We’ve all been job hunting. Checking the online job listings, asking friends to put in a good word, even hitting the classifieds in the newspaper, if you’re old school like that.
That’s kind of what I’m doing, only instead of checking job listings, I’m watching football games. I’m watching to see who’s performing and who’s not. I’m checking my NFL app and monitoring transactions — who’s getting signed, who’s getting cut and which teams might be in the market for a guy like me. I’ve been making workout and training videos and sending them to my agent, who’s been e-mailing them to teams so they can see what I can still do.
It’s like I’m a high school recruit all over again.
Those videos are my resume, because in this league, it’s not about what you’ve already done. It’s about what can you do today. It’s about what you can do on Sunday. And I have to show teams I’ve still got it.
It’s hard. I’ve been out of the league for a full season, 18 calendar months. I play fullback, a position that’s kind of disappearing as teams evolve and players become more versatile. So I have to evolve and show teams that I’m more versatile, too.
When I was released by the Chargers after the 2013 season, I kind of sensed it was coming. My touches were way down and I was playing mostly special teams. I loved it, but I didn’t want to be just a special teams player. I was still getting it done when my name was called — I was one of the league leaders in short-yardage conversions — but my name just wasn’t getting called very much. Nothing personal, just business in the NFL. They were using tight ends more and fullbacks less.
I was released a few days before 2014 free agency started. The market on backs got off to a slow start that year, but I figured that for a guy like me — a veteran guy who can block, run, catch and play special teams, and has a couple of Pro Bowls under his belt — the phone calls would come.
The thing about being a veteran free agent is that it’s a young man’s league. Whether or not you get another opportunity usually has more to do with timing and luck than talent and work ethic. You just need the talent and work ethic if you’re going to be ready to pounce on that opportunity, if timing and luck intersect and bring it your way.
I started to think negatively about the whole process — that maybe I should just leave the game alone and move on — and that’s when I started slipping.
Free agency came and went. The draft, OTAs, everything. My phone didn’t ring. It’s hard when you’ve been a football player since you were six years old and you always had someplace to play and someone who wanted you — and now, nobody wanted you. I made the biggest mistake I could have possibly made at that point: I started to get down on myself.
For the few weeks before training camp started, I thought about giving it up. Working out every day, making the tapes, the whole song and dance — it’s a lot of work, and not only did I not have a team yet, I wasn’t even getting phone calls or tryouts. I started to think negatively about the whole process — that maybe I should just leave the game alone and move on — and that’s when I started slipping. My workouts weren’t as good. My mindset wasn’t as strong. And when I was in that slump, just a couple of weeks after camp started, wouldn’t you know, I got a phone call. The Saints wanted to bring me in for a workout and they wanted to sign me.
When I got to Saints camp in West Virginia and went into the locker room and put that Saints gear on, all those negative thoughts went away. I thought, Man, you can’t give this up. This is what you’ve been made to do. You’ve got to do it. All that lost passion came rushing back in that moment, and I was ready to go earn myself a job.
But the Saints decided not to sign me. I wasn’t at the weight they wanted me to be at. I’m not sure if it was because of my attitude and the slump I was riding when they brought me in, but it probably didn’t help. I could have spent the 2014 season down in New Orleans in a backfield with Drew Brees, with a team with Super Bowl aspirations and eating all that great food down there.
But at the end of the day, I blew it.
A few weeks later I was back at my house in Baltimore. I went out with some friends to get some dinner one night and I was driving downtown. I found myself near M&T Bank Stadium, and that’s when it dawned on me: The season was starting that weekend. Come Sunday, the Ravens — the team I spent my first four year with — would be taking the field. And while those players are getting ready to kick off their 2014 season, I’m driving around about to go to P.F. Chang’s.
We pulled into the parking lot and my friends got out of the car, but I didn’t. They went inside and I just stayed in the car and cried. I wasn’t supposed to be here. I was supposed to be in camp. I was supposed to be running out of that tunnel on Sunday.
That was a new low for me, and that should have been my wake-up call. But I had another low that I didn’t even see coming, and that’s the one that really woke me up.
It was right between Weeks 9 and 10 of the 2014 season. I hadn’t gotten a call since the Saints brought me in, but I was slowly getting out of my slump. My trainers were lifting me back up, keeping my spirits high and, most importantly, keeping me fit until my next opportunity came.
I was back home in Alabama in November when I got arrested. Originally, I was charged with synthetic marijuana trafficking, and that was the headline on all the sports sites. But the reality is that those charges were completely unfounded, and once the facts came out, I was only charged with synthetic marijuana possession. Either way, it was still a huge mistake I made at a pretty critical time. But because I was originally charged with trafficking — something I never should have been charged with in the first place — I spent 22 hours in jail before things got sorted out.
That’s what really flipped my mentality once and for all. Sitting in that jail cell, I thought, This isn’t who I am. I’m not gonna let this define me. I was already out there trying to make sure getting released wasn’t the last thing on my NFL resume. I damn sure wasn’t about to let bogus drug charges be the last time people heard my name. The media was all over it when those false charges came out, but they didn’t cover it when those charges were dropped and the case was resolved. I hate the headlines that pop up when I Google my name. Sure, I made a huge mistake, but I don’t deserve any of the labels that came with it.
That incident finally woke me up. That mistake became new motivation for me, pushing me to train harder than ever to get back into the league. I got my mind right. I got my body right. I cleaned house. I got a new agent. I let all my skeletons out. I hit the gym harder than ever before and now, I’m back in the best shape I’ve been in since my rookie year.
Have I thought about the possibility that it might be over? Yeah. I’ve thought about it. But instead of using that as a reason to quit, like I almost did around that Saints tryout, I use it as fuel.
The only way I would be disappointed in myself is if I didn’t try.
I know I can still do the same things physically as I did when I made the Pro Bowl and All-Pro teams in 2008 and ’09. There’s no doubt. But what I really feel like I can bring to a team now is leadership. I’ve played with Ray Lewis and Ed Reed and Derrick Mason — great leaders. I saw the things they were able to do leading young players in a locker room, and I want that opportunity. I still have so much to give to this game.
You’ve got to have a strong mind, a strong spirit and strong faith to be in my shoes right now, because at the end of the day, I know it’s out of my hands. It’s in the hands of the 32 general managers out there. Week 1 has come and gone, and I’m spending my Sundays like most of America: watching football. The only difference is I’m not tracking fantasy stats or rooting for my favorite team. I’m scouting. I’m studying. I’m waiting for my NFL app to alert me when there’s a transaction that might open up a spot for me.
But more than anything, I’m keeping my head up and busting my tail in the weight room until that phone rings.
Because this time, when it does, you can bet your ass I’ll be ready.