In the XFL, We Were All on a Mission

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As soon as I saw that the NBA had canceled its season, I knew that the XFL season was going to be canceled. I knew it. There was just no way around it. Our season was going to end, and I was going to have to go solo, out on my own.

Again.

It was March 11, and I was at our team hotel in Houston, in the room shared by Avery Gennesy and Sebastian Tretola — two of my offensive linemen. In a few days we were supposed to be leaving for New York to play a game. Practice was over and we were just hanging out. Just chilling and watching some basketball.

We were getting ready to watch the Jazz play the Thunder. The TV was on and everybody was just hanging out and talking. And then….

They just canceled the game. Just like that. And the next thing you know, the NBA was canceling the rest of the season. Just like that. We were all confused for a second. Everybody was like, What? 

We still just wanted to go out there and play — that’s what we were talking about at that exact moment. We were like, “We could still go play out there with no fans in the stands.” We really didn’t know yet the whole extent of the health and safety issues that everybody was facing.

Pro football needs the XFL.

We get it now, though. What’s going on today is waaay more important than the XFL season. Like this is serious, O.K.? Beyond everyone doing what they’re saying to do — washing their hands and not touching their faces — I hope everyone is keeping safe and sticking to the quarantine. The biggest issue now is that we all stay healthy and get through this.

Things are so serious — in our lives, in the economy — that the XFL won’t be back in 2021. On April 10, the league suspended operations and laid off almost all of its staff. I can hardly believe it. We were all together less than a month ago. It was barely here in the first place, and now it’s gone.

And that’s too bad. Pro football needs the XFL.

See, when most people hear XFL, they think of pro wrestling and HE HATE ME jerseys — the stuff everybody remembers from the old XFL’s only previous season, in 2001. The new league that I played in was still owned by Vince McMahon, but there was nothing pro wrestling about it. It was real football. Most XFL teams were really, really good. No gimmicks. No controversies. And I felt like the longer the season would’ve gone the better the league would have gotten — more intense, more competitive.

Beyond that, though, the best thing about the new XFL was that it gave the guys who are on the fringes of pro football the opportunity to go out there and play and show what they can do. There are so many great, talented players on NFL rosters that the league just isn’t big enough for everybody to play. And that’s a shame. The XFL was important to so many guys. It’s hard to single out names because I don’t want to leave anybody out — because there are just a lot. If the season had gone on, most of them would definitely be getting their chances to play in the NFL. I believe that. I mean, some of them already are.

Like me.

I’ve been playing football since I was seven years old, when I was in the Police Athletic League in my hometown of Elizabeth, New Jersey. That’s where I was born and raised. My mom still works at the post office in Elizabeth, as a matter of fact. And all my friends were there. That’s what football was all about in the beginning — just going out there and having fun with your friends.

I don’t know that I ever dreamed of playing pro football. When I was in middle school was the first time I remember thinking, Man, I’m excited! I’m ready to play in high school. And then when I was at Elizabeth High, the goal was to play in college. Even as a kid I always wanted to take things one step at a time and focus on what was in front of me at that particular moment.

So it wasn’t until I was playing at Temple that I even started to think about the NFL, really. Going to Temple was the best decision I’ve ever made. I had offers from other schools, but I felt like Temple was just the best fit. It was close to home. My family came out each week, which was awesome. And being an hour from home, I could get some home-cooked meals here and there. Everything was amazing.

We went 2–10 my freshman year, but kept improving all the time. We finished 10–4 in both my junior and senior seasons — double-digit wins two seasons in a row for the first time in school history. I really had a good working relationship with Coach Rhule. I was in his first recruiting class, in 2013, and he showed me how to trust the process of going through things and building. That first year was a struggle. But as a unit, as a team, as a coaching staff, we all just hung in there. And we built something special at Temple.

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And then it was over — and it was over so quickly.

I didn’t just go undrafted, I didn’t even get invited to the combine.

Until the end of my senior season, no matter what my goals were, or what level of football I was at, I was always playing. I was a four-year starter in high school and started most of my four seasons at Temple. But some scouts said I was too short, or that I wasn’t an accurate passer, and suddenly just getting on the field again was looking like it was going to be an issue.

That was when I learned how to grind.

To start my transition from my last game in college to the NFL, I went out to Colorado to work with a guy named Tim Jenkins, who’s a quarterback coach outside Denver. Tim was really, really good. He helped me gain so much knowledge and develop my game. Everything we did on the field was like the normal stuff I’d been doing all my life. That was no problem. But in the classroom was where things got serious, going over playbooks, going over installs. It was like being in a legit quarterback room. I learned so much. I still go back to see Tim to this day.

In May 2017, the Colts signed me as a free agent. I went to OTAs and I thought things went pretty well. I was trying to make a name for myself, make some plays and get some notice from the front office and everyone else. I was just grinding, man, and I learned how to be a professional through that process. Being around Andrew Luck really taught me how to take the business of pro football seriously. He’s just a true professional.

Andrew’s actually one of the big reasons I went to the XFL. In September, I got cut and signed to the practice squad. And then I spent the next two seasons bouncing back and forth between the practice squad and unemployment. The Colts would add me one week, and then take me off the next. There was so much uncertainty. It was a day-to-day, week-to-week thing. I think a lot of fans don’t get that. You’re in the league but you’re not in the league — and then you’re really not in the league. Last season, I wasn’t even on a practice squad. The only football games I saw were the ones I watched on television.

I was on my own.

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It was when I was on the practice squad in Indianapolis that Andrew and I talked about the XFL. His dad was the commissioner. And Andrew was like, “I think it’d be a great opportunity for you to go out there and play.” He said he knew what I could do, and he felt like the XFL would give me a chance to show everybody else what he already knew. He also evidently talked me up big time to his father. And last October, when the league assigned quarterbacks to its eight franchises, I got sent to Houston.

So in a way, I owe this all to Andrew.

The XFL was a great opportunity for a lot of players because it was physical, it was fast and it was fun. The atmosphere of the fans each week was amazing. We had almost 18,000 in the stands in Houston for the home opener, which was unexpected in my opinion. We were just blown away.

Going into it, I felt the same way a lot of the guys did, I think. It was, Let’s go in here and let’s go get some film to show to NFL scouts. Let’s make some plays and let’s have some fun. Let’s help build this league up. But by Week 2 it was like, Man, let’s go keep winning, let’s go keep being the best team in this league.

And I feel like we did have the best team. We had a lot of guys who just played hard, and who were out there to play for each other. It was a lot of hungry guys, you know? It was a lot of guys who just really wanted that opportunity to get back into the NFL. Guys there were on a mission. And that was our bond. We were all on a mission.

And I loved that.

When the XFL stopped playing, the Roughnecks were 5–0 and I was leading the league in passing yards and touchdowns. (And for everyone worried about my accuracy? I completed more than 65% of my passes and threw only four INTs.) And I kept hearing from my friends in the NFL about how great we were doing. Jacoby Brissett and I speak often, and he would text me every week about how happy he was for me. I spoke with Andrew some weeks before our games, and every now and then he’d send me a text wishing me good luck or saying, “Great game.”

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Those things right there just … I know those guys know what I’m capable of. Those things meant a lot. They mean a lot.

The love was nice, but what I liked best was that I was playing again. Not training. Not practicing. Not grinding. Just … playing. And what that meant was that I got to continue to grow, continue to get better. That’s what the XFL was doing — giving me, and everyone like me, a chance to play and grow and get better each week.

It paid off for me. The Carolina Panthers hired Coach Rhule as their new head coach in early January, and late last month he signed me to be one of his quarterbacks. I’m back in the NFL. Back with my college coach. Back to show everyone what I can do.

I just hope that other guys from the XFL can find their way into the league, too — that the month or so that they got to play all the time helps them to land spots on NFL rosters. There aren’t just more pro football players out there now, there are more better pro football players. With the NFL’s new CBA, which added games to the schedule and increased roster sizes, that seems like a good thing.

That’s why I’m going to miss the XFL something fierce — and why the NFL will, too.

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