Life on the Roster Bubble: Thoughts from a Former NFL Player
After just under three years of life in the NFL, teetering on the edge of banishment at the bottom of rosters, I can unquestionably affirm the glorious dream job fans may imagine, is rarely the reality.
What is wrong with it you ask? Pain and injuries, media scrutiny, world-class competition, office politics, fear and insecurities, social hierarchies and the expectations of family, friends, coaches and teammates. And that's not to mention unimaginable bodily harm veiled in secrecy, capable of destroying the average man—all for the right to be in a group so rare, so elite, that less than 2,000 premier athletes annually can claim the honor. An honor far too stressful to appreciate while fighting to survive life on the NFL bubble.
According to the NFLPA, the chances of making it on an NFL roster if you played high school football are about 0.2 percent. This feat has been attempted and failed by Heisman Trophy winners, All-Americans, Olympic gold medalists, professional wrestlers, world's strongest men, record holders and everything in between. Once you make it that far, the average career is three-and-a-half years.
From the minute you arrive on an NFL team as a late-round pick or undrafted free agent, you're instantly hit with a shrewd eyeopener. A distinct disparity between the guys who have established themselves, and the guys who are looked upon as temporary, nameless bodies. Here today, gone tomorrow.
This realization can be emotionally devastating, especially to guys normally used to being the big man on campus, often the stars of their respective teams for years. Several friends and former teammates have quickly succumbed to such harsh environments and left the teams they were on before training camp ended. Stories like that of Dwight Jones are far more common than many may realize.
The utter lack of respect toward such low-ranking members by coaches, teammates and the organization can be enough to weed out several guys each year.
A good friend of mine from college was signed to the New England Patriots as an undrafted free agent. I recall stories about how he felt in camp that year—struggling to handle the feeling of being utterly worthless, cast aside by the coaches and players.
He described Patriots head coach Bill Belichick as a major (insert expletive here), as he was treated like a human sled dummy. It became obvious to him that any real opportunity to make the team was too much of a long-shot while the bodily damage and torture necessary to see it realized was nowhere near worth it. He left camp after a couple of weeks.
Fortunately, I was more resistant to the details of this reality, as it had been a familiar position throughout my entire career. Even in high school I was overlooked, as I made a habit of surprising people in regards to what I was capable of on a football field.
Another former teammate of mine who signed as an undrafted free agent with the Green Bay Packers never made it to training camp. He left on his own accord after realizing the workload and commitment to daily pain and suffering didn't match his passion for the game. To put this into perspective, he left the unbearable stress of the NFL bubble to go onto become a U.S Marine officer.
I suppose we all have our breaking points. Mine just came a little later.
Unfortunately, the NFL has never been an equal opportunity employer. If you're signed to a big contract, you're given numerous chances to succeed. Naturally, organizations enjoy a return on their investments and love when their decision-making process is affirmed, even if it's a contrived manifestation through a contradictory act of self-preservation.
In other words, it looks bad for the decision-makers to pay big money to guys who don't see the field, or worse yet, don't make the team.
As a result, guys on the bubble are relegated to minimal reps in practice, held to a higher standard of error-free football, and generally ignored by position coaches, who spend most of their time getting the projected starters ready. But when your name is called, you better be ready, it could be your only chance to prove yourself.
The Pressure to Perform
People may have a basic concept of what the pressure is like to perform in the NFL, but I'm certain the experience of it can be much more consuming. College football was huge and loaded with pressure and importance. But relative to the NFL, where everyone around you is fighting for their livelihoods, college was a fun, light-hearted game.
This pressure to perform with so much at stake, so much money on the line, so many people counting on you to make them proud, can literally strangulate the blood right out of your limbs. If you let it get to you, you're in for a very short career. This is why the line between cocky and confident is so often blurred with superstar athletes. In many ways, it's the chicken or the egg relationship. One begets the other.
This was a major undoing of my NFL career. My greatest struggles with this issue came after I was emotionally down, having surrendered NFL idealism following my subsequent release from a team for the first time in my entire athletic existence.
I was on the New York Jets after being picked up on waivers by then-head coach Eric Mangini. He had a style of coaching which demanded the most out of each player, motivated by shame, ridicule and realized threats.
He routinely would hold verbal pop quizzes in our morning team meetings where he would call out a player and ask him a question about something that was talked about yesterday in a position meeting, or was revealed in nightly film study.
In theory, this sounds like an awesome approach to coaching. But the execution of this was a lot different. It became a way for Mangini to use proven veterans as examples for knowing their stuff by asking them questions he knew they would get correct by prompting them beforehand or asking something they were sure to know. In contrast, he would pick a guy on the bubble who may be playing on offense, and ask him a question which would only pertain to a defensive player.
If you were a guy on the bottom of the roster, there was no telling what you could be asked in the team meetings. I would go into those meetings every morning far too nervous to focus on anything helpful toward my preparation. I was not alone in feeling this way. Mangini had his team caring so much, he had inadvertently created extreme performance anxiety throughout the organization.
This carried over onto the field and in the games as well. I hate to admit it, but there came a stretch in New York where I was actually thankful to be deactivated for a game because it meant I at least couldn't mess anything up and be humiliated in front of the whole team just before being sent home without even a goodbye or good luck.
It's easy to see the destructive nature of this mindset. But it's amazing what massive amounts of pressure can do.
Throughout my career I played through serious injuries by refusing to alert the medical staff to my issues.
To this day, I still have a weird popping and grinding feeling in my neck from a play that happened on a kickoff in the annual preseason opener, known as the Hall of Fame Game. That was the first game of the year and I secretly was never the same afterward. I never even told my parents in an effort to not worry them.
Guys on the bubble understand the need to stay healthy in order to keep their NFL dreams alive, so they abide by the rules of secrecy, inner strength and necessity to remain physically available. Meanwhile, the veterans have the luxury to sit out practice because of a tight hamstring or a tender pinkie finger.
While on the Baltimore Ravens, I received my first real concussion on the opening kickoff of a game. Running down to make a tackle, I lost my balance and slipped, falling into the guy trying to block me and hitting the side of my helmet on his knee. It was a fluke accident that left me cloudy and in a dream state for well over 30 minutes.
This was the final preseason game of the season and the last chance for many of us on the bubble to make the team. I knew there was no way I could sit this one out.
Adding to the motivation, I was playing against the Atlanta Falcons, a team who had promised me certain opportunities in an attempt to lure me away from the Jets, who were also looking to re-sign me for the offseason. Needless to say, I signed with them in late December (burning a bridge in New York) only to be released in May after buying a house there.
I was hellbent on revenge against the Falcons and wasn't going to let a concussion ruin it. I wanted blood in the worst way. Knowing that my opportunity was going to come in the second half of the game, when they let the backups in, I figured I had time for the symptoms to wear off.
Soon, the fog lifted, and I was relatively back to normal. This was my chance. I was playing the backup position to Terrell Suggs, which was where I was born to play.
Oakland and the Jets had tried to turn me into the next Tedy Bruschi, which I was actually making strides at. But pass-rushing was my true talent. I ended up sacking the quarterback for the Falcons two times that game, giving the Ravens their only two sacks of the game.
The next day I was brought into the team meeting room with some rookies and washed-up veterans where head coach Brian Billick put up a list of names on the projection screen listing who was released. My name was on that list.
Defeated, deflated and on my way out of the facility, I was stopped in the hallway by Rex Ryan and ushered into his office. He closed the door and sat me down, looking into my eyes with concern. Understanding the nature of the situation, he candidly divulged his thoughts on my ability as a football player. He explained the reasoning and thought process behind the decision.
Apparently I was not valuable enough on special teams to hold a roster spot as an unproven backup. I was also ineligible for the practice squad because I had accrued a full season on a 53-man roster.
He also said that they had an undrafted rookie who had a solid preseason and they didn't want to risk losing him to another team. He let me know I was one injury away from being called back to the team. I thanked him for the opportunity and drove back to the hotel.
That was my last time in an NFL facility.
The stress of the NFL is unlike anything most people will ever know. After being cut by the Falcons in my brief stay with the organization, I was so defeated and emotionally compromised, that I wouldn't even return my agent's calls. He was trying to get a hold of me because the Dallas Cowboys and Baltimore Ravens were interested in bringing me in for a work out.
I just couldn't handle any more uncertainty and instability in the face of everything I was sacrificing, waiting for my opportunity. I did eventually give in and go to Baltimore, figuring I was going to treat this experience as if I had nothing to lose.
Imagine a profession where you are contracted to build an entire house alongside 15 other guys doing their own version in direct competition to you. The prize is a $300,000 reward. Each person is expected to show up every day on time without any excuses beyond death itself.
You personally drill, chop, saw hammer and erect this house with your own hard work and muscle, putting your signature on it piece by piece for half a year. After six months of blood, sweat and tears, the company that contracted you picks one of the 15 different houses to be fully completed.
Meanwhile, the other houses are ordered to be destroyed and the losing builders are sent home with a check for a couple thousand dollars.
Take away injuries and physical destruction, and you may get a glimpse of what it's like to fight for an NFL roster spot year after year.
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