ST. PETERSBURG — For all the big-time colleges with familiar logos gracing the sides of helmets at the East-West Shrine Game on Saturday night, there is also the obscure blue-and-gold "MC" proudly worn by linebacker Shawn Loiseau of Division II Merrimack College.
For small-school obscurity, it's hard to top Loiseau, who has never played before a crowd of more than 3,000 in his life and hadn't flown in a plane until he took one here. Coaches have taken to calling him "Rudy," after the Notre Dame walk-on of movie fame, even though this Rudy is 6 feet 1 and 242 pounds, with 254 tackles in the past two seasons.
"It's incredible. My whole life, I've been told I wasn't good enough to play versus these guys," said Loiseau, who didn't have major-college interest coming out of high school in the Worcester, Mass., suburb of Shrewsbury. "It feels great to be surrounded by great players. I'm watching these guys on TV, and now I get to have them as my teammates. I'd never been on a plane. I'm used to 12-hour bus rides for away games. This whole experience is incredible."
Loiseau was a two-time conference player of the year at Merrimack, with an enrollment just more than 2,000 and located in North Andover, Mass. He helped the Warriors win the Northeast 10 conference in 2009. His college experience is unlike most of the players in St. Petersburg this week, but it was everything he hoped.
"I got told I would play early, win a championship and be surrounded by great guys, and did all three of those things. I couldn't ask for anything more," Loiseau said.
Merrimack never has had a player drafted since launching its program in 1996, but Loiseau is on the NFL radar; there may have been 1,134 fans at his final home game, but there were also 27 NFL scouts, coach John Perry said.
"One of my biggest things is I never want to be outworked," he said. "No matter what it is, whenever I step on a football field, I never want to be outworked by anybody. I come from a small school, so (Saturday) I just want to go out there, fly around and make plays."
If there's anyone who can appreciate the small-school star, it's East linebackers coach Sam Mills III, who starred at Division II Montclair State, just as his late father, Sam, did before a 12-year NFL career.
"This is a big week for Shawn. It reaffirms his thinking that he can play with these guys on this level, and it's good for us as coaches to see him play with guys at this level," said Mills, now an assistant with the Carolina Panthers. "Whenever you get a guy who has that many tackles as he has, you like to bring him here to confirm that there's no transition for him. He's fine."
There are some big transitions for Loiseau this week. His father called with news of 4 inches of snow in Shrewsbury, so Loiseau is the one walking around in a tank top while his Florida teammates are in jackets. And the idea of getting paid to play football — even $150 in walking-around money this week — is a novelty in itself.
"It doesn't even make sense to me. The thing called 'per diem.' They've got this thing, you show up and they're like, 'Shawn, here's your per diem,' " he said. " 'What is that?' They're like, 'This is money.' I said, 'What do you do with it?' They said, 'You can do whatever you want with it.' "
Loiseau gets a huge spotlight Saturday with a chance to show he belongs, not only with the major-college stars but as an NFL prospect. The early impressions in practice this week have been promising.
"You see his attitude and intensity. Humongous," Mills said. "You see his leadership. He can run with guys, he can tackle. He's a big hitter. Once you get lined up, football is football. You see the guys that make plays. Shawn has shown he's a guy who can make plays."