Zach Bauman slowly trotted his way down a ramp leading off the field at University of Phoenix Stadium. He just finished practice with the Arizona Cardinals, but this practice was different. For one of the very few times in his football-playing life, he wasn’t the star of the show.

Since his days at Hamilton High School in Chandler, Bauman has been the focal point of virtually every offense which he’s been a part. He blends shiftiness and vision with a knack for finding the end zone.

As a senior in 2009, Bauman ran for 1,178 yards and 25 touchdowns on his way to helping the Huskies win a second career state title. Those totals probably could have been even higher, but individual accolades weren’t his primary concern.

“He could have been a guy who could have had 2,000 yards for us easily,” said Hamilton coach Steve Belles. “That’s how important winning was. He knew if we spread it out a little bit, the team would be better for it. He sacrificed a little bit for the team.”

The awards came anyway. Bauman was a two-time all-region selection as well as being named second-team all-state. There was only one thing missing: an offer from a major college program. Bauman had interest from schools in the Pac-10 (now Pac-12) but none of them “pulled the trigger,” Belles said.

“He easily could have played in the Pac-12,” Belles said. “It would have been interesting to see what would have happened in the Pac-12 if somebody would have pulled the trigger on him. I think every time he played a U of A or ASU, it really got his blood flowing.”

Having been spurned by the FBS schools, Bauman decided to attend FCS Northern Arizona University to continue his playing career.

The first time he stepped on to the field as a Lumberjack, NAU coach Jerome Souers knew that he had something special.

“We had a couple good backs that year, but he clearly was better than anyone else we had and he proved it,” Souers said.

Prove it he did.

Bauman rushed for more than 1,000 yards every one of his four years at NAU, including 1,456 yards and 10 touchdowns as a senior, on his way to being named first-team All-Big Sky Conference three times. He set school records for career rushing yards (5,132), all-purpose yards (6,316) and touchdowns (51). Bauman also ranks third on the Big Sky Conference’s all-time rushing yardage list.

His performance at the college level earned him an invite to the annual East-West Shrine game, a showcase for some of the top talent in college football. Once again, Bauman showed up, leading all running backs in the game with 47 yards rushing.

Although he didn’t earn an invite to the NFL scouting combine, Bauman did enough between the Shrine game and his pro day to earn a shot in the NFL with the Arizona Cardinals, with all of his experiences from high school to college aiding him in his quest to become a pro.

“I lost two games in high school, so it taught me to be a winner,” Bauman said. “In college, I was the guy, the guy they looked to. And I learned how to be a student of the game. From film, taking care of your body and being the best football player you can be on the field.”

His dream is close yet still so far away.

Although he has made it to the Cardinals training camp, he remains a long shot to make the team. Running back Andre Ellington returns after a breakout 2013 season. Stepfan Taylor, a fifth-round pick out of Stanford two years ago, and Jonathan Dwyer, an addition from the Pittsburgh Steelers, will back up Ellington.

That leaves potentially only one spot for Bauman to make the 53-man regular-season roster.

Nonetheless, Bauman isn’t discouraged. He has come far — from an unheralded recruit, to a small-school star, to an NFL hopeful.

With his dream within reach, his focus isn’t on the depth-chart battle. He can’t control that. Instead, he said his goal is simply to be the best he can be.

As he walks down the tunnel and into the bowels of the stadium, Bauman doesn’t look back, only forward. For it’s not where he’s been, but where he’s going.

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