We are all glad that consistent discussions are happening between the NFL Players Association and league ownership. Especially because it means that resolution is on its way, and resolution is the only news any of us really wants to hear at this point.
By now, we’ve all read far too many stories about secret meetings and court-ordered mediation. It’s so nauseating that if I see another story promoting some obscure piece of information from some "source" I will likely vomit. There’s been so much coverage that even non-sports enthusiasts feel like they can confidently wax philosophic on the situation. The inevitable result is the frustrated cynicism that comes from information overload. Last week, Cardinals wide receiver Steve Breaston captured the sentiments shared by fans, players, coaches, and even some owners in a witty spoken word. He breathed life back into the story by providing a fresh perspective. Here, I endeavor to do the same.
As the lockout has dragged on through the last few months, a common phrase has come to express the annoyance of the general public with CBA disagreements: "It’s millionaires versus billionaires." This is obviously an oversimplification, but the gist is this: Most of America is struggling financially, and a group of people whose "poorest" make well into six figures should NOT make waves. Again, this argument lacks nuance, but I get it. Everyone gets it. There is, however, a group of guys that everyone can feel for. They are the group that suffers the truest "irreparable harm" from the NFL lockout. They are the undrafted college free agents.
I was still in school at Northwestern when the San Francisco 49ers signed me as an undrafted free agent in 2004. I decided to stay in school and finish my degree instead of participating in the offseason program. I had NO IDEA what a disadvantage I placed myself at from a football standpoint.
I am admittedly not the most talented guy to ever come through the league, but my play was terrible during that first training camp. I couldn't understand why a guy as smart as I considered myself to be was struggling to understand the offense. Well, the other guys had spent a minimum of four months doing nothing but studying the playbook and repeating plays! My play on special teams was probably the worst part, which is ironic considering that's what ended up defining my seven-year career.
The 49ers cut me at the first opportunity. By God's grace, I landed on Atlanta's practice squad under Jim Mora and finally had a chance to catch up. That following offseason, I was able to rapidly improve through the Falcons’ offseason program. I was able to make the necessary gains in physical strength. I became supremely comfortable in the offense. And, probably most importantly, I gained the foundations of being a good special-teams player. I performed very well that next preseason, but still fell prey to the numbers game. The difference was that I had a fair shot that time. And in the long run, I landed in Cleveland with the ability to actually compete at the NFL level and enjoyed four great years with the Browns.
None of it would have been possible without my full participation in an offseason program during my second year. Staying away that first offseason nearly cost me my career (although I’d risk it again to secure my degree). The lockout threatens to put the current undrafted free agents at risk.
Undrafted college free agents are some of the best NFL success stories because they are also the most unlikely. Josh Cribbs, Cleveland’s superstar utility man, started off as a rookie tryout for the Browns. Tony Romo went from "cap-and-clipboard" unknown to the face of the NFL’s most popular franchise. And the Steelers’ James Harrison was cut numerous times before becoming the Defensive MVP.
There are too many others to mention. We love these stories because we can relate. At one point or another, almost all of us have felt forgotten or insignificant. These stories tell us that our small beginnings are not the final word. They say that a combination of hard work, opportunity and providence can improve our standing. They are odds-defying, feel-good narratives that make us feel like there might really be something redeeming in watching hours of sports.
The lockout has lengthened the odds against this newest crop of undrafted free agents. The lack of an organized offseason makes the road toughest for all rookies, in fact. All but the very best will be hard-pressed to make a mark in their first season. For many it will be difficult to even make the team. They won’t get the valuable repetitions of minicamps and organized team activities. They’ll miss valuable classroom time with the coaching staffs. Linemen won’t have time to adjust to the significant speed difference of the NFL line of scrimmage. Skill players will only have a few days to become great on special teams in order to secure jobs.
The drafted guys, at least, know what team they will be on and have had a chance to see what’s in that team’s playbook. The undrafted guys will likely see the playbook only moments before having to physically compete with the best players in the world! The steep hike these guys take to NFL success has become a vertical climb.
So, let’s remember that these guys are innocent victims of this litigious offseason, along with the fans. Let’s also keep our eyes on this year’s crop of college free agents because those that make it may have the best stories yet. The seemingly insurmountable odds stacked against them may very well produce an inspiring story to rival Kurt Warner’s rise from the grocery store to the Super Bowl. I certainly hope they do. We all need the encouragement that no obstacle is too great to alter a destiny. And as life inevitably throws crappy circumstances our way, it’s great to be reminded that the guy who starts out with nothing can sometimes end up with everything.