Former defensive back Matt Bowen gives you an inside view at the life of a free agent on the NFL workout circuit looking for a job in the league.
I finally picked up my cell phone around 9:15 in the morning on a Tuesday back in 2001.
Three missed calls. And all of them were from Rams Park.
I was out late the night before playing bartender at a charity event in suburban St. Louis. Pour some drinks, smile, laugh. You know, fun stuff.
At that time, I was already on injured reserve after breaking my foot in the season opener out in Philadelphia at the Vet. Blocking on punt return, I stepped on one of those seams in the turf. My foot rolled over and I was in surgery the next day.
First game. That’s it. You’re done. See ya.
The Rams put me on IR immediately and my routine went from practice, meetings and game prep to rehab once the cast came off. Show up everyday, work in the pool, get ice, stim [muscle stimulation] and do it all over again the next day.
And when you’re hurt in the NFL, you become a ghost.
Hey, that’s normal. If you aren’t available to impact the game plan on offense, defense or special teams, then get out of the way.
But why, then, did I have three voice mails from defensive coordinator Lovie Smith asking me “to come in and talk” on a Tuesday?
Oh man, they got me.
The previous week, the Rams training staff asked me to go work out on the field for the first time since the injury. And to be honest, I didn’t think twice about it as a naïve player in my second season in the NFL.
Work out? Sure, why not?
Bad move, kid.
After I showed the trainers that I could run, cut, jump and backpedal through a half-speed workout, I was viewed as a “healthy” player.
And that meant they could cut me loose.
Now in full panic mode at my apartment in Chesterfield, Mo., I scrambled to find a pair of sweats, shoes, a jacket and a hat.
I looked like a guy who had been out drinking beer until the middle of the night, but I was already late to my own funeral with the Rams.
I jumped in my truck, headed east toward Rams Park and arrived in the parking lot around 9:45. When I walked in the building, it was quiet and the secretary at the front desk told me Lovie was waiting for me upstairs.
The jig was up. Everyone knew it. I was toast.
I tried to be as professional as I could with Lovie because I respected the heck out of him as a coach and a leader, but I had questions.
Why cut me? I’m not even on the active roster.
Lovie gave me some standard answers that every coach has in their back pocket when they let a guy go. You know, company lines that are meant to make a guy feel better while his heart is being ripped out.
I was crushed—and now I didn’t have a job.
Setting Up the Workout Circuit
I called my old man at work and told him I was done with the Rams. It was tough. And no one wants to tell their daddy they were just fired.
Crying, swearing, all of that because I had worked my ass off to make the team during training camp. And this was a good football team with Kurt Warner, Marshall Faulk and all of those big names. A team that was going places.
Heck, I wanted to be a part of that. I really did. And I was scared that I would be out of the league for good. You think about that as a young player when you get whacked.
My next call went to my agent, Jack Bechta, out in San Diego.
Jack calmed me down and went to work right away. He contacted teams and brought me up to speed on the waiver process. Within the next 24 hours, a team could claim my rights.
We thought that was a possibility because Al Davis loved guys who could run. You run a 4.4-second 40-yard dash? Well, then the Raiders would show some interest in you back then.
But after 24 hours, all we heard were crickets. I went unclaimed and was now just a street free agent looking for a job.
I started working out at a local gym in the St. Louis area and even did box jumps on my bedroom dresser. I had to get creative without the weight room at Rams Park, and I needed to stay in shape for possible workouts with teams.
Jack set me up with a schedule of workouts, starting in Green Bay and then heading west to Arizona, San Francisco and Seattle before coming back home.
Within a week, I packed a duffel bag with sweats and cleats, locked the door to my apartment and jumped in a cab headed to Lambert Airport.
Time to go find a job.
When I started showing up at team facilities, none of the players wanted to talk with me—and I don’t blame them.
I was an outsider, an NFL outcast, a man without a job.
And to get one of those jobs, one of these 53 spots on the active roster, someone in that locker room would have to be replaced.
A player isn’t going to make a team based on a workout during the season. These clubs already have your workout numbers from the combine and have studied your game tape from the NFL.
Instead, these workouts are done to see what type of shape you are in and to find out if you are healthy. For me, that meant running and getting X-rays of my foot at every stop.
Some teams have you run through the entire combine process again, while others will put you through a series of position-specific drills.
In Green Bay, I did everything from the combine workout to defensive backs drills and simulated situations that tried to replicate covering a kick in the indoor facility across the street from Lambeau Field.
But by the time I got all the way up to Seattle at the end of the week (after working out for the 49ers earlier that afternoon), I was gassed. My legs were sore, my foot was on fire and my hamstrings were tight.
I went through another workout with the Seahawks on a cold, gray, rainy afternoon and then headed back to the airport.
It was time to go home. At least, that’s what I thought before Jack called me.
He had set up another workout—for the next morning—in New England.
Because of the quick turnaround, the Patriots got me a first-class seat on a red-eye flight that would arrive in Providence around six in the morning with a workout scheduled at 7:30 a.m.
Jack altered my flight info and I changed gates in Seattle to settle in for the six-hour flight back east.
I got about three hours of sleep and rolled into Providence. The Patriots sent someone to pick me up, and he dropped me off at a hotel to grab another hour of sleep before the workout.
I mean, I looked like hell and felt like it too. I was out of clean clothes, hungry and extremely tired. I closed my eyes for 20 minutes and then went down to the lobby.
Time to run again.
Pioli, Belichick and the Patriots
I felt confident about my chances of signing with the Patriots because of my college coach at Iowa, Kirk Ferentz, and his relationship with both Bill Belichick and Scott Pioli.
Just run and look healthy. That was my goal.
First, I had to head to downtown Boston and get X-rays at Massachusetts General. Standard stuff there. Get the scan and then head back to the facility where I worked out on field next to the old Foxborough Stadium with Pioli, Belichick and scouts watching me backpedal, chase the deep ball and go through footwork drills.
I would be covering kicks for the Patriots. That's it. But this was an opportunity for me to get back in the league.
And I wanted it.
After the workout, I showered up, talked to Jack and expected to sign a contract with the Patriots. But that changed once I got into Pioli’s office.
I failed the physical.
My foot wasn’t completely healed according to their medical staff, and Pioli told me he couldn’t add a player who was hurt.
I was jobless—again.
Oh, and the Patriots went on to win the Super Bowl that year.
Mike Sherman and the Packers
Two weeks passed after that with no calls and no workouts. I continued to lift and run back in St. Louis while monitoring the Sunday games for injuries. But I was miserable and lonely.
Now, I didn’t want to see a safety blow out a knee; however, a pulled hamstring, a sprained ankle? I needed a chance, an opportunity.
And that happened up in Green Bay when LeRoy Butler went down.
I remember sitting on my couch watching the Yankees and Diamondbacks play in the World Series when Packers head coach Mike Sherman called me on my cell phone.
My heart almost stopped when he said they were going to sign me and let me work my way back for a couple of weeks before I dressed for Sundays.
I was back in.
Once I got off the phone with Coach Sherman, I called my buddy who worked at Mayflower to set up a truck to come get my stuff in St. Louis and drag it to storage somewhere. I packed some clothes and a couple of suits in garbage bags and hit the road.
I-55 north to Glen Ellyn, Ill., for a quick dinner at my parents' house before I was back on the road to Green Bay in the dark. I checked into the Hilton Garden Inn down the street from Lambeau around midnight and practiced the next day with the Packers.
Play with Brett Favre? I'll take it.
Back in St. Louis Again
My first time back in the dome down in St. Louis was with the Packers during the NFC Divisional Playoffs that season.
I talked with coach Mike Martz, Lovie and my former teammates before the game. And it was cool to be back and see those guys again.
The game itself? The Rams blasted us 45-17. Favre threw six picks and we couldn’t do anything against Warner, Faulk, Bruce, etc. The Rams started their run to the Super Bowl, and we went home for the offseason.
That season took a toll on my body. At the time of the playoffs, my weight had dropped to almost under 190 pounds. Skinny, frail and weak. Worn down, really.
My furniture from St. Louis was in some storage shed on the south side of Chicago, and all I wanted to do was relax.
I had signed a two-year deal with the Packers, so I found an apartment in De Pere, Wis., for $600 dollars a month and started lifting again two weeks after the season ended.
The next season I felt comfortable in the Packers system, started six games and then signed a four-year deal with the Washington Redskins to go play safety for Steve Spurrier in the offseason.
I’m glad I went through the workout circuit as a young player because it taught me about the business side of the NFL and how important is to take advantage of the limited opportunity you get as a pro ball player.
And it is truly a humbling experience when you are one of the guys "on the street" looking for a job in the NFL.
Seven-year NFL veteran Matt Bowen is an NFL National Lead Writer for Bleacher Report.
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