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Former Bomber safety steps closer to National Football League

Former+All-American+safety+Derek+Slywka+23+goes+low+to+wrap+up+Springfield+College+senior+running+back+Blane+Hart+on+Nov.+18%2C+2023.++Slywka+has+two+NFL+rookie+mini+camp+opportunities+coming+up+with+the+Chiefs+and+the+49ers.
Nolan Saunders
Former All-American safety Derek Slywka ’23 goes low to wrap up Springfield College senior running back Blane Hart on Nov. 18, 2023. Slywka has two NFL rookie mini camp opportunities coming up with the Chiefs and the 49ers.

During the 1967 NFL draft, the Atlanta Falcons chose Sandor Szabo ’67 with the 317th pick. That was 57 years ago and no athlete from Ithaca College has made it close to the NFL since then. Until now.

Shortly after the third and last day of the 2024 NFL Draft April 27 selections, former All-American safety Derek Slywka ’23 was signed to a rookie minicamp for both the Kansas City Chiefs and the San Francisco 49ers.

Slywka explained his background, growing up in the small town of Waterloo, New York as a passionate Cleveland Browns fan with his two younger brothers. Growing up, Derek said the sport of football bonded his family.

“I think it goes all the way back to when I was a kid,” Slywka said. “It was my dad and my grandpa that influenced me a lot. I grew up a Browns fan, so it was just kind of like a football thing just growing up. … It’s been kind of a family thing. I have two younger brothers. So we’ve all played football our whole lives. Playing football in the backyard on Sundays after the Browns games were over.”

Slywka’s love for sports would help him grow into a three sport athlete at Waterloo High School, where he played football, basketball and baseball. He would become a star in all three sports, earning a spot as a third-team All-League member in baseball, as well as a first-team All-League member in football. In basketball, Slywka was selected to first-team All-League Finger Lakes East and was placed on the Finger Lakes Fab Five.

Slywka athletic talents would guide him to play basketball at Finger Lakes Community College (FLCC) for the 2019–20 academic year. However, he transferred to the Ithaca College football program after his first season at FLCC and the rest is history. Former teammate Issac Hadac is a social media football trainer who worked with multiple prospects through the draft. Even though he worked with him only a small bit, Hadac said Slywka presents multiple attributes that make him more than capable of competing in the NFL.

“He’s a beast,” Hadac said. “He’s got the measurables, he’s got the speed, he’s got the ability and that’s what really matters at the end of the day. It doesn’t really matter what division you are. I worked with many kids this past draft class, working with them [and] getting their pro days and he’s one of the best kids I’ve worked with.”

Despite Slywka’s athletic ability, Bombers’ head football coach Michael Toerper said Slywka’s work ethic is first-rate.

“Obviously his physical skill set is impressive,” Toerper said. “But his internal drive to incrementally improve every single day and having a plan to do so … I think that’s the one thing that separates him apart is his incredibly competitive work ethic.”

As far as going on to the professional level, Slywka said he made this decision in Spring 2023. He and Toerper sat down to talk about the potential opportunity to go play in the NFL. Afterward, Slywka knew he had to perform at a high level during the Fall 2023 season in order to keep the door open and certainly did not disappoint, as he was named to the D3football.com First Team All-American as well as becoming a Cliff Harris award finalist.

After the season, Toerper reached out to liaisons at the University of Buffalo and Syracuse University to earn Slywka a spot in their pro day showcases. Pro days are opportunities held prior to the draft every year to showcase individual schools’ players to professional scouts. Slywka trained six days a week, which he said was different from in-season training because he was preparing for drills like the 40-yard dash, the vertical, the 3-cone drill, etc.

“I didn’t have money to get a trainer,” Slywka said. “So it was using my resources, talking with coach Toerper, using the lifting stuff we do at Ithaca — there’s a lot of stuff online right now of trainers and their programs that they do, so I kind of put [a plan] together using multiple different sources.”

To say Slywka showed out at the pro days is an understatement. Slywka said his performance garnered the attention of around 20 different NFL teams, as well as received a prospect grade for the NFL draft database.

From that point, Slywka’s film was in the hands of NFL scouts and he signed with agent John Perez of Perez Sports. Slywka said he waited until the NFL draft to see where he would fall, eventually being signed to the two rookie mini camps.

All 32 teams hold rookie minicamps for two to three days across various dates in early-to-mid May. Rookie mini camps consist of NFL draftees, tryout players, undrafted free agents and players like Slywka, who are invited to participate in the hopes of getting a contract.

Derek’s younger brother and former high school teammate, Kyle Slywka, said it’s unbelievable to see the time pass from when they were playing football in their backyard.

“It’s crazy because we’ve always been competitors going back and forth in that yard,” Kyle Slywka said. “Seeing that competitive spirit in him when he plays football now, it’s stuff that he’s always had in him and it’s crazy to see how it translates to the field and how it helps him be such a great athlete. It’s really cool.”

Kyle Slywka also said he thinks his brother has had a lasting impact on their hometown in Waterloo.

“I think it’s definitely a big thing because nobody’s really done it from here, especially in football,” Kyle Slywka said. “I mean, it’s not been a well known thing. And it’s definitely going to help their community. I mean, to see someone that can do it, and maybe give them more confidence that ‘Hey, it’s not impossible to do something if you put your mind to it.’”

Toerper said Derek’s journey is a testament to small-school athletes and that one of the main objectives of the football program at the college is to develop players into the best that they can be.

“It’s just a microcosm for all small-school athletes that you don’t have to be this highly touted five-star recruit to make it professional,” Toerper said. “Certainly, there’s things that are out of your control as far as metrics goes, as far as a certain size you have to be at a lot of these levels, or a lot of these programs to be able to get a sniff in the NFL, but it just proves if you’re good enough, they’ll find you.”

During the rookie minicamps, Slywka will be competing with drafted and undrafted rookies, as well as athletes who fall in the same boat as him and are trying to etch their names to an NFL roster. Slywka will fly out to Kansas City to compete in the Chief’s minicamps May 3, followed by the 49ers minicamp May 10 if he does not earn a spot with the Chiefs. Slywka said he is excited to see where this opportunity takes him and is also excited to be able to do this and set an example for his younger brothers that both play collegiate Division III football.

“It’s something that if you told a 12-year-old me I’d be doing, he would probably be a lot more in awe than I necessarily am right now,” Slywka said. “Because I’m kind of just working, just keeping my head down and grinding to be ready for whatever the opportunity is that I do get. But it’s cool. I’m excited to be able to do it as an Ithaca Bomber. I’m excited to be able to, as an older brother, having two younger brothers, to be able to do something like that, to kind of pave the way for both of them who both play football.”

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Flynn Hynes
Flynn Hynes, Assistant Sports Editor
Nolan Saunders, Photographer
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