Wednesday, March 11, 2009
Would-be pros fight to make camp
DALLAS -- Andrew Hawkins barely makes it to 5-foot-8 wearing cleats, so it's easy to see why NFL teams weren't too interested in him.
With his background as a two-way starter in college, 4.3 speed and a great smile, it's also easy to see why the little guy earned a spot on Michael Irvin's reality TV show.
Filming of "Fourth and Long" began this week and Hawkins is typical of the 12 finalists: skilled, experienced, still in his 20s, just looking for his big chance.
And eager. Very, very eager.
"I'll play left tackle if they want me to," Hawkins said Wednesday. "If they want me to walk to Oklahoma and get them cheesecake, to get on the Dallas Cowboys, that's just what I have to do."
The winner of this show indeed will be on the Dallas Cowboys; well, among the 80 guys on their training camp roster.
Landing on the final 53-man roster, or even making the practice squad, is pretty unlikely, acknowledges Joe Avezzano, one of the show's two coaches.
But the other coach, Bill Bates, is a perfect example that it can happen. He estimates there were 180 people at his first Cowboys camp, but he outlasted the competition to make the club, then lasted 15 seasons in the NFL.
"That's what makes sports great -- you never know," Bates said. "Three months ago, these guys never thought they had a chance of making the Dallas Cowboys and now they're here."
"Here" is the Cotton Bowl, the original home of the Cowboys and the home to these players for up to six weeks. They are living in the stadium, with the locker rooms turned into dorms. Six receivers are on one side, six defensive backs on the other side. They'll get to spread out every time someone gets cut.
Their days are spent going through meetings, sorts of drills and physical tests, on the field and in a weight room that includes a pool table and some sofas for relaxation. (The walls are covered with giant posters of Irvin, Jerry Jones, Troy Aikman and such. There also are posters with motivational messages, such as this one that seems strange considering Irvin's on-field persona: "Don't Be a Flash Player.")
Other than a TV in the weight room and another in their living quarters, players are shut off from the outside world.
"No cell phones, no iPods, no laptops, no DVDs. Can't call in, can't call out," defensive back Erick Jackson said. "They want us to focus strictly on football."
If they get lonely, they can always talk into the "confession camera."
Irvin will make all the cuts, with input from his coaches. He's also arranged for appearances from Aikman, Jones, Emmitt Smith and more. Drew Pearson visited Tuesday night, telling his tale of going undrafted in a 17-round draft, then beating out about 100 rookies and enjoying a long career as Roger Staubach's favorite target.
"If they don't believe they can do it then we're all wasting our time," Irvin said. "You've got to let them see it to believe it."
When Irvin announced plans for the show, he talked about finding guys whose NFL dreams were derailed for all sorts of reasons. After screening hundreds of applicants, then inviting about 45 to the Rose Bowl for a "combine," the cast lacks any butchers or plumbers.
These guys are all bona fide athletes.
Two were national champions in 2005: Jackson as a backup defensive back for the Texas Longhorns, Jesse Holley as a backup point guard on the North Carolina Tar Heels. Another, Eddie Moten, helped the Philadelphia Soul win the Arena League championship last year.
Several have played in Canada and in semipro leagues. Many have been in NFL camps, and even preseason games.
There are guys with hard-luck stories -- like Preston McGann, a baseball star who skipped football in high school and didn't get started until late in college; and Ahmaad Smith, a starting cornerback at Tennessee State who got hurt, then was forgotten as his replacement, Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, blossomed into an NFL first-round pick.
There are guys making comebacks -- like Luke Swan, who made his college team as a walk-on, became a captain as a senior, then tore his hamstring completely from the bone; and Montrell Jones, who went from Kentucky's "Mr. Football" to getting bounced from Tennessee for smoking marijuana, then revived his career at Louisville.
And then there are the underdogs, like Hawkins, the short dude who played offense and defense at Toledo but hasn't drawn any interest since a Browns rookie minicamp.
"I feel like this show was specifically made for me," he said. "I'm the glitch in the system. But I'm sure everybody feels like that."
The show debuts May 18 on Spike. New episodes will run every Monday, with the 10th and final installment airing about a week before the Cowboys open camp in San Antonio.
The winner actually will be decided in mid-April. He'll spend the next three months under Irvin's tutelage, improving his chances of bucking the odds -- or, at least, ensuring the guy makes the show look good.
It's more than Irvin being altruistic or protecting his reputation. As executive producer, he's hoping this becomes a franchise.
"I want to see him succeed, I want to see the show succeed, I want to see the Cowboys succeed," Irvin said. "I want it to be the ministry I hope it is, that people see it and get inspired by it. I want all of it."