First off: I get it.
I know this situation sucks, and your head is spinning, and you probably feel like just staying in bed for about a week. But forget about that. Trust me when I tell you there’s no time to waste feeling bad right now.
Maybe you’re still upset about sitting through seven rounds of names that weren’t yours, or maybe you were expecting to be in this position. Either way, you don’t have time to dwell on what you think you deserve because after months of going through of being stuck in this limbo that is the draft process, suddenly your entire reality has changed. You’ve been playing this game for most of your life. It’s probably the thing most people know you for, the first topic of conversation brought up by anyone you meet. And now you have no idea how close your career is to ending.
But you know what? I was right where you are, 11 years ago… and I’m still playing football.
And on that note, I’ll start with the good news for most of you: This definitely doesn’t mean football is over for you. You still have a shot.
But here’s the bad news: That’s all you have now. One shot. Moving forward, you don’t need to be perfect but you no longer have the benefit of making the same mistake twice.
I’m sure you realize that and it’s probably weighing on you right now, so I guess the first piece of advice I can give you is to take a deep breath.
I’m guessing you haven’t gotten a lot of sleep the past couple of days, so just take a moment to collect yourself and clear your mind a bit.
Alright, so let’s start talking about what’s next.
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In the days after the 2008 NFL Draft, I was at my apartment in Lubbock, Texas, packing up whatever I could fit into a suitcase.
Right after the draft ended, I had about six or seven teams call me about signing with them as a free agent. It was kind of like this intense game of musical chairs, with spots filling up quickly. I had about 10 minutes to decide where I wanted to start my career. I’ve spent more time deciding what I want to order at a restaurant. Ultimately I signed with Dallas in part because my brother lived there but also because I’m a Texas kid. Even if things never panned out, I’d always be able to say I was once a member of the Cowboys.
I wasn’t shocked that I didn’t get drafted. I knew that if I did get picked at all, it would be in the very late rounds. It became clear to me pretty early on that the draft process wasn’t particularly suited to players like me. Maybe you can relate.
Even though I’d been invited to the combine, I didn’t test particularly well. That didn’t really surprise me, I had I no expectation that I’d shock people with an insane 40 time. But I knew things weren’t looking good when I started getting asked a lot of questions about the size of my hands. Not whether I had good hands or could catch the ball — that was something I knew I could do as well as anybody — I literally was being asked why my hands were the size that they were. I’d never really thought about that before.
When I got to the Cowboys I could tell right away that I was coming to a team that pretty much already had their guys in place. If I wasn’t the very last man gunning for the very last available roster spot, I was close. What I caught onto pretty quickly was that when you’re an undrafted free agent, every day is cut day. The only way to stand out is to do something spectacular every day. And I don’t just mean on the practice field. You need to leave an impression in the weight room, during film study, really every moment you’re around that team facility, you need to be on point.
The thing is, there are a lot of barriers to keep you from being on point. When guys talk about going to the league in college, they’re thinking about flash and bling. But my first taste of the NFL was a relatively small non-guaranteed contract, a crappy room at an extended stay hotel and a sense of panic every time my phone rang because it might be the cut guy.
Also, there’s a massive playbook you have to learn, which is basically in a foreign language. You don’t need to be fluent in it immediately, but you better get conversational out of the gate because not knowing a play is an easy reason to get cut. You need to understand that, to the coaches, you’re essentially fresh meat thrown out there to feed the players they intend to keep. So expect to be ridden hard, because if you don’t make the roster, it’s not any kind of reflection on them.
So what your job comes down to on a day-to-day basis — and this is true even if you’re an established player in this league — is to not give anyone a reason to think there’s anyone who can fill the team’s needs better than you.
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No matter how fired up you are or convinced that you can come in and dominate, you’ll probably be humbled pretty quickly by just how intense the competition is at this level. I still remember my first day in pads during training camp when we ran a drill where I had to block Roy Williams, the former all-world safety for Dallas. Absolute beast.
I gave it my best effort, but Roy put me on my ass in fairly short order. Fortunately that didn’t make me look too bad because Roy put pretty much everybody who tried to block him on their ass. There was nothing I could really do about that, so I leaned hard into the things I was good at. I could play special teams, catch the football and run routes. So maybe I could have a practice where I missed a block, but I absolutely could not have a day where I didn’t catch the football or forgot a play. That would not fly.
I gave it absolutely everything I had and even though I thought I had a solid camp, I got cut. If you want to do this for a living, eventually you probably will too.
But I’m here to tell you that even if that happens, there’s still a way in. It just gets even more tricky.
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The odds of making the roster out of camp aren’t high for anyone in your shoes, but just remember you aren’t just competing to make that team. Every team in the league is always looking to upgrade its talent. If you have what they need, they’ll find you.
But in the meantime, you’re probably going to put in a stint on a practice squad. After I was let go by the Cowboys, they offered me a spot on their practice squad and that’s where I spent the entire regular season. Nobody grows up dreaming of grinding on a practice squad — I know I didn’t — but for many of you, this might be your best chance at eventually making a roster.
This process though, it’s going to test your love of football. You won’t feel like part of the team, but your body is still going to take a beating. When I was on the practice squad, it felt like I was just a guy who came in off the street three days a week to help actual NFL players get better. It was unsettling, unfulfilling and there were a few times when I wondered whether I would get my shot. But I kept showing up and kept competing. I was too stubborn to stop believing in myself. And I think that as much as anything is what got me to where I am today.
Now that I’ve been around long enough, I can usually tell within a couple of days whether a young player has a future in the league or not. The first thing is ability, of course. It’s fine to be an amazing athlete, but to stick you have to be an amazing football player. That means truly knowing the game inside out. You have to approach football almost like an academic discipline. But that’s only part of it. It’s not enough.
It’s also about your approach. When you walk into that facility, do you act like you’re at work? Are you on time or are you early? Not most days, but every single day.
Finally, can you listen? Truly listen. If a coach yells at you, are you paying attention to why he’s yelling or do you just shut down because he’s yelling? If your position coach tells the head coach or GM that you aren’t a player who listens or that you keep making the same mistake, you’re done. You are done. And your odds of getting a second chance won’t be great, because word spreads fast in this league.
But that word of mouth factor is also something you can use to your advantage.
After spending a year on the Cowboys practice squad, I signed with the Eagles in the off-season and joined them for training camp. It ultimately ended up shaking out pretty close to what I experienced with the Cowboys — I thought I had a good camp, but there were a lot of other talented wideouts on the roster and ultimately I was waived during the final cuts, and once again signed to the practice squad.
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This time was a little different, though. Part of it was that I was just a better player. I felt more comfortable with my role and, while I was still anxious about sticking around, I had a lot more knowledge what it took than I did when I was a rookie. But, honestly, I got pretty lucky. A couple of weeks after I signed with the Eagles, their quarterbacks coach, Pat Shurmur, took the job as offensive coordinator in St. Louis. He’s now the head coach of the Giants. We only overlapped for a couple of weeks, but we seemed to have a good chemistry.
Two weeks after the Eagles waived me, I got a call that the Rams wanted to sign me. Not on the practice squad, they wanted me on the active roster returning punts — that week.
That’s how fast it can happen. You can think you’re just about at the end of the line, then you go from the extended stay motel to playing in front of 80,000 people.
A few days later, about a year and a half after going undrafted, I played in my first NFL game. A couple of weeks after that, Laurent Robinson broke his ankle and I replaced him as the starter. And that’s how I got my break.
Since then, a lot has happened. I’ve still faced challenges I never anticipated when I first came into the NFL. But here’s something you can take to heart: I’m better for having gone through the experience you’re having right now. Better in so many ways beyond football.
Yes, I’m incredibly fortunate that things happened like they did. I just happened to leave Dallas for Philly, where I met Pat Shurmur. If that meeting had never happened or if I had had a bad day of practice during the short time we overlapped there, maybe I wouldn’t be here. If you’re going to make it, it’s definitely going to take some degree of luck. But it’s worth remembering that you have to put yourself in a certain position in order to get lucky. The only way to get your break is to keep showing up, keep grinding and keep finding a way to make it to another practice until luck finds you.
No matter what, you can never stop believing that your time will come. Unfortunately, I can’t teach you how to do that. That’s something that you need to find inside yourself. But if that fire is there — if this is what you know, beyond any doubt, that you were meant to do — you can a find a way.
That’s the only reason I’m still here.
Good luck with whatever comes next, and hopefully I’ll see you soon.