We all read about those big-name free agents signing multimillion-dollar contracts and stealing all the headlines. We hear about owners putting on the full-court press with private jets and luxury dinners. Heck, we even see the smiles on those players' faces while they hold up their team jerseys, gleaming with pride as they enter a chapter of a now cushy life of NFL privilege.
But what’s it like for the other half of the free-agent hopefuls looking to find a new home in the NFL?
This is an inside look at the “free agency” most people never hear about, and most certainly the “free agency” nobody thinks about.
At the end of my second year in the NFL, I was a member of the New York Jets during the debut season of head coach Eric Mangini until being suddenly ushered into the office by general manager Mike Tannenbaum. The Jets had just clinched a playoff berth, and they cut me to bring a fullback up from the practice squad for matchup reasons. Tannenbaum sat me down to explain I was the odd man out because of my expendable impact on special teams.
It’s an odd feeling having to sit in an office and listen to reasons why you’re no longer going to be a member of the Jets just before Christmas. There was not a lot of outward emotion from either side, but on the inside my heart was racing with calamity.
The Jets’ plan, according to Tannenbaum, was to re-sign me after the season concluded. Tannenbaum told me Mangini was still very much interested in my ability to complete the conversion from playing defensive end in college to inside linebacker in the NFL.
Mangini had interest in sending me to NFL Europe to gain some valuable experience at the position and return before training camp to compete next season for a roster spot.
I told Mr. Tannenbaum that using me exclusively as a middle linebacker would be a waste of my greatest asset as a pass-rusher. I asked him if returning would also include an opportunity to rush the passer on third downs. He wasn’t sure about the answer to the question or a few other things, so he set up a follow-up meeting back in the office the next day to discuss some details of the plan moving forward.
That day, after I cleared waivers, my release forced me into the free-agent market, where the Jets believed there was little risk of losing my services. Within hours, the general manager of the Atlanta Falcons, Rich McKay, called my agent looking to sign me.
My agent set up a phone conversation where McKay exuberantly expressed his excitement to have me on the Falcons. After being kicked to the curb by two teams in less than a year, I must admit, it really was nice to feel wanted by someone.
As I sat in my rented New York house on the phone with McKay, he spoke right to my heart on numerous topics, one being the way the Falcons intended to use me in their 4-3 defense. His vision including playing me on special teams and as a pass-rush specialist on passing downs. He also reassured me they weren’t concerned about my lack of size for a defensive end.
At 6’2” and 250 pounds, most teams have little interest in you at defensive end. This was also a few years before the 3-4 defense really took over the league, so there were fewer options available for “tweeners” like myself at that time.
Needless to say, McKay had sold me. I let both McKay and my agent know that I was ready to hop on a plane and sign a contract with the Atlanta Falcons. Once this became the decision, I never showed up to that meeting with Mike Tannenbaum.
Later on that night my agent told me that Tannenbaum had called him pissed off that I planned to jet to Atlanta. He told my agent he would remember this the next time they had to negotiate a player’s contract and that he basically had made an enemy with the Jets.
Of course, those hurt feelings would’ve easily been remedied the second my agent represented a client the Jets really wanted. As for me, it was safe to say my bridge with the organization had been burned.
To this day I still find it interesting that Tannebaum could actually justify expressing anger to the man he just fired days before Christmas. There seemed to be an aura of privilege and arrogance, so blinding and all-consuming that the guy couldn’t even understand the devastating effect his decisions have on the lives of others.
But at the time I didn’t care much about what Tannenbaum thought of my decision; if he really wanted me, he wouldn’t have released me. I was bitter the Jets released me so late in the season and stripped me of an opportunity to play in my first playoff game.
I flew into Atlanta for a physical and to sign my contract sometime shortly after my conversation with Rich over the phone. I was greeted at the airport by an intern waiting for about six other guys arriving for the same reasons. I had no idea this was a group event.
After taking our physicals at a local hospital, it was off to the Falcons' facilities, where team officials ushered us into a conference room with a large, wooden table, capable of seating over 30 people. We had to sit and wait around while executives in another room made last-minute decisions on whether to offer a contract to the players in the room. One of the determining factors was the pending results of the physicals we had just completed hours earlier.
Finally, after one of the longest waits ever, they brought out contracts for certain guys, while sending others back to the airport empty-handed. I was one of the lucky ones sitting down at the table to sign the contract. As mere formality, a copy of the contract was also faxed to my agent so he could look things over before signing.
When you’re an unproven guy like myself, there’s very little to negotiate in regard to contract numbers. You take what you can get and shut up, which is basically the standard league minimum contract with no customized language whatsoever.
An interest element to the timing of all this was that the Atlanta Falcons didn’t even have a head coach after recently firing Jim L. Mora. I suppose I should have recognized this situation to be more unstable than I did.
Sometime around March it was time to ship my entire life over to Atlanta. This included two dogs, two cats and a girlfriend I lived with at the time.
This is the NFL life few people ever think about. There are quite a few stressful challenges ahead when trying to bring almost everything you own in terms of clothing and personal items across the entire country. Then throw in four animals on top of that.
Because of the dogs and cats, it was nearly impossible to book a hotel that would take us, so we ended up staying in a cabin-type building, commonly used for vacationing on some swampy-looking lake within decent driving distance of the facility.
We used the free time after offseason workouts to survey the territory and seek out a place to call home. Coming from California, I was blown away by how cheap the housing market was in Georgia. It seemed reasonable to purchase something simple as an investment rather than throw money into the trash every month on rent. Besides, there weren’t many places willing to rent to dogs, and I did sign a two-year contract.
After shopping for a home for a couple of weeks, we finally decided on a place and finalized the deal. During that time, the Falcons named their head coach; it was the now-infamous Bobby Petrino, who eventually ditched the team before the season even finished.
Shortly after I purchased a house in Atlanta, my agent called to inform me that the Falcons had released me. Apparently I didn’t fit in with the philosophy Petrino and defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer sought to implement. They wanted speedy linebackers and defensive linemen with the size to play every down. This clearly meant I would not fit in Atlanta. I suddenly became a man with a brand new home and no team.
From the perspective of the fan, free agency can be a fun and exciting time hoping for your favorite team to reel in big-name tickets. It can also be a wonderful experience for the lucky few players who get to experience the thrills of a bidding tug-of-war for your services.
But for guys like me, free agency is just another stressful time when life flips upside down and the next destination is yet to be determined. It’s a time when suitcases and moving trucks become your only certainty while the wear and tear of trying to physically prove your worth takes a deadening toll.
Unfortunately in the NFL, unwanted and uprooted are themes shared by the majority of free agents out there. If you play the game long enough, this fate becomes an inevitable truth.
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