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Undrafted but Undeterred: What I Learned from My First Year in the NFL

Thomas RawlsContributor IJuly 28, 2016

Seattle Seahawks running back Thomas Rawls before an NFL football game against the Pittsburgh Steelers, Sunday, Nov. 29, 2015, in Seattle. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)
Ted S. Warren/Associated Press

The following is a first-person narrative from former undrafted free-agent running back Thomas Rawls, who is entering his second year with the Seattle Seahawks, as told to Bleacher Report's Gary Davenport. 

 

"If you put the ball in my hands, I'll bet I make you smile."

It's what I told my coaches during the preseason last year. It's what I knew I was capable of. All I needed was the opportunity to show them. To show my teammates with the Seattle Seahawks. To show everyone.

If there's one word I think best describes my running style, it's "tenacious." I try to be versatile in the backfield. I can cut back, juke, run you overI try to be a complete back.

Tenacious is also a word I'd use to describe myself as a person. I'm not going to give up. I'm not easily broken. It's how I got this far. How I went from recruit at Michigan to running back at Central Michigan to undrafted free agent to starting tailback for one of the best teams in the National Football League.

And I'm going to use that tenacity to bounce back from injury and show in 2016 that not only does this undrafted free agent belong in the league but that I can be the best running back in the NFL.

As a kid growing up playing a game that you love, you have a vision of one day hearing your name called and walking across the stage at the NFL draft. You dream about it.

And leading up to the 2015 draft I was confident it would happen. When I went to the NFL Scouting Combine I thought I did pretty well [4.65 second 40, 15 bench press reps, 35.5" vertical], and looking at the other backs in the draft I knew in my heart that there wasn't a better competitor out there. That I could do some things the others couldn't.

David J. Phillip/Associated Press

I wasn't sure when, but I was looking forward to that call. When it got to the sixth round, though, I realized, "Hey, I might not get drafted."

Rather than be disappointed, however, I looked at it as a positive. The benefit of not being drafted was that I knew I could pick a team, and there were a lot of teams who had expressed interest in me during the draft process. I don't know why those teams didn't draft me, but the time for worrying about that had passed.

I got calls from most of the NFL. Many were teams I had visited—teams I thought were highly interested in drafting me. But I figured if they wanted me, they should have drafted me.

I was weighing my options when Coach Carroll called. We talked, and then I called him back because I wanted to clear up some things and make sure I was making the right decision.

One of the things Coach Carroll told me, and one of the reasons I chose Seattle, was the way they view undrafted free agents. A lot of guys have made the team there as UDFAs. The Seahawks give people a chance to really show what they can do. To prove themselves on the field. That's all I wanted, and I knew it's all that I would need.

I also looked at the roster. I knew Marshawn Lynch was there and that he'd been one of the NFL's best running backs for a decade. But before I ever hit the practice field, I told myself, "I don't know when I'm going to see the field, but one daysooner or laterI'm going to play on Sundays."

Personally, I looked at Doug Baldwin as an inspiration of sorts. He made the team as an undrafted free agent in 2011, and last year, he tied for the NFL lead with 14 touchdown catches. I figured if I could get the same opportunity he did that I would make the most of it.

It says a lot about the Seahawks as an organization that they do that. They don't care what round you were drafted in or if you were drafted at all. All they care about is what you can do to help this team win. Are you competing? Do you have grit? Are you exceptional?

When I saw that I knew I was in the right place and that I would make the team. Not by worrying about Marshawn Lynch or by trying to be like him but by being the best running back and teammate Thomas Rawls can be. By treating every practice like a game. By working just as hard on Wednesday as I do on Sunday.

I get asked a lot about how veterans treat the rookiesespecially the undrafted ones. And it's true that some veterans warm up to you quicker than others. It's a brotherhood. But once you hit the field and show what you can do, the guys embrace you.

Veterans watch you practice. Watch you prepare. Watch you play. It's a matter of trust. They want to know that when the time comes for you to step up they can trust you. That motivated me a lot. Gave me that much more push. I didn't want to violate that trust.

I don't want to say my first big game [16 carries for 104 yards against the Chicago Bears in Week 3] was vindication for being passed over in the draft. I don't look at it that way. I know a lot of people don't count the preseason, but I do. And it meant a lot to me, because I competed out there. I had never played on special teams before, and I'll admit I'm not the best at it. But I went out, gave it my all and did my best for the team.

John Froschauer/Associated Press

Then the season got going and I'm standing on the sidelines thinking, "I know I can do this. I know I can." When that third game came, that's when the spotlight finally fell on me. But I approached that game the same as the preseason or practice. I may have surprised fans and y'all in the media, but I didn't surprise myself or my teammates.

My first touchdown [a 69-yarder in Week 5] was amazing. To go the distance on the biggest stage in footballand to do it as a rookie filling in for an all-time great like Marshawn, with my teammates cheering me on—it was a very gratifying moment that I'll never, ever forget.

Of course, the season didn't end how I hoped.

During the Baltimore game [Week 14], when I went down, I knew something was broken. But my mentality was to walk off the field. I'm not getting carted off the field...ever. No one, not fans or opponents, is ever going to see me down or weak. So I walked off that field on a broken ankle.

The rehab's going good. I'm running fast. Just taking it day by day. I know every day when I wake up I'm one day closer to my goal, which is to get back. I'm not participating in OTAs right now, but I'm doing some good things in my rehab. I'm putting as much work and time into it as I can now, and I'm happy where I'm at.

A lot has changed in my life over the past year. My name is out there with the fans and the media. There's a lot more attention. But I try as much as possible to block it out. I live right off the field [close to the facility]. I have great people around me and a great support system of family and friends. I'm just a simple guy who loves doing what I'm doing and doing it to perfection.

There are changes in the Seattle backfield too. We added some great young backs [C.J. Prosise, Alex Collins, Zac Brooks] in the draft, all of whom do different things well. They help to motivate me, but I also try to pass down certain things to them.

I tell them all the time that we aren't competing against each other. The organization may feel that way from a front-office standpoint, but I tell them we're competing against ourselves, trying to get better.

It's one of the things I took from playing with Marshawn. You have to be true to yourself. He and I have a similar mentality on how we approach the game. That dog mentality that I'm going to bring it to you every play. That you can't stop me.

Elaine Thompson/Associated Press

But the biggest thing I took from him was just to be yourself. There was a lot of talk during the season of "Beast Mode Jr." or "Beast Mode 2.0." I'm not Beast Mode. I'm Thomas Rawls. He wore 24. I wear 34. I don't have to do anything out of character. I don't have to be like him.

He told me that—told me to just be myself. He told me to just let the game come to you—and then take it. Take over the game. Finish the game 10 times harder than you started, and no matter how hard it is out there, make it look easy.

Marshawn was the premier guy on a premier team. I can't ever replace him, so there's no point in trying. I can only be myself.

I'm also lucky enough to play with one of the league's best quarterbacks in Russell Wilson. I remember the first time I was in the huddle with him I was so excited: As I'm looking at him I'm, not even hearing the play, and he's just so...calm.

I don't know if all quarterbacks are like this, but he's incredibly smart. He knows what everyone is doing. He knows where you have to be, the other guys' routes, the protections, this and that—all the while checking the defense...and through it all he's so calm.

He's going to fight for his team to the end. He plays with great passion and he's a great leader. He's just the ideal quarterback—the ideal leader. You couldn't ask for more. It's a privilege to play with him.

I could say the same about all my teammates. There's something different about the Seahawks. The characters we have. The level of aggression. The competitiveness and grit. It's a special group of guys. A premier team destined for greatness. I want to be part of that. I want a ring.

I have personal goals, too. First and foremost, I want to finish the season healthy. As a running back, a lot of guys want to win a rushing title. Prove themselves by outrushing guys. And I'm competitive. So I want to win the rushing title—and I want to do it now.

But the ultimate goal is to win a Super Bowl. I didn't get to play in the postseason last year, and it hurt to not be out there with my teammates.

John Froschauer/Associated Press

I get asked often if I think about my second contract. And I can't promise that when we get closer to that day I won't, but my father always told me, "Son, don't ever chase the money. The money will be there. Opportunity won't."

So right now, it's about enjoying the journey. Taking one step at a time and taking full advantage of the opportunity I've been given. This is a special time. It's why every day I have to get better. Get the ankle better. Make sure I'm branding myself the right way.

I'd offer the same advice to any young player who finds themselves where I was a year ago. It doesn't matter where you are drafted. The critics and analysts aren't always right. It isn't about proving doubters wrong. It's about proving yourself right. Showing the world you deserve to be out there. So work hard, enjoy the journey, be positive and the rest will take care of itself.

I know with Marshawn gone, some fans worry. All I can say is don't. When I'm in the backfield, I'm going to give it all I've got. Try to lead by example. Make good choices on and off the field.

I may not know why I wasn't drafted last year. But this I do know: I'm going to bring everything I have to the table for the Seattle Seahawks in 2016.

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