The future stars of the National Football League (NFL) will be called one by one during the 2021 draft in Cleveland this week. Just a few miles away from the highly-anticipated broadcast event, two proud Armenians will be hoping for their names to be called one day when they become eligible for the draft.
Alan “Bubba” Arslanian and Bryce Petersen are teammates at the University of Akron, but their bond goes beyond football. They are descendants of Armenian Genocide survivors. The roots of their friendship are reminiscent of the scene painted by William Saroyan in the short story, “The Armenian and the Armenian.”
“I didn’t really know anybody,” Petersen told the Weekly. “We all have our nameplates above our lockers and (my locker is) pretty close to him in the locker room. So I saw ‘Arslanian’ and I was shocked. I was pretty excited. I had never even talked to him, but I ran up to him and said, ‘Oh my gosh, you’re Armenian? So am I!’ So that was kind of how our friendship really started.”
Petersen, whose grandmother’s maiden name is Vartanian, moved from northern California to play at Akron and admits the last thing he was expecting when moving to Ohio was to see Armenians—let alone play with an Armenian teammate. But he and Arslanian have formed a unique Armenian tandem in the Ohio valley with aspirations for NFL stardom.
Arslanian, who plays linebacker, will have a pretty good shot at hearing his name called in next year’s draft if he continues to play the way he did in his redshirt sophomore and junior seasons. In 2020, Arslanian led the NCAA’s Mid-American Conference with 47 solo tackles. He also tacked on three sacks—good enough for third-most in the conference. Those numbers would likely have mirrored or exceeded his stats from 2019 had Akron’s season not been cut short due to the COVID-19 pandemic. In 2019, Arslanian’s 125 total tackles ranked ninth in the entire nation among NCAA Division I collegiate players.
“I want to take it to the next level,” he proclaimed. “I have the ability to show that I can compete at the (NFL) level—not just play.”
What is even more impressive for Arslanian is that he is putting up impressive numbers despite his small frame, which isn’t common at the linebacker position. Arslanian, who stands at five feet and nine inches tall, uses his unorthodox stature as motivation on the playing field.
“Being small, you have to be able to pack a punch,” said Arslanian, who takes pride in his strength and athleticism. “I’m in the weight room a lot. I’m trying to be the strongest on the team.”
Hard work and resilience are ingrained in Arslanian’s roots. After witnessing the murder of his parents during the Armenian Genocide, Arslanian’s great-grandfather and his family escaped to Cuba before moving to the US and settling in Ohio. Arslanian’s grandfather Ted earned a football scholarship at Michigan State and later established a successful carpet cleaning business with his brothers.
Petersen, who plays the center position, also comes from a football family. His cousin Rien Long is a quarter-Armenian and played three seasons with the NFL’s Tennessee Titans in the early 2000s. Following his NFL career, he visited Armenia and Artsakh and was the subject of a 2006 documentary called, “The Long Journey from the NFL to Armenia.”
Arslanian and Petersen have one more season in the collegiate level to impress scouts and hopefully follow Long’s footsteps to the NFL. The duo will have several opportunities to showcase their talents on the national stage next season against college football powerhouses like Auburn and Ohio State.
They’re also hoping for more wins in the fall. Despite their strong performances on the field, Akron has won just one game over its last two seasons. The team has been suffering a gut-wrenching 21-game losing streak, which ended in December.
But like any strong-willed Armenian, Arslanian and Petersen have tried to make the best out of an unfavorable situation.
“You just have to come in and see the growth you make every week. You kind of have to push yourself through that,” Arslanian said of his team’s lack of success. “Every day you have to come in and bust your butt and continue to grow.”