A football life – Bryce Paup’s journey from UNI to the NFL


UNI defensive line coach Bryce Paup has experienced a complete football life as a former 11-year NFL veteran, highlighted by four Pro Bowl selections and being named the 1995 NFL Defensive Player of the Year.  Of all his experiences, Paup’s fondest memory is the battles against the world’s best.

“Just the competition,” Paup said.  “It’s one of those things that there’s nothing like it.  The closest thing I’ve done compared to the NFL is driving a NASCAR car.  That kind of rivaled it.”

Paup came from humble beginnings, growing up in Scranton, IA, a small town an hour northwest of Des Moines.  UNI head football coach Mark Farley, who was a graduate assistant in 1986, remembers the day that the future Pro Bowler joined the team.

“I remember when he walked in the door […] he was 6-foot-5, 210 pounds, and I remember I said, ‘We’ll take him,’” Farley said.

Courtesy Photo/UNI Athletics
Paup, right, at the UNI-Dome in 1989.

The only program that recruited the small town Iowa product was Graceland University, a small college in southern Iowa, and schools like the University of Iowa and Iowa State University declined Paup.

Paup vividly remembers being turned away by the Hawkeyes and Cyclones, ultimatelly using the denial as motivation on the way to an All-American career at UNI.

Courtesy Photo/UNI Athletics

The standout Panther went under the radar again in the 1990 NFL draft as the 159th pick to the Green Bay Packers.

Courtesy Photo/Bryce Paup

One of the games as a Packer and during his career that stands out the most to Paup was a missed opportunity to sack a quarterback who is widely regarded as one of the greatest players of all time.

“There was one game where we played the Kansas City Chiefs; I was with the Packers and Joe Montana was a scratch,” Paup said with a smerk.  “I kind of wish he would’ve played because I sacked their quarterback [Dave Krieg] three times that game.”

Paup also remembers playing against the Oakland Raiders, who had several future Hall of Famers that he watched growing up.

“My rookie year, we went out and played the Raiders and, for me, Howie Long, Willie Gault, Bo Jackson, to see those guys on the team; I’ll never forget, I’m walking up the tunnel behind Howie Long and I wanted to reach out, tap him on the shoulder and ask him for an autograph, but got to know him after that,” Paup remarked.  “It’s one of those weird things.  It was kind of surreal, like, ‘I’m finally here.’”

Another surreal moment for Paup was playing against his favorite team as a kid, the Dallas Cowboys.

“It was a little weird playing against them,” Paup said.  “We went down and played them at Dallas Stadium.  That’s when I was in awe because I always watched them on TV.  I thought, ‘Wow, that’s pretty cool.’  Then I was actually there playing in that stadium.  That’s one of those moments that I’ll never forget.”

One of the most distinct aspects of Paup’s career was the heralded opportunity that very few had to play with the two all-time sack leaders in Bruce Smith (No. 1, 200 sacks) and Reggie White (No. 2, 198 sacks).  In his current role as UNI’s defensive line coach, Paup passes on his wealth of knowledge from playing with the best at the highest level. 

“He talks about how Bruce Smith worked and how he was able to move his body to fit in whatever gap he needed to at like 270 pounds,” Panther defensive end Elerson Smith said. 


“He also played with Reggie White and [talks about] how powerful he was. He teaches us Reggie White’s hump move that he studied from him, and learned firsthand from Reggie White.  So that’s pretty cool having a primary source like that.”

Paup’s last year with the Packers in 1994 saw his first Pro Bowl selection, which he remembers fondly to this day.   

“You get to go to Hawaii for a week to practice and play with guys that, some of them, when you were a kid you watched growing up,” Paup said.  “Pretty cool to be on the same field as them.  Seeing Bo Jackson, [Jerry] Rice — got to hit him a couple times.”

Several more Pro Bowls were on the horizon as the Buffalo Bills peaked interest in Paup after five years in Green Bay. 

Courtesy Photo/UNI Athletics

The standout linebacker/pass rusher took his game to another level with the Bills as he led the NFL in sacks with 17.5 to be named the 1995 NFL Defensive Player of the Year.

“It was just something that I never expected,” Paup said.  “Even though it happened, I didn’t think much about it because that was an award for Reggie White, Bruce Smith, Deion Sanders […] It’s just one of those things that no one can ever take from you.”

After being named the NFL’s best defensive player, Paup went to three straight Pro Bowls for a career total of four.  Following three seasons with the Bills, Paup finished his career with two years as a Jacksonville Jaguar and a final stop with the Minnesota Vikings in 2000. 

The Panther-turned-pro finished his career with 75 sacks for 78th all-time in sacks, only nine sacks behind Howie Long, who he drew inspiration from.

Paup has found his purpose after his playing days, coaching his alma mater’s D-line and more importantly for Paup, mentoring the players off the field.

“To me it’s one of the most important things,” Paup said about being a mentor.  “It’s a cliche but people don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.  For me it’s real because I made some dumb mistakes growing up and had some hard times, and for me football was my way out […] I just thought you know what I wish somebody would’ve done this for me when I was coming through.”

“You bring a guy like Bryce Paup in — he played here, he knows the people here,” Farley added.  “He knows how to mentor and guide the players […] he just does it the way that he became a player — he just grinds at it every day.”

Courtesy Photo/UNI Athletics

Paup’s journey has come full circle after returning to the only program that gave him a chance to now making an impact on those that follow in his footsteps on and off the gridiron.

“The community and the university supported me, gave me a great opportunity and now it’s my time to give back to help other people do the same thing that I did,” Paup said.