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A new Gang Green Cinderella story

8/28/2013 - NFL Ryan Spadola New York Jets + more

Wayne Chrebet remembers his first cutdown day: training camp, 1995. All these years later, he still hears the knock at the door of his suitemate, a former Penn State quarterback named Tony Sacca. It was the Turk, summoning him to the coach's office.

"I was waiting for him to knock on my door," Chrebet recalled this week. "It was an eerie silence, a tough silence. Nobody can prepare you for that moment. It's one of the pivotal moments in your life."

Chrebet never heard the knock, and, against remarkable odds, he went on to become one of the most productive wide receivers in New York Jets history. He arrived as a walk-on and walked out a decade later with 580 receptions and more than 7,300 yards.

Ryan Spadola will be experiencing similar emotions Friday and Saturday, when the Jets cut 22 players from their roster to make the final 53. He's a modern-day version of Chrebet, a Jersey dreamer who started at the bottom of the depth chart after signing as an undrafted free agent out of Lehigh.

"This is probably the most important week of my life," Spadola said. "The next few days will determine whether it's a dream come true or not."

He will see significant action Thursday night against the Philadelphia Eagles in the final preseason game, and then comes the hard part -- waiting for the knock. Unless the Jets ingest a handful of stupid pills, Spadola will make the team. Let's be honest: He's been their best receiver in the preseason.

Fittingly, the Cinderella stories, past and present, have connected via the Internet. Chrebet heard from a friend that Spadola wanted to meet him, so he got his email address and fired off a note before last Saturday night's game against the New York Giants.

Chrebet gave him an electronic pep talk, telling Spadola the importance of the third preseason game. That, Chrebet told him, was when he made his move. Spadola responded by catching three passes for 110 yards. He made a diving catch on a 22-yard touchdown, and he went 70 yards to set up the game-winning field goal in overtime, probably securing a job with that play.

Chrebet likes his game, his burst off the line of scrimmage and how smoothly he runs for a 6-foot-2 receiver. He sees toughness, too. That was the hallmark of Chrebet's game; he was absolutely fearless.

"I can root for a guy like that," said Chrebet, who went to YouTube to check out Spadola's college highlights. "He's a Jersey guy -- small school, undrafted. You can't beat that. It's a great story, but it's his story, the Ryan Spadola story. Who knows where this could end up?"

Spadola grew up in Howell, N.J., about an hour from Chrebet's hometown, Garfield, only a few miles from MetLife Stadium.

Chrebet's story is the stuff of a Disney movie. At his first camp, he was detained at the security gate because the guard thought he was just an autograph seeker. And to think, the camp was at his alma mater, Hofstra, at which he was supposed to be the big man on campus. He was listed as 10th on a 10-man depth chart. By opening day, he was in the starting lineup.

He was an NFL version of "Rudy," except, when Chrebet got in the game, he never left. The first couple of years were hard because there was no security, knowing you could be fired at a moment's notice.

"You're never safe," said Chrebet, describing the early life of an undrafted free agent. "If they drafted you and gave you a few hundred thousand dollars, they'd give you every chance. When they're not invested in you, they can just get rid of you.

"The fact that he's showing up and has film now, he can play anywhere," he said of Spadola. "Hopefully, it's with the Jets."

Spadola has heard the Chrebet comparisons for a few months, but now it's real. It hit home when he received the first email, which was followed by a congratulatory email after the Giants game.

"He wished me luck and gave me tips about going through the whole process," Spadola said. "I kind of embraced it. He said, 'Never sit back on anything you achieved, and continue to work hard and push to better yourself.'"

Soon, he'll be waiting, hoping, for the same silence Chrebet heard 18 years ago.