I should explain how my specific journey into the NFL was not the path commonly traveled but paved by my own apathy and uncertainty towards playing the sport I love.
But at this point, to do so would be explaining a façade, manifested to protect me from the likelihood of shattered dreams and accomplishments nearly achieved. This is what the harsh reality of NFL roster cuts can do to someone.
(Aside: The deadline to cut down from 75 to 53 players is Friday night at 9 p.m. ET. That means more than 1,100 players will hit free agency between last weekend and next weekend.)
Once I realized I could play and succeed in the NFL, I was all in, and so was my optimism. Knowing one's limitations and weaknesses is a crucial component to evolving as a player, and I knew mine very well. I also knew the things I had to offer and what type of potential I had as a player in the NFL.
With these elements at play, I finally opened up my heart to the sport of football, which was a process years in the making.
I believed in my ability and my potential. I was determined to continue showing the world what I could do on a football field, so the work I put into my craft would not be my undoing. I could say with great confidence that I was one of the hardest-working guys on the Oakland Raiders.
When you work harder for something than you ever would have imagined possible, it becomes a part of you; like a tattoo, it can never be removed. When you give of yourself completely to something, you’re forever changed, for better or worse.
The Eve of the Roster Cuts
So we fast-forward to the eve of the final cuts for the Oakland Raiders during my second year as a pro. That year, I had been putting myself in position to earn a role on the defense beyond just special teams.
The night before the final cut for most guys in the NFL comes immediately following the last preseason game of the year. This gives you little time to think about the potential doom looming just around the corner.
The gravity of the decisions to be made that night for coaches and GMs are life-changing for the individuals whose careers hang in the balance.
That night is a long and sleepless one for those who find themselves hanging by a thread. Some who believe they’ve found a home, a city, a team to call their own, may be asked to give it all up. Personally, sleep after a football game comes easy, even if the "turk" could be making a visit to your locker the following day.
I was going to bed that particular night in the home I had just purchased. I was relatively confident I would survive the final cut based off recent conversations with the linebacker coach, Don Martindale. He took the time to sit me down and tell me how much progress I had made at the middle linebacker position and that I could potentially vie for a starting job.
The Day of the Roster Cuts
The next day was scheduled to be a normal Friday practice, starting with a team meeting followed by the routine postgame film session in position meetings. Needless to say, the air of the entire building on that day was thick with tension, everyone making their best efforts to carry on as normal.
I really had no idea how and when the Raiders would orchestrate the process of informing those who would be cut.
Even for those who knew they were safe, those days were full of awkwardness and ambiguity. Although you may be thrilled and excited for your own stability and achievement, the understanding that many people with whom you have forged a friendship may be moving on is absolutely in the back of everyone’s mind.
Looking around the meeting room and seeing the group of linebackers present, I knew beyond a doubt I was looking at a number of guys who would no longer be a member of the Oakland Raiders within a matter of hours.
As I sat in the film session listening to Coach Martindale, I noticed a distinct difference in the way he was scrutinizing my technique and play in general. His body language was strange as he broke me down on film; he couldn’t get himself to look my way at any point during his observations.
At that moment, a terrible realization set in.
I then realized the high likelihood that I may be getting released from a team for the first time in my life. My heart started to pound out of my chest as my sweat glands immediately activated. The entire meeting faded out, and I sunk deep into a strange realm. Fear of losing everything I had worked so hard for was now consuming every fiber of my body.
For the first time in my life, I had given of myself so completely to a goal.
The emotional process one goes through at this point is incomparably complex. Fear, sadness and anger compete for dominance, a hurricane of turbulent feelings rages within, while all you can muster up on the surface is a calm, expressionless face.
When the meeting ended, we were sent back to our lockers to prepare for practice on the field.
I never made it that far. I was approached by an office intern who I’d never seen and was asked to follow him upstairs. At that moment, my knees wanted to buckle.
He led me into the elevator and down the hall towards business offices of the facility, far removed from the player’s area and seldom seen by members of the team.
We entered a smallish office with a table, which was where I waited. Ironically, this room was the very place where I signed my first contract in the NFL.
A gray-haired older man who I also didn’t recognize walked in and told me the Raiders are letting me go. He passed me a paper to sign, its contents I don’t recall. I was in a dream-like state trying to process everything and robotically signed the paper.
They then instructed me to go down to the training room to get cleared by the medical staff before leaving. This was so the organization could prove I was healthy and without injury at the time of my release. I thought about trying to get a settlement for the neck injury I'd kept under wraps the whole time for fear of losing my job, but decided against it.
On my way to the training room, I had a strong desire to avoid anyone who would try to talk to me.
Along the way, a few members of the equipment room and office staff went out of their way to tell me how shocked they were that this was happening. I thanked them, but at the same time I couldn't have cared less. I just needed to escape the premises as quickly as possible.
When I finished with the training staff, I saw that the locker room was full of guys getting ready for practice. I couldn’t get myself to go in there and explain to everyone what had happened.
There was a good chance that that type of farewell to my teammates, who I had gotten to know over the course of nearly two years, would cause me to officially break down and lose it in front of everyone. So I just kept on walking to my car, leaving behind all of my belongings.
When I got in my car, I drove to a nearby park along a channel of water which divides the city of Alameda from Oakland. I could see the stadium. As I sat there, I realized I was going to have to make some terrible phone calls to my parents, my agent and the girl I was living with at that time.
When I called my father, who had been so proud of my accomplishments, I put up a pretty decent front, sounding somewhat positive about the situation and how this is all just a normal part of the business. I hated the obvious disappointment in his voice.
Inside, it was killing me. I was defeated and terribly devastated.
I stood at the banks of the water for a while, reflecting on everything that just happened—where I would go from there? I was also trying to allow the entirety of the situation to soak in.
I never shed a single tear that day.
In hindsight, it’s clear the Raiders organization handles that entire process very insensitively. I was never told a reason why I was cut. The head coach, Art Shell, didn’t even have the courtesy to speak to me at any point during the process. No visit from the GM, no word or goodbye from defensive coordinator Rob Ryan or Don Martindale.
Instead, I was released by two guys I had never seen before and sent on my way.
One of the things I regret the most from that day is not going back to my locker to take my helmet, which would have made for a fantastic historical keepsake for my family, but I was too emotionally compromised at the time to think rationally.
That night, when feeling sorry for myself had run its course, I escaped the disappointments of reality not by turning to the bottle, but by starting my franchise mode in the latest edition of Madden football...as the Oakland Raiders.
Playing as the Raiders in the video game allowed me, in some weird way, to feel connected to it all. I was a Raider for just a little longer, while knowing the backstory and true nature of every person I digitally controlled.
In this world, I could indulge in the fantasy where Ryan Riddle was still able to prove to the world what he could do as a member of the Oakland Raiders. As far as the game was concerned, I was still a proud member of Raider Nation.