wide receiver to take better advantage of mismatches.

“He’s a freak of nature that when you see him running, he’s so fluid in his movements you don’t think he’s that fast, but then you see he ran a 4.6[-second 40-yard dash],” Hughes said.

“He can do things with the ball in the air that are just special,” Mazza said.

The Redskins have been deliberate with Parham, working him slowly into live team drills. He doesn’t know much about blocking, having not done much of it and because his 6-8 frame creates challenges.

“I’m longer, it’s not as easy for me to bend, so I have to put something like more effort into it,” Parham said.

Still, he seems determined to prove he is not “a one-sided tight end,” and he often stays long after practice working with the team’s new tight ends coach, Brian Angelichio, and others, including Reed, on skills and technique.

Parham is unlikely to make the Redskins’ 53-man roster, given his lack of experience and the fact that the team has three established tight ends in Reed, Vernon Davis and Jeremy Sprinkle. But if Parham does enough, the Redskins might want to put him on their practice squad, continuing to develop him with the hope he could eventually earn a roster spot. There is only one other 6-8 tight end in the NFL: San Francisco’s Levine Toilolo. A player as big as Parham, who can catch passes as easily as he does, is next to impossible to find.

“As he gets more and more into it, [the Redskins] are going to be surprised, because he’s barely scratched the surface of his ability,” Hughes said.

Asked about this, Parham shrugged. He was standing near the door to the team’s practice facility, holding his helmet and looking unsure of what to expect. Everywhere he has gone during this camp, the only thing players and fans seem to talk about is his size. It’s as if no one had seen a 6-8 football player before because, well, most of them hadn’t.

“I just take it for what it is,” he said. “It’s all fun and games.”

He smiled and looked around at many of his accomplished teammates, seeming almost as surprised to be here with them as they are to be playing with someone as tall as him.

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