After long climb, Dennis finds spotlight in USFL

Amani Dennis' path through college and pro football has included small steps, hard work and plenty of obscurity.

That all changed last weekend. The Wheeling High School graduate made a game-clinching interception with 41 seconds left in a USFL playoff semifinal, sending the Philadelphia Stars into Sunday's title game.

The Stars' 19-14 upset win over the New Jersey Generals happened at a time when not a lot of sports are going on, so the highlight drew some attention.

"My phone hasn't blown up like that ever in my whole football career," Dennis said in a phone interview. "I've never played in front of that many people ever in my career. It was a great feeling for sure."

Dennis plays for the Stars, but the team never set foot in Philadelphia. The entire USFL regular season was held in Birmingham, Ala., in a mostly empty stadium. The playoffs moved up to Canton, Ohio, which might be good news for the Stars, since their opponent, the Birmingham Stallions, won't have home-field advantage.

"I'm excited. I can't wait," Dennis said. "We're going to see how the cards unfold this weekend, but we're pretty excited about it and we like our chances."

Before joining the USFL, Dennis spent two years in what was known as The Spring League, which offered players a room and meals, but no salary. In a very 2020s story, Dennis said he supplemented his income by trading crypto, mostly bitcoin.

One way Dennis stands out among his teammates is he played at Division 3 Carthage College. Most USFL players went to Power 5 schools and some were drafted in the NFL. Dennis' cornerback partner is Michigan product Channing Stribling, who leads the league with 7 interceptions.

Dennis was invited to minicamp by the Cleveland Browns after his senior year at Carthage, but his NFL experience ended when the weekend was over.

"Those guys, they tell me how it was for them playing at Baylor, at Clemson, all these different big schools," he said. "I can only imagine it based on what I felt this week. I know it's probably that times 10."

Another interesting part of Dennis' USFL success is he's new to the cornerback spot. He played safety in college, while the Browns tried him at nickel back.

"I feel like my natural position is safety because I've been playing it my whole life, but the way my body's set up right now (listed at 5-11, 180), I don't weigh what a safety would," he said. "But I've adapted well and I'm out there making plays and holding my own ground. Put me anywhere and I'm going to find a way to make it happen."

That vow was put to the test early in Dennis' career. His sophomore year of high school in 2012, Brent Pearlman was in his first season at Wheeling after coaching Prospect to three state titles. During the second game of the season against Schaumburg, Dennis became the starting quarterback, a position he'd never played before, and stayed there for the next three years.

"I was the backup quarterback, so I was getting reps during practice, but it was pretty limited," he said. "In Pop Warner I played safety and a little bit of running back, but I never thought I would be a quarterback."

Pearlman has been in a relationship with Dennis' mother Helen for several years, so he's followed Amani's career closely.

"When we first put him in as a sophomore, he was very small," Pearlman said. "He couldn't have been much more than 120-130 pounds. But he was extremely durable, extremely tough and he definitely had the right attitude. I don't think he missed a snap in practice or a game ever."

Now preparing to play his 12th game of the USFL season, Dennis would like nothing more than an invite to an NFL training camp next month. He's hired a new agent, who is searching for opportunities.

"I'm definitely ready," Dennis said. "Everything is lining up for me. I'm ready to do whatever. I'll play special teams, I'll be a backup. I don't care what I do, but I know I'm going to fight to earn my way on the roster.

"If it doesn't happen, then I'll be here in the USFL again and I'll be proving myself some more."

• Twitter: @McGrawDHSports

Amani Dennis (29) and Maurice Alexander of the Philadelphia Stars celebrate Dennis's touchdown last Saturday against the New Jersey Generals at Tom Benson Hall of Fame Stadium. Getty Images
Amani Dennis of the Philadelphia Stars in the USFL was a quarterback at Wheeling High School. Getty Images
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