My Toughest Road Trip

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“Daddy bye bye.”

My youngest daughter, Maecen, was watching her older brother and sisters walk off for their first day of school, and when she saw my face on the iPad, she said, “Daddy bye bye.” She was a couple weeks away from her second birthday, and my wife had the kids all done up and looking adorable, which made the whole thing hurt even more.

She wasn’t saying “goodbye.” I wasn’t on the doorstep as she left the house with everyone and I wasn’t buckling her into her car seat so mommy could chauffeur the kids to school. Where daddy was, it was 4:30 a.m. and it was still dark outside, 3,000 miles away from my family and everything I’d known for the last nine years in Buffalo.

“Daddy bye bye” was her way of saying she knew I wasn’t there — that I’m still “bye bye” — and that she’s still waiting for me to walk back in that door and come home.

We said goodbye, and when we got off FaceTime, my iPad screen went black, and the only thing I could feel besides the sting of not being there to see my kids off was the emptiness as it filled my new apartment.

***

The coach calls out, “Jet protection,” and I’m completely lost. Here I am, an eight-year NFL veteran and four-time team captain sitting in my 10,000th running backs meeting, and I’m probably the only one in the room who doesn’t know what “Jet protection” means.

Marshawn leans over to me.

“Ace,” he whispers. “It’s just like our old Ace protection in Buffalo, brah.”

The names for the same schemes and protections vary from team to team. Ace is a slide protection where the running back is responsible for the two linebackers in his line of sight on blitz pickup. Ace protection — but in Seattle, they call it Jet.

I write down in my notebook: Ace = Jet.

Now I know.

Thank God for Marshawn Lynch.

NFL teams install the offense three times before each season. First install is in OTAs, then they start over and re-install in mini-camp and then again in training camp. It’s a lot to take in, so you get to learn it three times so it all sticks and you can easily make adjustments.

I missed all three of those installs — at least for this offense. I spent my summer back in Buffalo thinking I was going to line up in the backfield for my ninth season as a Bill. But when I got released, I suddenly found myself in a new place learning a whole new offense.

Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson (3) and running back Fred Jackson (22) celebrate a touchdown against the Green Bay Packers during an NFL football game Sunday Sept. 20, 2015, in Green Bay, Wis. (AP Photo/Matt Ludtke)

Guys change teams all the time in the NFL. Whether they get cut and sign with a new team or they get traded, somebody’s always on the move, and when someone signs with a new team, the first thing people look at is the depth chart. They want to know what it means for the team and how long it’s going to take that player to adjust — how long it’ll take him to learn what things like “Jet protection” mean.

They want to know the football impact. And they should. It’s one of the first things we think about as players, too. There’s a new playbook to learn. A new coaching staff whose trust you have to earn. New guys to compete with for playing time. No matter what stage of your career you’re at, joining a new team is a crossroads.

But there’s another reality that people don’t talk about as much — at least not the fans and the media. It’s not just a new team we have to prepare for and adjust to. It’s a new city, a new home. We have to create a whole new life for ourselves — sometimes overnight — which means looking around the life you’re leaving and figuring out what to take with you and what to leave behind.

And sometimes, when you move to your new team and your new city, it’s the things you leave behind that really stay with you.

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You probably heard a lot of different stories when I got released from Buffalo, but the story is pretty simple. When I pulled my hamstring early in training camp, I sat down with the GM, Doug Whaley, and asked him if I needed to worry about my job being in jeopardy. We had guys like LeSean McCoy, who we traded for in the offseason, and Karlos Williams, who we drafted out of Florida State, along with a couple of other solid guys at the running back position. So, seeing all the talent on our roster, I told him that if I was on the bubble, I wasn’t going to sit around on the bench with a bum hamstring waiting to get cut. I wanted to go out there and prove myself.

He told me that the team didn’t want me to push myself too hard and risk re-injuring my hamstring. He told me they knew what I brought to the table and to focus on getting healthy — that I didn’t have anything to worry about.

So I didn’t worry — until I got called into Doug Whaley’s office during the first round of cuts. After eight years as a Buffalo Bill, I was getting released.

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Any time you get caught off guard with news like that, you don’t know how to respond. The natural reaction is to be disappointed — which I was — or angry — which I also was. But at the end of the day, the NFL is a business and the team decided they thought it was in its best interest to release me. And no matter how I felt about the situation, I needed to find a new team. The best thing I could do is to find an organization that wanted me to be there, where I had a chance to make it to the playoffs and make a run at a Super Bowl — something I never got the opportunity to do in Buffalo.

There were a lot of teams interested in signing me. The Cowboys, Steelers, Browns, Patriots — probably about 10 teams in all called about bringing me in. But they all wanted to wait until after Week 1 to sign me because of something called the vested-veteran guarantee.

Basically, if you’re a vested veteran (meaning you’ve been in the league for at least four full seasons), and you’re on a team’s roster for the first game of the year, your base contract for that season becomes fully guaranteed. If you’re a vested veteran who signs after Week 1, your contract for that season is non-guaranteed. So all of the teams who called me wanted to wait until after Week 1 to sign me so they weren’t locked into giving me a guaranteed contract.

Every team except one: The Seattle Seahawks.

They wanted me to come in and contribute right away, which made the decision pretty easy for me. A team who wanted me to be there and had a shot at competing for a Super Bowl — just what I was looking for.

And it all happened pretty fast.

Buffalo released me on a Monday. On Tuesday, I was on a flight to Seattle for my physical. Wednesday, I was on a flight back to Buffalo to get everything situated with my wife and my family. The Seahawks’ final preseason game was that Thursday, and they signed me after that game. So in the span of a few days, I made three trips across the country between Buffalo and Seattle, to take care of football business on one end and family business on the other, making sure my family was set up with me leaving and that I had someplace to live when I got to Seattle.

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The Seahawks made the transition as easy as possible. They set me up with a hotel right when I got there and told me that when I was ready to look for a place to live, they’d help. I spent my first nine days in Seattle living out of that hotel, spending my days at practice and my nights studying the playbook. When I was ready, I told the Seahawks personnel guys what I was looking for, and they flew my wife out to go apartment hunting with them so I could focus on football. It was like one of those house-hunting shows you see on TV — I gave them my wishlist and they went and found it.

My wife and I decided not to move the whole family across the country to Seattle because we didn’t want to uproot our kids’ lives. I had just found out firsthand how unkind and unpredictable the business of football can be, and just because the Seahawks brought me in didn’t mean there were any guarantees I’d stay for long. For all I knew, this could be a five-month thing. The last thing I wanted for my kids was to pull them away from everything they know — their friends, their schools, their community — and move them 3,000 miles away, only to move them again if I had to find another team.

But I did want a place where they’d be comfortable when they came to visit me — someplace that was as similar to the home they know in Buffalo as possible. I needed someplace big enough to comfortably accommodate the whole family — my wife and my four kids. I wanted to make sure everybody had their own bed. I wanted it to be that when they came to visit their dad, they felt like they were at home, which took a lot of work. It meant instead of resting when we got an afternoon off, I was out shopping for furniture — couches, TVs, tables, chairs, beds. It meant getting to the facility at 7 a.m. and spending the whole day in practice, in the weight room and in meetings, then getting home at 6 p.m. for furniture deliveries — all to fill up an apartment in a city I could be leaving at a moment’s notice.

It means going back to my apartment after practice every day to FaceTime my wife and kids before they go to bed, or doing it from the facility before evening meetings. And through it all, learning the playbook and building chemistry in a new locker room.

That’s where Marshawn Lynch comes in.

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Any time you get thrust into a situation that you’re unfamiliar with, it’s always good to have somebody there that you can lean on. When Marshawn started his career in Buffalo back in 2007, we were like brothers. Everybody knew that if they saw Marshawn, I probably wasn’t far away. We were always together. To this day, he’s still like a little brother to me, and I’m like a big brother to him. So having never played in another NFL locker room outside of Buffalo, I knew having Marshawn there in Seattle would make my transition a lot easier.

When I first got to Seattle, I didn’t have a car. I asked Marshawn if he had a car I could borrow, and he threw me a set of keys.

It didn’t matter the question. He’s never hesitated to help.

Where can I go to get this? Marshawn’s got me.

Could you take me to go get that? Marshawn’s got me.

What’s “Jet protection” mean? Marshawn’s got me.

My whole time so far in Seattle, he’s looked out for me like family, because he’s the closest thing to family I have out in Seattle. Without Marshawn, I don’t know how I would have been able to adjust as quickly as I have.

Even though it’s finally filled with furniture, my apartment still feels empty. I don’t have kids greeting me at the door when I come home from a long day at the facility. I walk in the door, drained from the weekly grind of the NFL season, and the first thing I do is reach for my iPad. I don’t know how guys did it before FaceTime, being away from their families for so long and not even being able to see their faces.

Despite the struggles, I feel fortunate as ever. As NFL players, we get to play a game for a living and we make a good living doing what we do, and that allows us to provide an amazing life for ourselves and our families. I understand that. Traveling, and sometimes relocating, is just a part of the job, and that means being away from your family, sometimes for long stretches. It comes with the territory.

But at the end of the day, as blessed as I feel to be able to play this game for a ninth season and as thankful as I am for the opportunity to continue my career in a place like Seattle, no job and no amount of money could stop those tears from welling in my eyes when my daughter looks into her iPad screen and says, “Daddy bye bye.”

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