At the risk of being tackled by one of my readers, I have a confession to make:
Football is not the air I breathe. I do not like the smell of dirt in the morning*. I [hangs his head in shame] switched back and forth between the Minnesota Twins doubleheader against the Chicago White Sox and the Minnesota Vikings preseason opener on August 9.
(*Yes, by the way, I did steal the first two lines from the Xbox Live Arcade version of NFL Blitz. I’m not original. Sue me.)
Make no mistake: Once the regular season games start, I’m glued to my television on Sundays (Mondays and Thursdays…or if Roger Goodell goes to a 48-game schedule: every Sunday, Monday and Thursday) and loving every minute of it.
Still, it takes me a little time to ease into football.
Usually, the leaves have to change color, there has to be a little bit of chill in the air and, out here in Minnesota, a random snowfall that turns otherwise decent traffic in the Twin Cities to Los Angeles-level agony before it really feels like football season.
One way I like to ease into the madness is to follow one player during the preseason.
It started back when I saw my first Vikings training camp. Randy Moss was wearing No. 18, Korey Stringer was still on the team and the Y2K bug had yet to infect computers.
I remember two random dudes in purple uniforms walked past a crowd eagerly awaiting autographs from Cris Carter, Robert Smith, et cetera and somebody shouted out, “Are you guys Vikings?”
The two men looked at each other, smiled and deadpanned, “No, we’re not” before walking into the training facility.
Later I found out that they were, in fact, Vikings…at least for the first couple preseason games.
I felt kind of bad for those guys, so ever since then I’ve tried to follow the journey of somebody that is trying to make the team.
Ian Johnson was one of my favorites. He is the Boise State player who proposed to his cheerleader girlfriend after scoring the go-ahead two-point conversion over Oklahoma in the 2007 Fiesta Bowl to complete a perfect season for the Broncos.
Johnson joined the Vikings as an undrafted free agent in 2009 and was gone by 2010. He bounced around from team to team and has been a free agent since 2011.
Like Johnson, many of these guys I followed have come and gone, but I got a good feeling about my guy this year.
His name is Zach Line. He was a natural choice because he is being profiled by Jenny Vrentas on Sports Illustrated’s Monday Morning Quarterback spinoff website.
So far there have been three installments: A piece outlining the project, basically saying that they will stick with Line all season long—no matter where he goes. There is the generic “every rep is important” piece. And then, bam, Line scores a 61-yard touchdown on his first touch against the Houston Texans and, of course, MMQB is there to profile it.
The run seemingly came out of nowhere. For starters, Line is a fullback, not a running back, and his duties fall more under the “blocking” category. Even the announcers seemed shocked.
They were prattling on about who would make the team and what to expect from the Vikings next season when, all of a sudden, one of them is like, “Oh, by the way, Zach Line has broken through the secondary.”
Let’s not forget, this is preseason football and the touchdown doesn’t really count for much, but still it was a cool moment.
“High up in the upper bowl, it all seemed to take place in slow motion,” writes Vrentas. “Vikings’ ball, second-and-5 on their own 39. Line took a free release, and ran into the flat. Backup quarterback Matt Cassel threw him a short pass, about seven yards in the air, and then Line turned upfield.
“The former Southern Methodist running back kept going. His parents clenched their fists.”
This is why it’s fun to follow one guy; it humanizes the game. In the grand scheme of things, the touchdown may not matter. Line might still get cut. Matt Cassel, the backup (we think) threw him the ball. He did slip past D.J. Salinger, a second round pick, at the line of scrimmage, but after that the only guy he had to beat one-on-one was undrafted Eddie Pleasant who made the team last season.
It was exciting, though, because in that moment I did my best to see the catch through his lens. For a brief second I thought about how his parents, who were attending the game in the Metrodome’s nosebleeds, must have viewed it.
“Joe and Kathy looked at each other, mouths wide open, their faces paralyzed in disbelief,” continues Vrentas. “They high-fived. Joe turned toward the field, both arms raised triumphantly in the air. Kathy, who had already cried during the national anthem, dabbed the corners of her eyes with her fingers.”
Nobody should be surprised that Line is capable of making a big play. He rushed for 4,185 yards at Southern Methodist University, the second highest total in school history behind Eric Dickerson (you know, the one who holds the NFL record Adrian Peterson almost beat…at least he did get that orange peanut).
“Line expected to be drafted, and with good reason,” reports Vrentas.
“An assistant coach from one AFC team called him during the fifth round, telling him he would be their next pick. They selected a lineman instead. The same coach called back in the sixth round, telling him the same thing. Nope, another lineman. In the seventh round, the team passed on Line yet again—this time for a different running back.”
He was a tailback in college, however, and if he is going to make it in the NFL, he is going to have to be a fullback. That means that he’ll have to do the dirty work—study the playbook, square up against the league’s best defenders—and then, maybe just maybe, he’ll get a screen pass and take it to the house.
That’s why I didn’t want to overreact to the catch when writing this piece. He needs to show more in the preseason to get a spot on the team. Incumbent fullback Jerome Felton was a Pro-Bowler last season, but he was also considered the most overpaid player in football according to Forbes so it’s possible that the Vikings hold on to Line.
The Vikings' protection, in general, looked brutal against the Buffalo Bills in the second preseason game so it’s hard to pin that on Line. Buffalo prepared to actually win the game while Minnesota was more interested in breaking in the starters and giving the depth guys a chance to fight for a roster spot (because, you know, that’s normally what you do in the preseason).
Maybe Buffalo thought the game counted, I don’t know.
The next two games will tell us a lot about Line. He is unlikely to have another crazy touchdown catch, but it’s worth seeing if he picks up blitzes, creates holes and continues to have soft hands.
Time will tell if he sticks around, but right now he’s deserving of a chance.
Tom Schreier covers Minnesota sports for Bleacher Report and is a contributor to Yahoo! Sports.
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