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A Letter to the Undrafted Free Agents

Apr 29 2019
Photo by
Kevin Terrell/AP Images
Photo by
Kevin Terrell/AP Images
Wayne Chrebet
Retired NFL
Apr 29 2019
T

o Every Guy Who Went Undrafted This Weekend,

I never got invited to the NFL combine.

I had some decent stats at Hofstra, but I was an undersized wide receiver who wasn’t exactly a burner coming out of what was then called Division I-AA football. Not really the formula for stardom.

I was never delusional about my odds of making it. I always knew a career in football was a long shot, but I wanted to give it an honest try nonetheless. I just figured it beat working in an office for a living.

Because my combine invite must have regretfully got lost in the mail, the spring after I graduated from college in 1995, my dad drove me to Baltimore for a CFL tryout. Looking back, the whole thing was kind of a joke. You had to pay a couple of hundred bucks for the opportunity to wait in line and catch passes from a few guys who were described to us as quarterbacks. It was a meat market.

We had been told that some scouts were supposed to be there. Maybe they were hiding or something because I sure didn’t see anybody resembling a scout. Pretty much everyone there was either dumb enough to pay for the tryout or making money off the people dumb enough to pay for the tryout.

Still, I hustled my ass off. I went at it as if I was at the real combine.

I was sprinting, making cuts, diving for balls, doing whatever I could — and I thought things were going O.K. Then, in the middle of one of my cuts, my foot went right through the bottom of one of my cleats. Just blew right through the bottom of the shoe Zion-style.

I probably could have called it a day right then and there and just cut my losses. It’s not like I had a spare pair of cleats in my gym bag. I played I-AA ball. They gave you the one pair at the beginning of every season and you were done.  But instead of leaving, I decided to just kind of roll with it. I looked over to my dad and an idea popped into my head. I could just grab his shoes.

Just blew right through the bottom of the shoe Zion-style.

But there was just one problem there.

My dad was wearing his dirty beat up gardening shoes that day.

I didn’t really have to think twice about it, honestly. I ran over to him, slipped on his shoes, and then hopped back in line and took another rep.

By the end of the tryout my body and my dignity had taken a pretty decent beating. They had us do a vertical-jump test, but they didn’t have one of those measuring devices where you jump and hit the plastic-strip things. So instead they made us jump and try to touch as high as we could on a light pole. From there they’d just kind of eyeball it to determine our vert.

It was honestly such a ridiculous scene, all these grown men jumping and smashing our faces into this solid metal light pole in order to get a bogus vertical-jump measurement. I still laugh thinking about that. It friggin’ hurt!

And in the end, nothing came of it. I didn’t get one call from the CFL offering me anything.

That’s all to say, as bad you might be feeling right now — as difficult as the situation might seem — trust me when I say I’ve been there, too.

I’m sure you have a lot of people in your life who are trying to come up with the best thing to tell you right now because you didn’t hear your name called in the draft. The problem is there is no one right thing to say.

I don’t necessarily have the answers for you either. I’m not writing this to tell you that if you work really hard and do everything right, you’re going to have a long career in the NFL.

That wouldn’t be fair because it’s just not true.

You can do absolutely everything right, but ultimately a player in your position is still going to need a few lucky breaks to go his way in order to stick on an NFL roster.

And that gets to the real reason I’m writing this letter to all the guys who didn’t get picked. The guys like me. My message is simple: If I managed to have an 11-year career in the NFL — me, a guy who was slamming his head into a light post while working out in gardening shoes when he was your age — then maybe you can too.

But I can say from the jump, this is probably going to be the hardest thing you’ve ever tried to do. So right now is a good time to take stock of what this game really means to you.

If going undrafted is the wake-up call you need to stop playing football, more power to you. For real — if you’ve made it to the point where you are considering taking a legit shot at making it in the NFL, you’ve already made it so much further in this game than the vast, vast majority of people who ever put on the pads. Know that there’s absolutely no shame in starting a new path for your life right now.

But on the other hand, if the idea of not playing football anymore is something that just doesn’t compute with you — if you’re truly willing to do whatever it takes to keep this dream alive….

Well … keep reading then.

Hofstra University AthleticsO.K., so off the top, I have this crucial piece of advice: Don’t wear a Giants hat if you’re going to try out for the Jets.

It might seem obvious to some people, but to others (like say, me) it wasn’t.

In my defense, I grew up in North Jersey, which meant I was a Giants fan. One of my clearest memories growing up was watching Harry Carson put on a yellow security jacket and dump Gatorade on Bill Parcells when New York won the ’86 Super Bowl. I still remember sitting there watching that when I was 13 years old and just saying out loud, “I want to do that one day!” That’s all to say that, for me, putting on a Giants hat was as routine as brushing my teeth.

But on the day of my tryout with the Jets, yeah, maybe I could have toned it down a bit.

I had a one-on-one workout with their wide receivers coach. I ran different routes and they had a team employee throwing me passes. My professional career basically hinged on getting my hands around every wobbly ball I could. But if they had to test anything, I’m glad it was my hands. Somehow, some way, I caught all 100 balls thrown to me.

Afterwards someone who worked with the team came up and took off my Giants hat. “Don’t wear that anymore,” he said. “We’re going to sign you.” Then he handed me a Jets hat. It fit pretty well.

The contract negotiation happened basically right then. I was sitting there with my agent, who was basically just a guy I knew who recently graduated from Hoftstra’s law school.

“The Bengals and the Saints really want him,” he lied. “What can you give us up front?”

I left the facility with a check for $1,500 and a spot on the training camp roster of the New York Jets.

To me, it was unfathomable. FIFTEEN HUNDRED DOLLARS! And I was … HYPED!

Do you have any idea how many 10 cent wings that would buy? In my mind, I was basically set for life.

Tomasso Derosa/Getty Images

That first day, I walked over to the facility with my hat low, fully focused, ready to compete as hard as I ever had in my life. I made my way up to the security gate and kind of gave the guard a nod before walking past him.

“Wait, hold up!”

The security guard stopped me.

“Sorry, field is closed to the public today, players won’t be offering any autographs.”

I paused, confused. And then it hit me. He thought I was fan. I tried to correct him saying no, I’ve got practice and I’m going to be late. And he stood his ground saying something like, Yeah you might have practice, but it’s not here. The New York Jets are practicing on this field.

So we were in this sort of stand off, me insisting I’m actually a member of the Jets, him looking at me like, Uh, no you’re not. It went on for a while. Eventually someone from the organization came over and told the guard — who was named Harry Fischer, and who eventually became a dear friend — that I actually was there for training camp.

But honestly, I can understand why he mistook me for a fan. I was a fan — I just happened to be a fan that the Jets gave $1,500.

And that was really how I felt. I didn’t come to camp with any kind of expectations and certainly no sense of entitlement. Going undrafted can be a valuable chip to have on your shoulder. For some guys it’s a reason to play angry and with passion. But that wasn’t my mentality.

For me, I was so happy to be there that every single day was about earning the right to stick around tomorrow. And honestly, that was a mentality I think I held on to my entire career.

RVR Photos/USA Today ImagesEarly on in camp, things weren’t looking so good for me. The coaches had told us that everyone would get to play in the first preseason game, and technically I did, but it was only one snap. I chased down a punt — not exactly a showcase for my skills.

But I kept at it. I treated every practice rep like it was the final play of the Super Bowl. The way I looked at it, I might’ve gotten cut at any time because I wasn’t the right size or because the team might need to fill another position. But I was determined that they were not going to cut me because I hadn’t given the right level of effort. That just was not going to happen.

So I kept grinding. I stayed at it. And I stuck around. Slowly but surely the opportunities started to come. I got a few snaps on offense during our second preseason game and played pretty well. Our third preseason game was against the Giants.

In the first quarter, one by one the wide receivers ahead of me on the depth chart started getting taken out. One guy didn’t know a play, another guy got banged up, the next dropped a pass. I was standing there watching this all go down when suddenly I heard our coach, Rich Kotite, shout, “CHEVETTE! CHEVETTE!”

I was determined that they were not going to cut me because I hadn’t given the right level of effort.

I kind of hesitated … that sort of sounded like my name?

Then I heard it again: “CHEVETTE!!! GET IN THERE!”

I figured, Hey, close enough, and I ran out on the field.

That was truly a thrill — being out there playing against the team I had rooted for as a kid, with my family in the stands watching. Even if I’d been cut right after that game, it was still something I would have treasured forever.

And that’s the thing. You’re under a ton of pressure right now. I know how stressful it is to be playing for your life. But still, give yourself the opportunity to enjoy even making it this far. Very, very few people do. You deserve to let yourself have a moment to feel proud.

Andy Lyons/Getty ImagesI still vividly remember the night before final cuts. I don’t think I got a single wink of sleep. I was just waiting for the knock on my door that would be a coach asking for my playbook. I waited and waited, then I started hearing knocks on other doors.

I listened closely as the knocks got closer … and closer … and closer. I couldn’t stand it. When I heard a knock on the door next to mine, I think I held my breath until I finally heard a knock on the door on the other side of mine.

The grim reaper had passed my door.

I hadn’t been told I’d made the team, but I also hadn’t been told that I’d been cut, which was enough for me.

I finally fell asleep, and when I woke up I looked at my clock and … I was late.

This situation would end up becoming the source of recurring nightmares for me for years to come. I honestly couldn’t believe I’d busted my ass to make the team only to blow it by not setting my alarm clock. I sprinted out of my hotel. I had my contacts like half in and they were burning like crazy.

I finally made it to the locker room, and then strolled in with confidence like everything was cool. I still had a locker — that was a good sign. Then I called my parents on a pay phone and they were like, “We heard the cuts on the radio, but they didn’t say your name. What’s going on? Did you make the team?” I was like, “I don’t know.” My mom was like, “Well, ask somebody, Wayne!” I said, “Nope. No way. I’m not asking anybody. I’m just gonna hang here and see if they tell me to leave.”

But they didn’t tell me to leave and I kept coming back (still only half-believing I was actually on the team) and began prepping for the first regular-season game of my career. There’s actually a story about that game that Boomer Esiason likes to tell just to give me s***.

We opened my rookie season down in Miami at Joe Robbie Stadium. To me it was perfect because I hated the Dolphins growing up. But I’d only ever gotten to boo them through a TV screen. Now I was on the same field as those guys.

As I was warming up before the game, I looked up and immediately froze in my tracks.

It was Dan Marino.

He was only a few feet away from me. Sure it was a guy I’d actively rooted against for years, but still, this was Dan Marino. Are you kidding me? All the other players were just doing their thing getting ready, but I was starstruck, and it took all my willpower not to go over and ask for an autograph.

The game started, and at one point I was supposed to go in motion. Boomer gave me the heel. I didn’t move. He did it again. Still, I didn’t move. I was too busy looking at the Dolphins sideline, at Don Shula and Dan Marino. How was I on the same field as them? It was kind of like I was having this out of body experience.

I messed up the play, and when I got back to the huddle Boomer just laid into me for being the idiot that I was. And I responded with, “Dude, Don Shula and Dan Marino are right there!” I was literally so caught up in the moment that I forgot that I was actually at work. And then, on the next play, Boomer tossed it to me down the sideline and I made the first catch of my career. It was a tough one but I held on.

And like that, it was just football again. I got out of my own head and just played the game.

It took me about two or three more weeks after that to actually believe I was on the team to stay. I didn’t bother finding an apartment or even a hotel room, I was still just crashing on a friend’s couch waiting for a phone call from someone on the Jets saying something like, Oh yeah, Chevette, forgot about you. You were actually cut three weeks ago! But that didn’t happen.

It was around this time that Coach Kotite heard I was sleeping on a couch and he came up to me and said, “Wayne, you gotta go find a place.” I kind of looked at him, confused, and then he said, “I have a feeling you’re gonna be around a while.”

Jamie Squire/Getty Images

A while turned out to be the best 11 years of my life.

For all 11 years, I never took it for granted. I spent every moment doing whatever I could to stay on that field — to earn one more snap.

I also never let myself get comfortable. Maybe part of it was that I still wasn’t fully convinced this wasn’t all just a dream that I didn’t want to wake up from. I was so scared of not making the most of the opportunity. So I constantly did everything asked of me in order to keep my spot. When I was a young guy, I always thought I could be replaced any day by a veteran with more experience. When I was a veteran, I always thought I could be replaced any day by a younger player who cost a fifth of my salary. That lack of comfort made me push myself in ways I didn’t think possible.

I got to prove that I belonged on the same field with the best football players in the world — that I belonged on the field standing next to guys like Vinny Testaverde, Laveranues Coles, Santana Moss and so many others. Through this game I got to meet so many different kinds of people — from all walks of life — who shared the same passion that I had. I got to have my name included alongside legendary players in the Jets Ring of Honor.

And you know what? I even got to pour Gatorade on Bill Parcells.

I even got to pour Gatorade on Bill Parcells.

Like I said before, there’s no one path to success in the NFL. This is just the path that I took.

But if you’re looking for a reason to have hope that this next challenge can be conquered — that you can have a career in the NFL — just remember that many years back, an undersized Jersey kid was running the 40-yard dash in gardening shoes before he ended up having an 11-year career with one team.

If that’s possible … then I’m not sure what isn’t.

So best of luck to you as you take on this next challenge.

I’m rooting for every single one of you.

—Wayne

Wayne Chrebet
Retired NFL