Justin Sumpter walked onto the field at the stadium formerly known as Turner Field with a sense of determination that had been building up all offseason. The senior wide receiver was coming off a 2017 season where he earned First-Team All-Big South honors, racking up 610 receiving yards and five touchdowns for the run-first Kennesaw State.
With two All-Conference honors and a career of being overlooked, Sumpter had this season opener against Georgia State circled in preseason training.
“It was the first time (KSU had played) against an FBS team,” Sumpter said. “And it’s right up the street. A lot of the guys on the team had offers from GSU and everyone knew guys on the other team.”
By no means was GSU the powerhouse of an Alabama or Clemson, but for a young KSU program, the in-state clash was monumental for both sides. It was also a way for Owls that were trying to go to the next level to showcase their talents against an FBS opponent.
Sumpter had his eye on one matchup in particular.
“Jerome Smith was one of the top corners in the Sun Belt conference,” Sumpter said. “Somebody tweeted that he hadn’t given up a touchdown his whole career being there, so I made that my spring motivation. I would look at that before every workout and I wanted to be the first one to score a touchdown on him.”
With just over nine minutes in the second quarter, Sumpter achieved his goal with a 23 yard touchdown reception from Chandler Burks to give the Owls a 14-0 lead.
To KSU’s dismay, the Panthers came back and made it a competitive game. The Owls had the chance to put the game away, but a failed fourth down conversion gave GSU the opportunity to complete the comeback.
“All we needed was a first down to win and I ran to where I needed to be to get the first down, but the ball was underthrown so I had to come back to get it. I thought I had enough for the first down, so I go down,” Sumpter said. “We ended up being a yard short.”
The senior receiver finished with 95 yards on seven receptions in the losing effort, but the work ethic used to prepare for the Panthers was used by Sumpter to lead the Owls to an undefeated regular season, a second conference title and a run to the FCS Quarterfinals.
Now, as one of the members of the first graduating class in KSU football history, Sumpter is using the underdog motivation to try and become the first Owl in the NFL.
KSU runs an option offense, which is made it difficult for Sumpter to get a ton of reps. But when he did get the chance, he made the most of it.
“My mentality going into the games was that we were probably only going to throw the ball one time,” Sumpter said. “If you missed a pass, you probably weren’t going to get one until the next game. That motivated me to catch everything that came my way, whether it was in my reach or not.”
In his four years as an Owl, Sumpter totaled 21 touchdowns, 1,989 receiving yards and a tackle. He wasn’t invited to the NFL Combine, but he showed out and put up combine-worthy numbers at KSU Pro Day in March.
Sumpter had 17 reps on the bench, which would’ve tied him with UGA’s Mecole Hardman for 12th most for receivers and he had a 39.5” vertical, which would’ve been the sixth highest among receivers in Indianapolis.
As far as not being invited to the combine, Sumpter doesn’t think about it.
“I’m not one of the guys that everyone wants, so I’m just going to use the work ethic that made me a Division 1 player and go to be one of the top receivers in the NFL,” Sumpter said. “All of the times that I could’ve given up, the fact that I’m still here tells me that He’s trying to tell me something. This is meant for me.”
Plenty of FCS players have made it to the league, but to be the first from KSU would be huge for Sumpter, who has lived in Georgia his whole life. He was with the program a year before they had played their first game.
“Coming in as freshmen, we were all just ready to play football,” Sumpter said. “When we look back in a couple years and see Kennesaw as a powerhouse, I know we laid that foundation.”
The thought of being the first to score on a highly touted FBS cornerback isn’t the only inspiration for Sumpter.
“Dragon Ball Z,” Sumpter said, definitively. “How Goku prepares for every fight, how he prepares for everyday, taking care of people around him making sure they’re safe.”
Sumpter’s appreciation for anime was formed a few years ago, with Dragon Ball Z being the one he keeps going back to. Aside from workouts, Sumpter uses the show as metaphor for his life, and hopes to reach “Super Saiyan” status when his name is called in April.
“That’s kind of how it was for me in my college career,” Sumpter said. “I knew I was going to have something to learn from every battle. Most of the times if there’s a guy with more experience than me, I still have to find a way for me to win the matchup.”