- Rich Cimini, ESPN New York Jets reporter
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FLORHAM PARK, N.J. -- Garrett McIntyre, 26, is still clinging to his NFL dream even though he has been tossed by three teams. In between tryouts, he has worked in construction, pouring cement foundations -- and "that really sucked," he said.
Josh Baker is a well-traveled rookie who lost nearly two full years because of injury and suspension. At his low point, he made $10 an hour at an office-supply store, unloading trucks to earn money for courses at a community college.
Michael Campbell also is a rookie, out of Edison, N.J., so serious and so determined -- yet hoping that one momentary lapse in concentration doesn't cost him his dream.
They're the long shots, the bottom-of-the-roster guys -- undrafted free agents. They've been overlooked and underappreciated, but now they have an invite to the big dance -- an NFL training camp. McIntyre, Baker and Campbell are among about two dozen long shots on the New York Jets' roster, each hoping to make the final 53.
The Jets' roster is sprinkled with players who came up the hard way, including homegrown gems such as defensive tackle Mike DeVito and guard Brandon Moore. Maybe the best "Rudy" story of them all is ex-Jets player Danny Woodhead, who has achieved near iconic status with the New England Patriots.
These are the toughest days. The first mandatory cutdown is next Tuesday (80 players), followed by the final cutdown Sept. 4. Because of the lockout, rookies weren't able to sign until late July, making it harder to stick. They have one week -- two more preseason games -- to fulfill their lifelong dream.
Or be crushed.
• • •
McIntyre grew up in Lake Tahoe, a play land for the rich and famous but not exactly a football hotbed. His high school team went 0-9 his senior year, and he didn't receive any scholarship offers. He walked on at Fresno State and -- long story short -- he was an All-WAC defensive end by the time he left.
He wasn't drafted in 2006, beginning a free-agent journey that would take him from the Seattle Seahawks to the Arizona Cardinals to the Tennessee Titans. He didn't make it to training camp in Seattle, and he lasted only a week in the Arizona and Tennessee camps. After getting cut by the Titans, he received a league suspension for testing positive for a banned substance.
"After you get cut the first time, it's hard," he said. "Words can't really describe how it feels."
McIntyre joined the Arena Football League, winning a championship with the San Jose SaberCats. The money wasn't bad -- about $50,000 a year -- but the league shut down during the economic downturn and he was out of football.
"At times, I thought about stopping playing and getting a real job," McIntyre said. "Then I realized the real job sucks and football's a lot better."
He tried the Canadian Football League, landing with the Hamilton Tiger-Cats. He played well in 2010, drawing some NFL interest. He signed a "future" contract with the Jets in February, waiting out the lockout with everybody else.
McIntyre, learning to play outside linebacker in the Jets' 3-4 scheme, recorded two sacks in the preseason opener. Outside linebackers coach Jeff Weeks likes McIntyre's quickness off the ball and his ability to use his hips as a pass-rusher. McIntyre is "mean and tough," according to Weeks, who suspects his attitude was steeled by years of rejection.
"A guy who can go through all that ... he doesn't give up and he fights hard," Weeks said. "That's the one thing that stands out about him."
McIntyre also is a starter on all four special-teams units, which enhances his chances greatly. He has built a solid foundation, more enjoyable than the ones he used to pour in Tahoe.
• • •
Baker was on his way to a nice career at Delaware as a pass-catching tight end, but he couldn't stay out of trouble and received a one-year suspension for violating university rules. They were relatively minor transgressions -- a lit candle in his dorm room and an open-container violation -- the clincher coming when he organized a fraternity bus trip to go bar-hopping in Philadelphia.
He was cited for disorderly conduct when he tried to re-enter a bar after closing to retrieve a credit card, he said. Delaware used to have a three-strike policy, and that was his third. So he went to live with his father in Texas, surviving without football for a year.
"I felt like being isolated in a place I didn't know would keep my head on straight," Baker said.
The adversity was only beginning. After taking courses at a community college and training with a professional, he returned to Delaware only to tear knee ligaments in the first quarter of the first game. He was off to a good start, too -- three catches and a touchdown.
Another season, wasted.
Baker, 24, was denied a medical redshirt and transferred to Northwest Missouri State, a Division II school. He caught 66 passes for 838 yards and he rushed for 138 yards, occasionally out of the Wildcat formation. His versatility appealed to the Jets' scouts.
At 6-foot-3, 244 pounds, Baker is smaller than the traditional tight end, but he might have the athleticism to be an H-back. Three weeks into camp, he's starting to learn some plays at fullback. He turned some heads in the opener, catching three passes for 45 yards.
Baker is fourth on the tight end depth chart, behind Dustin Keller, Matthew Mulligan and Jeff Cumberland. He knows it's not going to be easy to make the team, but he already has come so far, overcoming injury and suspension.
"The roads are always long," Baker said. "But that doesn't stop you from traveling them."
Baker isn't leaving anything to chance. Remembering Rex Ryan's rule for rookies -- always mention two teammates and a coach when talking to reporters -- he asked ESPNNewYork.com a favor at the end of an interview.
"Please put Dustin Keller, Matt Mulligan and [coach] Mike Devlin in the article," Baker said.
He doesn't want to be a rule-breaker anymore.
• • •
Campbell put a double move on the Texans' cornerback and broke into the clear. He looked up toward the roof of Reliant Stadium and saw Greg McElroy's 32-yard pass arching toward him. There were 45 seconds left in the game, the Jets trailed by four and Campbell was open in the end zone.
This was a dream scenario for any rookie, a chance to win the game, just like Santonio Holmes does. One problem: Campbell couldn't decide whether he needed to jump.
He jumped. And dropped the ball.
"When I jumped, I misjudged it," he explained. "Not only did I misjudge it, but I took my eyes off it. It was more of a focus thing."
Too bad because, until that moment, Campbell was having a terrific camp, making "a play a day," Ryan said. Understandably, Campbell was crushed by the drop and it took him a couple of days to shake it off. He praised his veteran teammates for helping him through the funk. He hopes that one hiccup doesn't undermine his chances of making the team.
This has been a lifelong dream for Campbell, who went from Edison, N.J., to Temple, where he befriended Muhammad Wilkerson, a high school rival from the Jersey basketball scene. They're teammates again, except Wilkerson is a first-round pick, his future secure.
Campbell was a late bloomer at Temple, not becoming a full-time starter until his senior year. He caught 45 passes for 724 yards and six touchdowns, impressing the Jets with his size (6-2, 205) and long-range potential.
Football is everything to Campbell. To prove it, he rolled up his sleeve and revealed a tattoo on his left arm. It says: "My blood. My sweat. My tears. My triumph." To him, that is the meaning of football.
There's no triumph, not yet. He waits. They all do.
Roster cuts loom as the Jets' long shots try to make their NFL dream come true.