FLOWERY BRANCH — Adam Nissley admits he was a little bit star-struck at first.
Few athletes ever get the opportunity to strap on a helmet for the NFL team they grew up rooting for, let alone practice alongside the greatest player to ever field their position.
So when Nissley was signed by the Atlanta Falcons as an undrafted free agent out of Central Florida in April and began sharing reps with fellow tight end Tony Gonzalez at OTAs soon afterward, the former South Forsyth High School standout had to make a concerted effort to keep his excitement in check.
"As a rookie you can’t let that show, you’ve just got to do what you’ve got to do and stay out of [the veterans’] way," Nissley said.
"But in the back of my mind I was thinking, ‘This is pretty cool.’ Tony Gonzalez has been my idol since I can remember. It was pretty crazy."
Nissley’s presence in an NFL training camp is, for a local product, also pretty rare. He’s trying to do what perhaps no graduate of a Forsyth County high school ever has — make an NFL club’s 53-man roster.
Of several current and former school system officials contacted by the Forsyth County News, none were aware of a local graduate ever making the final cut for an NFL team.
Lambert athletic director Drew Ferrer was head coach of the South Forsyth freshman football team during Nissley’s 9th grade season and later coached him as an assistant for the varsity football and baseball teams. Ferrer said Nissley’s shot at the pros should provide encouragement for other local athletes.
"We’ve seen Gwinnett [County] schools and some other counties put people in the pros here and there, so to see ours [have a chance] is a great thing," Ferrer said. "It just shows if you work hard and do good things, you can get an opportunity."
But Nissley doesn’t have an easy road ahead.
Gonzalez, the all-time NFL leader in receptions, receiving yards and touchdowns among tight ends, is firmly entrenched as the Falcons’ top option at the position this season.
That leaves Nissley competing with four other players for one of the two remaining tight end spots the Falcons are expected to boast on their 53-man squad.
Nissley’s athletic strengths are polar opposites to those of Gonzalez, and that actually works to his benefit.
At 6 feet, 6 inches and 267 pounds, Nissley doesn’t strive to become an elite pass catcher or even routinely get his hands on the football.
Nissley is more concerned with keeping opponents away from the ball as a blocker. That was the primary reason he opted to sign with the Falcons over a handful of other teams that were interested in him.
"I knew they had a need for a big, blocking tight end," Nissley said.
"That’s what they kind of recruited me [for] ... to come in and be a blocking tight end, hold down the point and give them some help in the protection. The way our system was at UCF, I was blocking 90 percent of the time.
"[The Falcons] told me they needed somebody like me, and there was a good chance for me to come in and have a shot to compete to make the team. That’s all I needed to know."
The ability to make strong blocks has been Nissley’s biggest asset since his junior varsity playing days, said his father, Hal Nissley.
Adam Nissley grew up in Cumming and earned statewide recognition as one of the top football players in the north metro Atlanta area before graduating from South Forsyth in 2007.
"What really got me encouraging him to [pursue a football career] was his strength," Hal Nissley said. "Training and working out is a chore for most people, but it’s something he really enjoys."
Adam Nissley went on to play for the Knights at Central Florida, where he was a two-time All-Conference USA honorable mention selection.
In 51 games, he made 38 receptions for 465 yards and two touchdowns and helped the team set a school record for wins (11) in 2010. The Knights capped that season with a 10-6 upset victory over Georgia in the AutoZone Liberty Bowl.
"I knew that if I worked hard and stayed healthy and kept at it, I would have a shot somewhere," Nissley said.
"We had a couple of good seasons at UCF that got me some exposure ... and as fate would have it, it led me right back home."
Though the speed of the game is dialed up in the NFL, Nissley said the rate at which players are expected to learn assignments and techniques is even faster. Nissley found that out for himself on the first day of mini-camps in June, when veteran defensive end John Abraham took issue with the way he blocked him.
Abraham initiated a brief scuffle, but the two have since made peace.
"The vets, they’ll help you out, but if you mess up they’ll let you know," Nissley said. "This is the year they want to win a Super Bowl, so they don’t want anybody messing up. You have to have your game down to the minute details with everything."
Nissley said he’s been able to stay focused on improving his game and hasn’t spent time thinking ahead to the first round of cuts. Returning to the area where he grew up, he said, is providing some valuable familiarity and stability as he tries to earn a permanent spot alongside the top football players on the planet.
"Forsyth County is home to me," Nissley said.
"Being able to come back where I’m from and be in a comfortable environment to train and get my mind right for this next level was a big factor in this process. I’m just trying to get better at what I’m doing right now and hopefully make this team."