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2019 NFL Draft Profile: John Santiago

I talked with John Santiago, a true underdog, about what motivates him to be an NFL athlete, his time at the NFLPA Bowl and what it’s like come out of a small school and onto the verge of football’s biggest stage.

NCAA Football: North Dakota at Washington Jennifer Buchanan-USA TODAY Sports

“I love adversity”

Those are the words of John Santiago, running back for the University of North Dakota Fighting Hawks, and with a story like his, Santiago has no other choice.

Whether fighting off the stigma of coming from a small high school, proving he can compete with the best despite being a “small” back, or handling the wind and cold of Grand Forks, North Dakota, John has shown he can work his way through whatever life throws his way.

That’s part of the reason why he’s received the following accolades:

  • NFLPA Collegiate Bowl Participant
  • Three time FCS All-American, named to seven different All-American teams
  • Fifth player in the 55 year history of the Big Sky to be named first team freshman, sophomore and junior seasons
  • Big Sky Freshman of the Year
  • Holder of UND’s Division I record for rushing and all-purpose yards (which he set as a freshman)
  • Career totals of 6,562 all purpose yards and 32 touchdowns
  • Led team to first playoff appearance in school history
  • 2016 Big Sky Champions

That’s just a few of them. I could continue on but I’ll let you enjoy his highlights instead.

I got the privilege to talk to John and discuss his training, his time at the NFLPA Collegiate Bowl, and what motivates him to be an NFL athlete.


Kyle Dubbels: I see you are from Andover, Minnesota. Is that a big town?

John: Yeah, I am from Andover but I went to school in St. Francis. Andover is a big town but St. Francis is a small town, about 11,000 [people], just north of Andover.

KD: Do you think schools shied away from recruiting you because you went to a small school?

John: A little bit. I only received one Division I offer (from UND) and two Division II offers, I think one was from Concordia-St. Paul. But I’m so grateful for my offer from UND, they gave me a chance to play and I loved it up there.

I didn’t let being from a small school get to me though, I love fighting through adversity. My mom always taught me to keep my head up and keep going and I think I have a good ability to fight adversity. I definitely have a chip on my shoulder mentality [being from a small school].

KD: Why did you choose UND?

John: Well, it was my only DI offer but I’m so grateful they gave me the opportunity to play. It really feels like family up there, when I went for my official, I was actually committed before I went on my official visit, but once I got up there it just confirmed my choice.

I fell in love with the community and they all embrace you. Not just as an athlete but as a student as well. North Dakota feels like home and I wouldn’t change it for anything. It’s a smaller community and its kind of flat so sometimes you can’t escape the cold or the wind up there. It actually got to -60 this winter but I’m in Tampa right now training so that’s nice.

NCAA Football: North Dakota at Wyoming
In his first game at UND, John ran for 148 yards and two touchdowns, including a 52 yarder against the Wyoming Cowboys
Troy Babbitt-USA TODAY Sports

KD: Who are you training with? What has been the most enjoyable part of training for the combine and the draft? What has been the worst?

John: Right now I’m training with ASPI and Yo Murphy in Tampa. Murphy is great, he has a lot of experience with NFL players and does a great job of getting me ready for the physical and mental aspects of the draft and training. It’s been great, I’ve gotten to talk to a lot of NFL players and have enjoyed it.

I really love working outside in winter since its not North Dakota. Being outside on a real, grass field helps me get the most out of [my workouts]. The people at ASPI do a great job of getting me prepared.

As far as the worst, I don’t really dislike anything. It’s tough but I love conquering challenges and going through the process.

KD: What’s next after training?

John: Next Wednesday I’ll head back to Minneapolis and then head to Grand Forks. Then I’ll be going to NDSU’s pro day on March 28th. After that I’ll continue to train in Minneapolis until the draft.

KD: Have you spoken to any NFL teams yet? Do you have a “dream team” you hope to play for?

John: Yeah, when I was at the NFLPA Bowl I got to talk with a lot of teams, mostly informal interviews. I’ve talked with the Giants and Colts the most, a little with the Cowboys.

I mean, I’d be grateful for any opportunity but if I had to choose, I’d say my dream team would be the Minnesota Vikings, since I’m from Minnesota. I haven’t been in U.S. Bank Stadium yet so to step foot in there for the first time as a player would be really special.

*Author Note: As a Minnesotan and Vikings fan myself, John chose the right answer!*

North Dakota v Washington
This past season, John ran 18 times for 139 yards against Washington, including a 69 yard run.
Photo by Abbie Parr/Getty Images

KD: How was the NFLPA Bowl? What was that experience like?

John: It was great! It was in LA so, I mean, that’s pretty great. It’s a really great experience there are a lot of NFL vets there to help and run drills. Richard Sherman was there, I was coached by [Packers coach] Brandon Jackson and Chuck Pagano.

There are presentations every night on what to expect in the NFL, how to pick an agent and handle finances.

My favorite part was competing at a high level, it was kind of intimidating at first but it was a cool experience.

KD: Do you think you were treated any differently for being an athlete from a small FCS school during the bowl process than an athlete from a bigger DI school?

John: A little. Players from Alabama and the Pac-12, people recognize you so you get more recognition and the coaches played at bigger schools and can relate.

Being from a smaller school, though, they really train you to prepare yourself and prove yourself. They help you get the chip-on-your-shoulder mentality.

But I realize that everyone is there for a reason and I felt like everyone was treated fairly and everyone is a good football player and was treated equal.

KD: When did you start playing football and when did you realize playing in the NFL was a possibility?

John: I started playing in 3rd grade. I always looked up to my brother Joey, we’re the only two boys in the family and he’s always been my idol. So when he got started in football I’d always be running up the sidelines wishing I could play. Once I got the pads on I just fell in love with it.

As far as the NFL being a possibility, people always said I had talent in college and when I started getting some awards I started feeling like I could do it.

KD: So, what motivates you to be an NFL athlete?

John: Playing in the NFL has been a dream of mine since I was little. But what motivates me is all the people that have been with me and supported me not just through college but when I was back in high school. I really want to prove the people who have believed in me all this time right and reward their loyalty. I don’t feel like I could repay them unless I got into the league.

I feel like I can’t let them down and I feel like my supporters are with me and they’re my family.

I’ve always had strong support behind me, I’m the baby of the family. First to graduate college. First to pursue football professionally. My family has always been there supporting me and my best friends have always been there for me. I’ll always hold a special place for them wherever I go.

I feel like we’re all in this together and I know they’ve sacrificed a lot for me and now I want to sacrifice for them.

KD: Is there anything you want NFL teams to know about you?

John: I want teams to know that if they invest in me I won’t let them down. I’m a guy who is dependable and there will never be a chance where I will let them down. I will always work hard and fight through adversity.