Just in Case: The Life of an NFL Journeyman

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Tyler Horn, Contributor - The Players' Tribune

Just in case.

That’s the phrase that has defined my pro football career. Since I was a kid, it’s been my dream to play in the NFL. Three years ago, I achieved that dream—sort of. Sure, I was officially an “NFL football player.” But I’ve never been a starter. I’ve been cut from several teams. I’ve had to move from city to city. No sporting goods store ever sold a jersey with my name on it and I’ve never made near the amount of money people think comes with an NFL career.

I’ve never stopped loving football. But at what point does chasing a dream become a selfish endeavor? I’ve spent my career sitting at the bus station waiting for the NFL bus. Waiting and waiting. Maybe it was right around the corner. Do I stick around—just in case? At what point do the personal costs—to relationships and finances and non-football dreams—outweigh the promise of making an NFL squad?

During the playoffs this weekend, you’ll see the Russell Wilsons, the Tom Bradys and the Andrew Lucks, but those guys aren’t the norm. Guys like me, the invisible players on the practice squad, are the norm. In my first piece for The Players’ Tribune. I want to provide a player’s look into the life of an NFL journeyman.

At what point does chasing a dream become a selfish endeavor?

Coming out of The University of Miami in 2012, I figured I could make a career out of playing in the NFL. I was signed by Atlanta as a free agent. During my rookie preseason, I was convinced I was going to make the roster, and at the very least be placed on the practice squad. Ninety guys showed up—only 53 would make it. There were no scrubs, but I was still confident. I thought I’d have a long career, make unfathomable amounts of money and be set for life. But it just didn’t happen.

Preseason is a paradox: it’s when new guys get a chance to prove themselves, but they only get a few minutes to do it. In our first preseason game, I went in with seven minutes left in the 4th quarter against the Ravens. It didn’t give me a lot of time. We drove down the field to score and I made all the right blocks. “I got this. I can play with these guys,” I thought.

Tyler Horn, Tommy Streeter, Chase Ford

Coaches and scouts have always told me I have good technique and a high football IQ. They’ve said I work hard and naturally gravitate to a leadership role. I thought I’d done enough in the preseason to make the team. But nope. Wrong. I got cut.

This is how you find out you’re getting cut in the NFL: First, you get a phone call. It’s usually from a lower-level team assistant-type guy. “Hey, Tyler, this is so-and-so.” The person on the other line is the “cut man,” so you know what’s about to happen. His job is to invite you up to the front office to meet the GM and head coach. You walk into a room and it’s full of guys about to get told they’re going home, just like you. Some are acting nonchalant—probably nervous energy—but the room is mostly silent.

When I showed up to that waiting room pity party, I was pissed. I was thinking about all the hard work I’d put in. And I was worried about the unknown that awaited me outside of football. When I met with the GM and head coach, they were cordial and they told me they liked my work ethic. But then they said something I can’t forget. They told me I “wasn’t stout enough.” They cut me because I was … too tall? Next thing I knew, I was in my car, by myself, beginning the eight-hour drive home. In my car, I was surrounded by new shoes and piles of football gear, reminders of my short preseason. I didn’t turn the radio on once. I was mad. Not stout enough. Stout. Stout. The word kept running through my head the whole way home until I repeated it so many times that it lost any meaning.

“How much money did you make in the NFL?” That’s always the first thing kids ask.

That was the beginning of the journeyman slog. All of a sudden, my NFL career was uncertain. From that phone call in Atlanta in 2012 to today, I’ve been cut from three different teams and I’ve received the call to try out for two others. I was on one team or another for a total of 14 weeks over the course of three full seasons, but never on an active roster. I was the guy who played in the second half of preseason games, held a dummy bag during practices, lifted weights and sat on my couch waiting for a phone call to make it all worth it.

Was it actually worth it? I told myself yes. Every Pop Warner kid wants to be the high school star. Every high school athlete wants the football scholarship. And every college player wants a shot at the NFL. It is the most exclusive of clubs. The most popular sports league in this country.

But in between NFL “jobs,” I needed to find non-football work. A real job. At first, it was hard to admit that I was unemployed. My girlfriend (now my wife), Ashlee, and I were living together in Miami, and even though she had a decent job, it couldn’t provide for both of us. It felt nearly impossible to find a decent-paying job and still be ready to leave for the NFL any time my phone buzzed. You don’t show up for a job interview and say “I’m a good worker and I can’t wait to contribute to your company—by the way, I may need to take a leave of absence at any time, with no advance notice. Hire me!”

So while you stay ready, you search for super sexy ways to bring in income. I waited tables. I shoveled snow. I worked with a landscaping company. I took any odd job to help out. Sometimes I had to borrow money from my parents. For a while, I was a substitute English teacher. I really enjoyed it because I’ve always liked literature.

But at the same time, it was surreal to be re-reading high school books while I waited for the phone to ring. Teaching Beowulf meant I had to re-study it. Sometimes all I could do was laugh and shrug my shoulders. How had my NFL journey intersected with Beowulf? I loved the students, but they were also everyday reminders of my NFL dreams. I remember sitting in an empty classroom, wondering what my buddies in the League were up to. They weren’t grading papers. And I’ll be honest—it was hard when my students would ask me, “How much money did you make in the NFL?” That’s always the first thing kids ask. I would just give them a vague answer because the truth is, they wouldn’t have believed that my teaching salary was a more lucrative income than my NFL salary.

If you’re a free agent, you never schedule anything for Tuesday afternoon in case you get a phone call.

But by far the toughest part of “just in case” was trying to maintain a normal relationship. To be a journeyman in the NFL is to prioritize football above all else. Instead of clearing my schedule to go on a dinner date with Ashlee, far too often I was clearing my schedule to drive to a tryout in another state. Ashlee has supported me—emotionally, and often, financially—every step of the way. But my NFL dream was turning my marriage into a long-distance relationship. I would make empty promises: We sacrifice now in order to have it made later. We will be set for life. This time will be different. It’s going to be worth it. And so on. But it wasn’t different. And we were absolutely not set for life. In fact, we were in more of a hole than if I would have gotten a sales job right out of college.

The life of “just in case” sometimes had its hopeful moments. After all, that’s what keeps you waiting around. When the Titans signed me to their practice squad in Oct. of 2012, it was sight unseen. I had never worked out for them. They signed me, and suddenly I was back in the NFL. But it was short-lived. I wasn’t re-signed for the next year. Again, I was in limbo. I never thought being a pro athlete involved so much waiting. And boredom. I sat at home all spring when, finally, the Texans brought me in for a workout. I must have impressed because I was signed. But—again—I was cut at the end of the preseason.

I spent most of 2013 as a free agent. Finally, in Week 11, I was signed, again by the Tennessee Titans. It was a Tuesday night, and my wife and I were sitting down to catch up on Parks and Recreation. I remember it well because Tuesday is signing day in the NFL. Everyone knows to sit by the phone on Tuesdays. If you’re a free agent, you never schedule anything for Tuesday afternoon in case you get a phone call. On the other end of the phone was Lake Dawson, the Titans’ VP of Player Personnel, and he asked if I could drive down to Nashville that night. The drive is five hours, and they needed me to be there in time for practice in the morning. My “just in case” had seemingly justified itself again. I finished the rest of the season on the practice squad, and was re-signed to the off-season roster for 2014.

My NFL dream was turning my marriage into a long-distance relationship.

Then, this year, when I was cut at the end of training camp again, my wife and I finally decided to put a deadline on how long I should wait. I’m starting to accept that being a development project is not the same as being on an NFL roster. Being ready in case a lineman breaks his ankle is not the same as being on an NFL roster. I love playing football. I love being a part of the offensive line—the funniest, most genuine players in the sport. The brotherhood is something I will desperately miss.

But I’m tired of “just in case.” I’m tired of “maybe” or “soon” or “next time.” So I made the decision to leave football. What I’m gaining is ownership over my time and my future. A phone call from a front office will no longer dictate my life path. I now have a job in financial services, and things are finally on the up-and-up. My wife and I value our time together like never before. I started a retirement account. I get to go out to dinner, see friends and family and play with my dogs—Ellie and Clyde. This December, for the first time in a long time, I was home for Christmas. I’m looking forward to the rest of my life, which will look a whole lot more like yours than Tom Brady’s. And I’m cool with that.

I’m pretty sure, anyway.

 

Action Photograph by Associated Press

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