An Open Letter to Undrafted Free Agents

Dear undrafted free agents,

You’ll soon learn about the one guy in an NFL organization that everybody knows, and it’s not the GM or the head coach. We call him The Turk. When you hear that name, it strikes fear in every player’s heart. It’s almost like one of those wraiths from Lord of the Rings coming to get you. The Turk’s only job is to go around and tell players that the coach wants to see you, and you’d better bring your playbook. As an NFL player, when you hear those words, you know exactly what’s coming next.

I’ve definitely heard those words before. I know exactly what it feels like to be in your shoes — to go into training camp and look around the room trying to figure out which of the guys are going to get released. I’ve been that guy. But I’m writing this because I want to tell you that it’s possible to make it as an undrafted free agent in the NFL, no matter where you’re coming from.

In 1997, I was sitting with my brother in our room watching the NFL Draft, hoping to hear my name called. I had gone from a walk-on at Georgia Tech to a bonafide NFL prospect. We were waiting and waiting, and then before the sixth round, I got a call from the Cincinnati Bengals telling me that they were going to take me with their next pick. I thought I’d finally made it.

Then that round came and went and my name was never called. If you’ve been in that position, you know it’s disheartening to give so much to the game, believe that you’ve reached the pinnacle, and then nothing happens. That was my first disappointment.

After the draft, there was this influx of calls coming in from teams wanting me to join their camps. I thought I had the best shot at making it in Cincinnati — I wasn’t going to let pride get in the way of my NFL dream — so I chose the Bengals. But again, things took a turn for the worse. I injured my groin and hip flexor during practice, and I’m not exaggerating when I tell you it was one of the most miserable experiences of my life. I couldn’t even lift my leg. I had to actually lie on the floor to put my pants on, and I needed painkillers to get me through it all.

Many of you have probably been faced with the injury dilemma, or will be in the future, so listen carefully to this part. You’ve got two choices: You can go out and play through it, or you can tell the support staff about it. As you probably know, this is a lose-lose situation because if you tell the staff, they’ll register that injury and it could be the beginning of the end for you, especially as an undrafted player. But if you play on it, you risk further injury, which could jeopardize your entire career.

So what do you do?

I decided to tell someone, but in the end, I didn’t really have a choice. One of the Cincinnati trainers told me that from what the coaches were saying, I had an excellent opportunity to make the team, but only if I got out there and played. There are certain injuries you just can’t play with, and this was one of them. Believe me, I tried, but I wasn’t the same and my skills diminished drastically.

That was when The Turk came calling.

I wish I could spin it in a positive light for you, but the truth is that it’s devastating to be released from a team. It’s happened to me numerous times, and it hurt every single time. Everyone aspires to get asked to a camp because once you do it feels like you’re on top of the world. But don’t take that feeling for granted. When I got released for the first time, my uncle told me, “Man, you just have to get back out there, dust yourself off and make this happen.” Those were the words I grew up with, and they’re the words I want to pass on to you.

Sometimes I get asked whether dealing with rejection ever gets easier. You might find subtle ways to deal with it, but let me tell you, it never does. You have to develop a thick skin because you’re going to be told many times that you’re not good enough. Part of my toughness came from living in the inner city of Miami. I grew up fast because I saw lots of things that no kid ever should — cops chasing drug dealers, crack and cocaine stashed in fences where I lived. I saw one of my friends take his last breath right before my eyes. That changes your life. Lots of kids are stuck in these situations, but football and an education helped me find my way out.

I remember when I was younger, my football team lost to our rival, Northwestern High School, and it was one of those really tough losses. I didn’t want to ride back in the car with my mom, so I walked home with my uncle. That walk gave me a lot of time to reflect on what I needed to do to get out of that environment. It was only one loss, but I knew the impact of the scouts who might’ve turned their heads away from me because our season was over.

People who know me will tell you I’m not a crier, but that day I cried so hard because I felt like I failed. I thought I had lost an opportunity to make something of myself. But crying doesn’t do you any good. On that long walk through my neighborhood, I decided that my success was in my own hands and that I needed to make a change. That was the last time I ever cried.

Something you need to remember is that if you refuse to give up even when you get knocked down, eventually somebody is going to believe in you. For me, that person was Wade Phillips. When I was with the Bills, he came to me himself (no Turk), which was unheard of in the NFL, and told me why he had to release me. He said if I survived the waivers, he would sign me back. And he did. My entire 10-year career began with Wade Phillips believing in me enough to give me a shot.

When those opportunities come around, you’d better be ready for them.

Once you’ve made it to the NFL, whether you’re a rookie free agent or a 10-year veteran, always remember that the league is a business. Now that you play the sport as a profession, you’re an independent contractor. It’s almost as though you’re a Fortune 500 CEO and you need to make decisions based on your company. But the difference is that the company is you. Your body is the product and your mind is responsible for determining the best way to market it. When I chased people around on the football field, it was like I was chasing food. You need to go out there every day and realize that each play you make is another opportunity to feed yourself.

It took a long time for me to accept that mindset. After the Bengals released me, I was lost. I went back home to Miami and found that my mom had been laid off and I no longer had a way to provide for her. I was in this black hole trying to figure out what to do, where to go. If you ever reach this point in your career, when things are spiraling out of control, you need something to fall back on.

I realized I needed to return to school. I haven’t told many people this, but I actually flunked out of Georgia Tech. I never told my mom. I just didn’t know how. It was definitely a struggle to get myself back in the good graces of the school, and I had to sign a contract saying from that point forward I would maintain a B average. Whatever guidelines they gave me, I had to suck it up and take them, even though I was trying to make a career out of football at the same time.

Here’s some real advice for guys who are dreaming of making it in this business: Football isn’t everything. If you can’t read the playbook, it doesn’t matter how fast you run. Nobody cares. At some point this game is going to end you, either by injury or by a team simply moving past you. What you do next is the only thing really in your control. So many guys make so much money and then end up broke because they have no other job skills. You need to have those skills, and you can only get them through an education. A 4.41 40-yard-dash doesn’t teach you much in the way of economics.

One of my strength coaches used to motivate guys during practice by telling us that you pass out before you die. It sounds ridiculous (and scary), but when you’re out there on the field during camp feeling like you just can’t push forward, think about that. Have you exhausted yourself to a point that you’re ready to die? If you haven’t, then you still have more to give. If that is your mentality every day, someone will notice, and you’ll make a career out of this game. You can be good, or you can be the best at your position. The choice is yours. But this is the time to decide.

Best of luck,

Nick Ferguson

Ferguson is a 10-year NFL veteran, with stints in the CFL, UFL and NFL Europe over the course of a 14-year professional football career.