The spotlight illuminates nearly 1,700 players in the NFL. Lurking in their shadows, two former college football stars now stand on the outside looking in.
From the outside, the NFL is glitz and glory. Love for the game is a common denominator among all those who watch or play football. But the dividing factor is the physical perils of a player, often preventing some from entering the NFL at all.
Life as a football fan is an embedded alternative.
Will Ebner, former Missouri linebacker, and Sean' Tray Bryson, former Missouri Western defensive lineman, both remember the moment they fell in love with football. Bryson developed his passion right when he began playing football in the seventh grade, while Ebner cites a specific instance during his sophomore year of high school: switching from quarterback to linebacker to combine physicality with instinct.
“It was when I realized that I was playing the game with everything I had on the field every game,” Ebner said.
Feeling outside pressure to pursue an NFL career, Ebner had to decide whether to cement football as the cornerstone of his life or to relegate it instead as one of many pillars.
Ebner ultimately opted not to declare for the 2013 NFL Draft following his redshirt senior season at Missouri. The physicality Ebner loves backfired over the course of his college career, one injury at a time during his Missouri career: a torn labrum as a freshman; mid-season knee surgery as a sophomore; playing the entire season with a broken bone in his foot as a junior; partially torn ligaments in ankle as a senior and hamstring and concussion issues as a redshirt senior.
“[By] no means am I mentioning these injuries as any form of excuse or plea for sympathy,” Ebner said, “but rather to allow others to understand why I was burned out and how a certain level of constant injuries, surgeries and nagging pains over time can take away from the most important aspect of the game—having fun, and enjoying the game with people you love.”
Luckily for Ebner, loving football is a non-cut sport. Being a football fan doesn’t have a shelf life.
For other college players, though, like Bryson, sitting on the sidelines wasn’t a choice.
Bryson played Division II football at Missouri Western for four years as a defensive lineman. After losing in the playoffs at the beginning of December last year, he began cutting weight and ultimately lost 48 pounds by the time of his NFL Pro Day, which took place March 22, 2013, at Missouri Western.
Bryson’s physical discrepancies manifested differently than Ebner’s and produced the same outcome: Bryson did not make an NFL roster. While Bryson believes he had a fair shot, he admits that circumstances hinder the opportunity for some at the Division II level.
“There is a lot of hidden talent at the D-II level that doesn't get the chance to shine and how well they can play the game isn’t always seen since we are definitely overshadow[ed] by the D-I level athletes.”
However, despite falling short of the NFL, Bryson has shifted his focus back to what motivated him to make it in the NFL in the first place.
Graduating with a degree in Criminal Justice with an emphasis in Law Enforcement, Bryson plans to commit to drug prevention, which was prevalent all around him growing up. Bryson believes football taught him characteristics he can carry with him into his new career path.
From chasing down quarterbacks to cornering crime, Bryson will always love the NFL, “I watch the NFL as a fan. That will never change."
Ebner shares the same sentiment as Bryson, piggybacking his respect for the game that taught him so much with his other passions.
Now back in his hometown Houston, Ebner fishes, hunts, and is interviewing at companies within the oil and gas industry. Sometimes, he admits, seeing former teammates on NFL rosters presents looming what-ifs, but Ebner, like Bryson, is content with his football career in the rearview.
If Bryson could play in the NFL, he would want to take the field for the Kansas City Chiefs as a defensive lineman. Ebner grew up adoring the Houston Oilers, Tennessee Titans and Houston Texans.
Those teams, and football, will always be there to watch, love and appreciate.
“Regardless of my decision not to pursue the NFL, I still love the game of football like I always have,” Ebner said, “whether that is watching a high school game or an NFL game, and I really appreciate the hard work that the players and coaches put in. Those things will never change.”
All quotes were obtained via personal interviews conducted by the writer. You can follow Megan on Twitter at @meganKarmstrong.