Still Open

Most people don’t call me Chris. They call me 7-Eleven.

And no, it’s not because I only drink Slurpees or eat three-day-old taquitos.

The year the Miami Dolphins were featured on Hard Knocks, I was in their training camp. I was hopeful that the camp would be my big break into the NFL, and in a lot of ways, it was. Even though I didn’t end up making the final roster, I came out of it with something even more important: I got that nickname. I know it sounds crazy, but this is a league with many more dreamers than there are roster spots, so sometimes being known is what it takes to make it.

In a lot of ways, patience and luck are as crucial to breaking into the NFL as hard work. You never know how or when your break is going to come, so you have to keep grinding until it does. That’s especially true for a player like me — an undrafted free agent who only played one year of college football.

Coming out of high school, I was getting offers from colleges to play either lacrosse or football. I was pretty torn until Penn State recruited me for lacrosse and brought me out to visit for a day.

I immediately fell in love with the school, and the decision was basically made for me.

I had a great career there playing lacrosse, but football was always in the back of my mind. It’s funny — when Penn State brought me out to visit, they actually took me to a football game. That was one of the main selling points for me. But the more football games I went to, the harder they got to watch. Deep down inside, I knew I could be on that field.

I redshirted my sophomore year, so I had an extra year of eligibility. I remember right when I was about done with my fourth year at Penn State, I was driving home to New Jersey with my girlfriend (who’s now my fiancée, she’s going to love this shout-out), and I was sort of voicing aloud the idea of going somewhere to play football. She told me, “Why not, Chris? You should go for it.”

I contacted my old high school football coach, and we put together a highlight tape. We sent the tapes out as feelers, and a couple of schools actually expressed interest. I ended up wading through the NCAA bureaucracy and was brought on to play for Monmouth, provided I enrolled in their political science master’s program.

When I was playing lacrosse, I was never really thinking about making a future in it because it’s not a huge professional sport. The majority of my focus was on trying to set myself up for my professional life after college. It was the same with football. The idea of a professional career never really crossed my mind when I was starting out at Monmouth. I just wanted to have some fun. Towards the end of the season, though, there were a couple of guys who were planning on training for the combine. I wasn’t overly excited about entering the real world right away, so figured I might as well give it a shot. I honestly didn’t know if I had what it took to play in the NFL. Still, it was one of those things where I didn’t want to look back in five years and be like, “Man, I wish I would’ve tried.”

While I didn’t get invited to participate at the NFL combine in Indianapolis, I did secure an invite to a Pro Day being held at Fordham. I put up some pretty good numbers and started talking to a bunch of scouts.

Then, a few days later, the lockout started. I couldn’t believe it. That was in March. We didn’t even know if there was going to be an NFL season. At that point, though, I was pretty set. I was going to do whatever it took to play.

That was a long, long offseason. When you’re in the position I was in, all you can do is wait and train, train and wait. I had to stay in top shape because I never knew when the lockout would end and if I would get a call from a team. I was coaching lacrosse at a local high school, Bergen Catholic, during the afternoons and training in the mornings. I knew if I wanted to actually make this dream a reality, I had to go all-in.

Then, in July, the lockout ended. The season was back on. Everything just went into warp speed. The day after the lockout ended, I was hanging out in my buddy’s basement — this guy I had played football with in high school. My phone rang. It was the 49ers. They told me to pack my bags because they were going to sign me as an undrafted free agent.

Just like that, I was on a plane to San Francisco.

It was a lot to take in. I didn’t even really have time to be excited.

I did pretty well early on in camp, but unfortunately, I suffered an injury that put me on the sidelines. Shortly after that, I ended up getting released. It was a really different feeling for me. I had never been cut from anything in my life. Still, that little taste on NFL action was all I needed. I knew I could hang in this league.

I kept grinding that whole season, working out and waiting for a call. Finally, in Week 17, the Miami Dolphins brought me on to their practice squad and signed me to a futures contract, so I would be guaranteed to keep my spot over the offseason. It was an unbelievable feeling knowing that I would be at training camp when the summer rolled around.

I also found out during that offseason that the Dolphins were going to be featured on Hard Knocks. For those of you who don’t know what Hard Knocks is, HBO sends a camera crew to one NFL team’s training camp and films everything — and I mean everything. Obviously there were cameras out on the field, but they were also in the cafeteria, in the hotel, following you around on your off-days. It all gets captured. Then, at the end of every week of training camp, HBO airs a new episode.

You’re never safe, especially when it comes to microphones. Unlike cameras, mics are really easy to hide. It’s pretty hilarious in hindsight — sometimes they were hidden in salt shakers in the cafeteria, or in the napkin holders. You also didn’t necessarily know if they’d mic’d up your pads or your helmet. Usually, if you were lucky, the equipment manager would let you know if you were the one mic’d up for the day. Everyone on the team would call you the police or the “Fed” if you were mic’d up, and it was on you to tell everyone else. If you didn’t, people would get mad, because they didn’t want to say something they would regret.

It wasn’t a distraction for me, though. This was my chance, and I was ready to compete. I was doing really well, and that’s how my nickname came about.

It was pretty early in camp, and I was catching every pass thrown to me — so many that Reggie Bush yells from the sideline, “Hey man, you’re open all the time. You’re 7-Eleven!!”

With someone like Reggie, there’s always going to be a camera on him, so the Hard Knocks guys picked it up. They aired it that week, and the whole thing just took off. I actually became a major focus on the show, and they would check in with me every week. It was pretty cool. People gradually stopped calling me Chris and started calling me 7-Eleven. I felt like I deserved that nickname, too, with how well I performed.

But even though I had one of the better camps of all the receivers, I ended up getting cut. That was probably the most disappointing moment of my career. I had put everything into that camp. To be featured on Hard Knocks and everything, too — I really thought that I had made it. The NFL is a cutthroat business, though, and I learned it the hard way. But at the end of the day, you have two options: You can either quit and say Forget about it, I tried, or you can keep grinding.

I packed up my bags and headed back to New Jersey. One of my buddies was up there for business, and after I told him I got cut, he came down to Miami to drive home with me. We left at nine or 10 at night and drove straight through all the way back to Jersey.

From there, I just kept training. That’s all you can do. Like I said, you never know when your break is going to come. For me, being on Hard Knocks was huge. People knew who I was and they knew I could play. Plus, I had not only made a name for myself, Reggie had made a name for me, too. A couple weeks after I got back to Jersey, the Bills had me work out for them. They didn’t sign me right away, but in November, they signed me to their practice squad. By the end of the season, I was on the 53-man roster.

After that, it was just a series of firsts. My first time suiting up came in the last couple games of that season. My first time playing was the home opener the following season. It was against the New England Patriots, and being able to run out of that tunnel at the beginning of the game was unlike anything I’d ever experienced.

My first touchdown came the season after that, when I began to establish myself as a major passing threat. It was also against the Patriots. We were in the red zone, and Kyle Orton called the play. It was one of those things I’d dreamed about happening my entire life. The ball just came to me in slow motion. Then it all sped up, and I was throwing the ball up in celebration, just screaming at the top of my lungs. Fred Jackson was the first guy to come up to me, and we were just yelling and yelling. He actually went and got the ball for me and busted my chops. He was like, “Why would you throw that ball away? That ball is your first TD in the NFL.”

I was happy to catch that first one, but I knew it would be the first of many. Now that I’d finally made it, I planned to stick.

You know, like a good nickname.