The sights were familiar. So were the sounds.
As Nick Stephens drove toward Nashville on Wednesday, he stuck to interstates he had traveled on numerous other occasions in recent years. He passed much of the time on the phone with family members and friends.
“Everything about what I’ve done right now … is kind of surreal,” he said in the middle of the afternoon. “I crossed the state line a minute ago. It seems like yesterday I was doing this.
“… When the deal was final you sit there and you think about it for a while and, honestly, it’s kind of weird.”
Stephens was one of 15 rookie free agents who signed with the Tennessee Titans following the completion of last month’s NFL draft. In his case, the deal was done roughly 30 minutes after the final selection.
That earned the former University of Tennessee quarterback a place among the group of first-year players, including top draft choices Kendall Wright and Zach Brown, who on Thursday began two days of rookie orientation at the Titans’ MetroCenter training facility.
It also gave him a chance to pursue his dream of playing professional football not far from where his dream of college stardom fell short.
“Anybody that says they weren’t disappointed that they weren’t drafted would be lying to you,” he said. “You want to be drafted. You want to play. You want all those things.
“At the same time I realize that coming from a small school, not as much exposure, even though there was talk about the late rounds I had in my mind that I was going to be a free agent the whole time. If something happened that I got drafted, that would be icing on the cake. It worked well for me.”
Officially, the 6-foot-3, 230-pounder comes to the Titans from Tarleton State (Texas). He spent the last two seasons at the NCAA Division II school about an hour southwest of Fort Worth, where he endured a shoulder injury that cost him part of the 2010 season and then threw for 3,005 yards and 20 touchdowns last fall.
Prior to that, though, he spent four years at UT.
There, he attempted 143 passes in limited duty during 2008 and 2009 but primarily was a backup to Jonathan Crompton. He also dealt with the coaching shuffle that took place as, in short order, the program went from Phillip Fulmer to Lane Kiffin to Derek Dooley.
Following a forgettable performance in the 2010 spring game, Dooley’s first, he decided to transfer. Eventually, he settled on Tarleton, which is roughly two hours from his home in Flower Mound, Texas.
“I always knew in my heart that I was capable, physically and mentally, to have this opportunity,” Stephens said. “It was just a matter of playing consistently for a year or two. It was just a matter of getting my name out there enough.
“But through everything that happened I’d be lying if I said there wasn’t times where I doubted myself. When you get hurt, it’s hard not to kind of look back and wonder, ‘Why is this happening to me?’ You just have to realize it all happens for a reason and it led me to where I am today.”
That is, of course, back in Tennessee.
In a way he has come full circle, even though the path he ultimately took was not the one he envisioned the first time he made that drive six years earlier.
“It’s hard not to think about it right now, honestly,” he said as he continued to click off the miles. “I’ve been calling some of my buddies, a couple of guys that are headed to camps right now as well. Just talking on the phone to family and friends. I feel like that passes the time. Seriously, you look up and you don’t realize you’ve been driving for three hours.
“This drive right here, I didn’t think I’d ever be making it again. So yeah it’s ironic. I couldn’t be more excited to be back in the state. All the people in Tennessee have been great to me and it couldn’t be a better situation.”