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The waiting game: Life as an unsigned NFL free agent

An eight-year NFL veteran, Geoff Schwartz signed a one-year deal with the Lions after a long wait. Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images

Editor's note: This story was originally published on March 23. Geoff Schwartz signed a one-year deal with the Lions a week later.

On the first couple days of NFL free agency, bags of money get handed out to the top-tier guys on the market, while the majority of the veteran players in the league sit and wait for the phone to ring. When the money dries up and the market slows, the common man of the NFL just hopes for another shot, another opportunity to play some ball. I've been there, and former Giants offensive guard Geoff Schwartz is in that situation right now.

I talked with Schwartz recently about the process. We swapped stories and discussed the free-agent process for the veterans of the NFL. Heck, the only thing missing was a couple of beers ...


Bowen: I've been released three times. One was in-season, when I was young. I played for the Rams in 2001, and I came in on a Tuesday after a night of charity bartending in St. Louis, and Lovie Smith cut me. Mike Martz didn't even talk to me. When I was with the Redskins, Joe Gibbs called me when I was getting off a plane in Vegas. Not ideal.

Schwartz: I was expecting to restructure like I did last year. It was a possibility that I could be released. The Giants have a new head coach, same GM, and I had basically played two years with a bunch of injuries. They were not my fault. I have no regrets. I couldn't have predicted I would have broken my leg twice and dislocated a toe. I got released as a rookie, but I knew that was coming and I was going on the practice squad. This was the first time the GM called me and told me I was being released.

Bowen: When Dick Jauron called me during my stint with the Bills, I was having dinner with my grandma. The last thing I'm going to do was tell her I just got cut, right? I know how the feeling is. It's this kick in the gut.

Schwartz: They never really give a reason why. You have to call your agent, call your wife, call your family. And then you have to take a deep breath for a second. You have all this stuff racing in your head about logistical issues. I had a house in New Jersey; I had a life up there. We had planned on being there.

Bowen: Right, we had a house in Virginia when I got cut by the Redskins. No kids yet. But my wife was teaching full time. High school biology and chemistry in northern Virginia. I remember calling my wife. I wasn't disappointed in myself, but you never want to make that call. Hey, guess what? Our life is going to completely change.

Schwartz: You feel like you do let your family down a little bit. My wife is a nurse. She works in Charlotte part time right now. She's getting her master's degree at the moment. So, it's not like she can't find a job somewhere else. But we had a life in New Jersey. We have a home base in Charlotte, but you're still in the city you play in for eight or nine months a year. We've been through a lot with all the moving, finding new friends, exploring the cities, and we found our son a pediatrician, a good school in New Jersey. I don't think people realize the toll it takes on families with all the moving.

Bowen: It kind of flips your life upside down at that moment. You're like, holy crap, what are we going to do?

Schwartz: We know as players what the game is about. You get that call and it's over and you have to move on. Look, I moved on in a day. I gave myself a day to kind of feel sorry myself. The next day I was back at the gym.

Bowen: Yeah, I had that same feeling, that "woe is me" moment for a day, maybe a day and a half. Thinking, OK, what happened? I had injuries, too. The year before I got cut loose by the Redskins, I blew out a knee. The following season, you're coming back from a knee injury and you're getting that thing drained a couple of times to get on the field. I wasn't playing as a much as I used to. You go from being a starter to a backup and special-teamer. Man. You have a feeling you are going to get released, but then when it happens?

Schwartz: It's just tough to sit around and wait for that opportunity. But you hang out with your family a little more, work out a little more. Just try to do other things to keep your mind off it. I've got my podcast going on right now (Block 'Em Up with Geoff & Duke), got some other things I'm working on. Just try to keep yourself busy. You have to take a deep breath and make a game plan with your agent.

Bowen: Exactly. My guy was Jack Bechta out in San Diego. So, I call him up, and I'm like, "Look Jack, we gotta get to work. We gotta find a new team." Like you said, you feel sorry for yourself for a day and then you get back in the gym because that's your routine. But in the back of your mind, you are waiting for that phone to ring. After two weeks of free agency, I'm calling Jack and asking, "What's going on?"

Schwartz: I'm in that phase right now. Initially, we had a good amount of interest. And then it just hasn't happened yet. Look, I've been through this process before and I've been a free agent two other times coming off injuries. I understand the way it works. When I signed with the Chiefs in 2013, it was the second week. So I get that. It's just the waiting is brutal. I'm impatient.

Bowen: During my final go-around as free agent, the wait ended with a call from the Bills. I had some coaching familiarity there with my former defensive backs coach from the Redskins (George Catavolos). I felt comfortable playing for him again. I trusted him, and I thought he would bring me up there to compete. But that was in the third week of free agency.

Schwartz: You see other players getting signed. I had an opportunity recently to take a visit somewhere, and they signed someone else. That's just how it works. I'm preparing as though I'll be somewhere to start OTAs. I just need a chance. I think that's all any free agent wants.

"You get that call and it's over and you have to move on. Look, I moved on in a day. I gave myself a day to kind of feel sorry myself. The next day I was back at the gym."

NFL veteran Geoff Schwartz

Bowen: What are you looking for in a new team? For me, it was obviously that I'm waiting for someone to call me. Hey, I would jump at that. Any team, really. And you want another opportunity as a player. I mean, that's the ultimate goal.

Schwartz: There are a couple of things. My family is pretty mobile. To me, it's finding a place where I get to chance to compete to play. When I'm healthy, I'm a good player. And I don't think anyone will tell you otherwise. So, this is the first offseason I've had to train in a while. Last offseason, I was rehabbing the whole time. Now I'm training, I'm ready to go.

I know the way the process works. Teams pencil in the starters now and that doesn't change very often unless you win the job in training camp. And even then, sometimes they want their guy to play. And that's something you have to weigh when you select a team. In Kansas City, I was signed to be a backup. And then I got an opportunity when someone got hurt, and they kept me in the lineup. So, your opportunities don't always come when you think they will. There are some teams where there is a Pro Bowler at your position. You know, that's a not team that would be ideal. But in the end, like you said, that doesn't matter sometimes. You just want to play.

Bowen: Have you thought about waiting until after the draft to sign? On my visit with the Bills, they told me on my visit they might still draft a safety. It was a new coaching staff, Dick Jauron was coming in. So, I felt good knowing I would be part of a new start in Buffalo. But the first round comes, and we draft Donte Whitner, safety out of Ohio State. OK. I get it. Then the third round comes, and it's another safety! Ko Simpson from South Carolina. I'm sitting there watching the draft with my pregnant wife and I say, "Hey, maybe we made a mistake coming here."

Schwartz: Waiting for the draft is always a possibility, but it's a risk. Do you wait to see if a team who needs guards will draft a guard? Look, if I go to a team and they draft a lineman that plays my position in the first round, obviously that guy is going to start. But anything after that, I feel confident I can beat the rookie out. That's just the way I feel. If you wait 'til after the draft, then they can you see what spots are filled. It's always a possibility. But I'm not going to not take a phone call and wait 'til after the draft.

Bowen: Right. I was brought in to Buffalo to be a special-teams guy and to "compete" at safety, but we all know when you draft a top-10 guy, he's going to start until he gets hurt. And then he's going to play when he comes back. I was pissed off, to be honest. You gotta be kidding me. I can't believe this happened. It was one of those moments where the NFL got me. Dang! They got me again.

Schwartz: The more you play, the more you know the business, the more you know the routine about not being on a team. I'm not OK with not being on a team, but I know the routine. That's a little bit of something that helps you through it. But then again, when you're young and you get cut, you typically don't have a family, you don't have responsibilities, you can move a little bit more. When you get older, you have a house, you have kids, you have responsibilities, which is twofold. That helps you not think about it, but you also have to provide for your family.

There's plenty of time left. I'm going to sit tight, keep working out, keep getting myself stronger and be ready to go when the call comes. There will be a call. I'm too good of a player for there not to be.

ESPN.com NFL analyst Matt Bowen played seven seasons as a defensive back in the NFL.