Kyle Dugger was a senior when he moved into the starting lineup on the Whitewater High School football team in Fayetteville, Georgia.
There were no Division I scholarship offers for Dugger after that season, so he enrolled at Lenoir-Rhyne University, a Division II school in Hickory, North Carolina with less than 2,000 students.
After redshirting as a freshman in 2014, Dugger missed the 2016 season with a knee injury and received a medical red-shirt, so he was part of the Lenoir-Rhyne program for six years.
The road that Dugger took hardly seemed like it would wind up with him being drafted to play in the NFL.
But on Friday night, the 24-year-old safety and return specialist was selected by the Patriots in the second round with the 37th overall pick, the team's first in the draft after trading away their first-rounder Thursday night.
"It was probably the closest thing to my first Christmas,'' said Dugger on a conference call not long after being picked. "It's definitely been a journey with a lot of ups and downs.
"I know it's been a long time coming out of high school. This day wasn't in sight like it is now. To go through the adversities and take the route I took and be able to play for an organization like this is a huge honor.
"It's an unexplainable feeling. I feel kind of shocked, honestly. But it's really huge for me.''
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Dugger, the first player from Lenoir-Rhyne to be drafted in 20 years, joins a strong Patriots secondary after making 237 tackles with 10 interceptions during his college career.
He received the Cliff Harris Award as the top Division II defensive player last season despite missing the final seven games with a thumb injury after playing the opening seven games.
The 6-foot-1, 215-pound Dugger is known for his versatility and will be able to play several spots on the field for the Patriots.
Dugger was the only Division II player invited to the Senior Bowl, where he made a favorable impression going against Division I players.
"It just gave me an opportunity to kind of solidify what I already knew, that I could play at this level and also the opportunity to play and learn from the coaching staff who was teaching me things,'' said Dugger. "It gave me an extra boost of confidence.
"I was definitely rubbing my hands in a way of I'm ready to continue to get better and excited for the future.''
Dugger, who was also a basketball player in high school, said that he was motivated throughout college by not receiving any interest from the top-level schools, and that will continue now that he's in the NFL.
"As far as a chip, it's definitely drawn a mountain on my shoulder,'' said Dugger. "It's definitely something that's going to be permanent. I'm going to carry it throughout my career as long as I have the opportunity to play the game.
"(Going to Division II) made me different in the way that the program wasn't made to produce NFL players. If I wanted to get better, I had to take it into my own hands as far as my work ethic, the way I approached myself, how I looked at myself on film, how I critiqued myself.
"I really had to go the extra mile and not just look at who I was playing against but kind of compare it to what I was trying to get to.''
Dugger returned six punts for touchdowns during his college career and figures to be in that role with the Patriots.
"I'm very comfortable with the ball in my hands and being back there to catch the ball and have the opportunity to change the game,'' he said.
Dugger is the first Division II player drafted by the Patriots since 2014 when they took defensive end Zach Moore of Concordia University in Minnesota in the sixth round.
"Obviously small school, but pretty explosive player,'' said Nick Caserio, the Patriots director of player personnel. "Big, he's tough, he's fast, he's smart. Played well at his level of competition, held his own at the Senior Bowl against better competition.
"One of the things you like to see or you look for is the player like that with that background to see how they hold up in that environment. He acquitted himself fairly well.''
This article is written by Jim Fenton from The Patriot Ledger, Quincy, Mass. and was legally licensed via the Tribune Content Agency through the NewsCred publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.