It was about 9 p.m. when Josh Robinson decided to go for a run on Mississippi State's track last summer. He'd been training there, and the evening air offered some respite from Starkville's stifling August heat.
Two years prior, Robinson was working out at the same facility, on the cusp of his breakout season as a running back at MSU. But every team has a star, and in 2014, MSU's was quarterback Dak Prescott. Fans called the two juniors "Dakman and Robinson" as they led the Bulldogs to a 10-3 record.
"I was never the star at Mississippi State—never," says Robinson, who's undersized (5'9") but barrel-like. His other nickname was Bowling Ball. "Dak's the man. That's my dog. But shoot, I know if I would have gotten the ball more in certain situations…"
Robinson had the third-most rushing yards in the SEC in 2014, on substantially fewer carries than most of his peers.
Frustrated by what he perceived as a lack of opportunity, Robinson graduated early and declared for the 2015 draft, while Prescott stayed at MSU for his senior year. Robinson was picked up by the Indianapolis Colts in the sixth round and cut in the middle of the 2015 season after a preseason herniated disk in his neck hindered his production.
On the track that August day in 2016, he was trying to get back on the NFL's radar at the only place he knew how—his school. A few minutes after he started running, a member of the MSU athletics staff called campus police when they saw Robinson's BMW X6 on the track. Robinson was cited for trespassing before being escorted off the premises.
"They knew who I was," says Robinson, who initially alleged on social media that it was head coach Dan Mullen who called campus police, which school officials quickly denied.
Four days later, Prescott made his first NFL start, in a preseason game.
A boy inexplicably wearing a Batman costume is running down the hall of the Greenbrier Sports Performance Center, the athletics wing of the West Virginia resort just two years younger than America itself. Normally home to NFL training camps for teams like the New Orleans Saints and Houston Texans, for three weeks in April, the Greenbrier played host to the Spring League, a new developmental program where Robinson, among other so-called "NFL castoffs," was trying to find his way back onto a (paid) roster.
Robinson scoops up the kid and swings him around playfully. "You're Batman? You're Batman?!" he asks as the boy, nodding his head, dissolves into giggles. "Well, I'm Robin," he replies—a response belying the fact that, like everyone at the Spring League, he's hoping to finally be much more than a sidekick.
The Spring League is hardly the first NFL developmental program, and many expect it to be the next in a long line of now-defunct enterprises. The 1980s' United States Football League (which counted President Donald Trump among its owners), the massively hyped XFL and most recently the United Football League and the Fall Experimental Football League (FXFL) are its predecessors. Smaller leagues like the Gridiron Developmental Football League and the Rivals Professional Football League appear to have more staying power. But as with the Arena Football and Indoor Football leagues, for their players, the NFL often seems further away than ever.
Before arriving at Mississippi State, Robinson was a long way from realizing his NFL dreams. He had grown accustomed to fending for himself. The Bogalusa, Louisiana, native says he never had a relationship with his father and couldn't rely on his mother, who spent time in prison while he was growing up. "Everybody don't mean you good, not even your parents," he says now. When Robinson was 11, the grandmother who raised him died of a heart attack while they were getting ready for church.
After that, he bounced around between extended family and friends—some nights in high school, he slept in his car behind the bleachers. Football and baseball were his only constants. "My mom's come to one of my football games, ever—the high school championship," he says. "But who doesn't come to the championship?"
So the sacrifices required of players trying to earn their way back into the NFL have not been so daunting for Robinson. That, however, was not the case for some of other aspiring NFL players at The Greenbrier.
"It was humbling, for real," says 24-year-old, 345-pound guard Mitchell Bell, who came to the Spring League straight from a six-week stint on the IFL's Iowa Barnstormers. He spent the last two seasons with the Oakland Raiders, moving from the practice squad to the bench after getting picked up as an undrafted rookie in 2015. In the IFL, he says, "You get paid like $200 a game—my shoes cost like $400! I'm big, I can't go to Zara's."
"There does need to be a league where guys can go and get film, just to stay fresh and get in front of people, because there really isn't one now," says Devon Torrence, a 28-year-old cornerback who went to Ohio State and has spent the past few years chasing chances in baseball and football. "In some ways, the CFL is harder to get in than the NFL because they have to have so many Canadian guys. You've got Arena [football], but it's a different type of game and they don't pay that much."
Like the other players at the Spring League, Bell and Torrence have put their NFL aspirations in the hands of Brian Woods, the league's CEO. Woods, who began his football career as a high school quarterback, became a walk-on at Ole Miss and served a short-term appointment as a salary cap analyst in the Jets front office, is now single-minded in his determination to fill the D-League-sized gap in the football market. The FXFL was his first try, and now he's using what he learned from its failure to make the Spring League stick. Though he faces enormous and deserved skepticism (given the precedent), Woods is convinced that he's created the most efficient platform possible for fringe NFL-caliber players to reach the league with minimal investment.
"The FXFL model wasn't quite as sustainable as it needed to be," Woods says. The league involved partnering with minor league baseball clubs to use their stadiums—and to pay players. "If the NFL has conceptualized any kind of developmental league, it centers around having everybody at one location, over a shorter time frame."
Players at the Spring League are not paid but receive lodging and food for the duration of the three-week program. The promise? Consideration by NFL and CFL scouts, and enough game and practice film to continue their campaigns to get signed.
Players give all kinds of reasons for why they're not in the NFL, but only one to explain why they've come to West Virginia (an hour-and-a-half from the nearest regional airport): "For us journeymen, it's a great opportunity," says Torrence. "It's nice to see that somebody actually cares about guys like us, versus the first- or second-rounder who's always going to have a shot."
"I'm just happy to be out playing football again, and this is an opportunity to do that," said Anthony "Boobie" Dixon, 29, who's spent four seasons with the 49ers and two with the Bills. "There's no place I'd rather be—except, of course, on an NFL roster."
Pierre Warren, a 24-year-old corner who last played for the Saints, put it bluntly: "Everybody wants that last shot. Empty the barrel, dawg, empty the barrel."
The football fields are nestled between rolling hills with trees that haven't quite bloomed yet. The sun is out, and for a moment it seems like even absent common ground (a school or team), the players' shared motivation to get signed might translate into teamwork.
Inside the Greenbrier, film study is a reality check. Coach Terry Shea, who has worked for the Chiefs, Bears, Dolphins and Rams, is trying to convince the quarterbacks to focus on short completions—the only real option when you have two weeks to put together a functional offense.
"If you go three-and-out in an NFL preseason game, your offense is on the bench and you're on a bus back home," he tells them, all slouched nonchalantly over their Powerades.
During one play, a successful handoff halts because the running back goes the wrong direction, ignoring a gaping hole created for him by the offensive line. All the QB prospects groan.
"Is that Josh?" asks Shea. It is.
"Probably been watching his own highlights too much," says one of the quarterbacks under his breath.
Shea insists it's just "nervous vision."
Robinson, like everyone at the Spring League, is unequivocal when it comes to his conviction that he deserves to be in the NFL—which begs the question: Why did he get cut? Sure, he had an injury, but players come back from injury.
If you ask him, he'll cite a parable: "It's like when Peter walked on water," he says after practice, over mac and cheese at Applebee's. "As soon as he looked down, he was like, ‘Oh shoot, I'm on the water!' and fell right into it. You just can't lose focus, and I feel like I did when I came into the league. Lost focus a little bit."
"Josh was making some of the rookie mistakes you expect, fumbles and stuff," says Ahmad Bradshaw, who played for the Colts while Josh was a rookie—the Spring League was something of a reunion for the two running backs. Bradshaw explains that after 11 surgeries in nine years, he's just looking for a one-year deal to get to the NFL's maximum pension (which players receive after 10 years in the league). "I tried to tell him: As a rookie, you've just gotta absorb everything and play the role, which is hard when you're coming from being the big man on campus. You're not going to get those big flashy runs. You just gotta put your head down and do what they ask."
The stories of the Spring League are mostly ones of trial and error—something the NFL doesn't have much room for, especially once players reach a certain age. At 24, Robinson is still a viable option for an NFL team. Much older, though, and players are pretty much at the end of the line.
"Our core player is somewhere between 23 and 26, a younger, developmental guy who's been in a training camp or on a practice squad already," says Woods. "Because we wanted to get recognition as a league in our first year, we brought in some players who were a little bit older, who some might argue are past their prime."
Another consideration for teams is that if players have already spent time in the league, they're automatically in a higher pay bracket. "It's not personal, it's business," says wide receivers coach Robert Gordon. "If one's 27 or 28, and one's 22, you're gonna pick the 22-year-old."
NFL teams might not see much value in age or its accompanying wisdom, but there are certainly some lessons younger players can benefit from.
"You might have all the physicality and the stats, but if you listen, you pay attention—you'll get paid," says Quentin Saulsberry, a 28-year-old center who spent time on the Vikings and Broncos practice squads but wound up getting cut after a four-week PED suspension and a DUI.
After bouncing around the AFL and CFL, Saulsberry, who is married with two sons and another on the way, returned to Starkville (he's also an MSU alum) to work—first in a factory and then as a prison guard.
"You really start to see how people act when you confine them in four walls. … It's dark," he says.
Last year, he became a police officer. "You got high suicide rates in police officers, you got high suicide rates in life after football, so it's like, what the hell—six of one, half dozen the other, you know what I'm saying?"
The day Anthony Dixon (another Bulldog) called to tell him about the Spring League, Saulsberry had just come off a shift where he had to take care of a dead body.
"It did something to me because the guy was so young, 19 years old. It hit me: Man, life is too short," he said. "If you don't take advantage of the opportunities you have, those 'shoulda woulda couldas' end up with you, six feet under."
So he came to West Virginia for the Spring League, even though the last time he played football was 2014.
"This is an audition in every sense of the word," Woods tells the players the morning of the first game.
"Make it look like a real, organized football game," Shea adds—which would be a challenge even if they were playing on a field with two goalposts, or had gotten their rosters and jerseys more than 24 hours before the game. But eventually the rosters are sorted, and many pep talks ensue.
"Don't count your reps, make every rep count," Shea tells his team, despite the fact that they're only at the Spring League to get reps, not to win—that the reps they'll get (and film of them) are likely their last chance to make a career of the thing they've spent their entire lives working toward.
The pressure to perform, with so few opportunities, is intense and not unwarranted. "If I have to stare at the tape for a long time to see what's good, then it's not worth it,'' says a scout during the second game. "I'm looking for the people whose talent jumps out at you, and I've seen a few here."
For other players, the Spring League is already over. Within the first quarter of the first game, two offensive linemen were laid out—one on the sidelines with ice and one carted off the field. The league has supplementary insurance and partnerships with clinics that offer treatment gratis, but players were still instructed to bring their insurance cards to address more serious injuries. One attendee, who wanted to remain anonymous, says his agent had five or six guys who didn't attend because they didn't have their own insurance.
Chance of injury is also increased because many the players haven't trained at a pro-football level in a long time, sometimes years. "You can't get in game shape just running at home," says Gordon. "A lot of these guys were on practice squads or on the bench in the NFL, so, really, their last full games were in college."
During the second game, cornerback James Caine hops off the field on one foot.
"It's broken, man, it's broken," he says while getting looked at by trainers. At 27, Caine has two practices with the Eagles under his belt and some years in the IFL. Now, halfway through the league, he's being wheeled off the field.
"I knew I shouldn't have come," he says, his face twisting with pain before he buries it in his hands, crying. His ankle's broken, and in all likelihood, whatever small hope there was of a chance in the NFL is completely gone.
“We'd like to get somewhere in the ballpark of 20 percent of players being signed back to NFL or CFL clubs, preferably NFL, and then build on that number going forward,” says Woods of his ultimate goal for the league. 18 players out of the Spring League’s 105-person roster have already been invited to NFL minicamps, including Bell, who was invited to work out with the Panthers. The league also just announced a week-long program in July that will give players who went undrafted in this year a Spring League-esque chance to show their skills in front of scouts (and hopefully a few more fans, since it’s slated to take place in San Francisco).
Getting NFL recognition, as many thought had already happened when the league was first announced, is the next step. “I think by clubs sending their scouts here, [the NFL is] already showing me that they believe in this and that we have good enough talent ultimately to be officially aligned with the NFL,” Woods adds. According to Roger Goodell an official developmental league is something the NFL is “actively considering,” a position the league office reiterated (along with their non-affiliation to the Spring League) when Bleacher Report inquired for this story.
Josh Robinson insists he'll never need to find a job off the field—that if football doesn't pan out, he'll inevitably make it in baseball which he hasn't played since high school. He has a one-year-old daughter named Si, who he wants to be there for—but right now, he's still bouncing around, from staying with relatives in Louisiana to the gym where he trains outside Houston. After all, he's accustomed to not calling anyplace home.
Dak still looms large, as much as Robinson is loathe to admit it: "Dak deserves what he got! I just got to work to get to where he at," he says. "I will see him back in the NFL! He's gonna know when I'm there, and I'm gonna be talking to him the whole game. 'Hey Dak, you see me?' I'm gonna be turnt up. S--t, I have dreams about it." Then, he apologizes for swearing in front of me.
"Bet against me, I'll take all your money."
Natalie Weiner is a staff writer for B/R Mag.