The stands are empty. At home, most televisions are off. The announcers are building up regular-season narratives for the remaining viewers. The camera is zoomed in on the starting quarterback, who’s laughing and spitting sunflower seeds.
It’s the last preseason game of the year, and it looks like fun. Some guys don’t suit up at all. Baseball cap, Gatorade, sweatpants; aw shucks. Let’s stay healthy and get ready for week one.
But pacing back and forth over piles of sunflower shells are members of the team who are just trying to survive the final cuts. This week, NFL teams brought their rosters down to 75 from 90. And by this weekend, it’ll be 53: the final roster will be set. If you have a chair to sit in on Monday, then you can exhale.
Every football player subconsciously knows that his days are numbered. “It’s a business”, every NFL coach says. The threat of being fired is always hung over the players on the field and in the meeting rooms. Coaches’ criticism builds and builds until your lifelong dream pops.
The contradiction between the “business” that coaches assure you football is, and the game you love that has nothing to do with business, underscores the final week of the preseason. Agents, contracts, combines, meetings, mini-camps, reporters, interviews.
But the business part is over for now. There are 12 minutes left in the game. I’ve been sitting on the bench all preseason. Every practice I am splitting reps with other tight ends. The top two guys take most of the reps. They’re only going to keep three of us. They cut John after the last game. I really thought they liked John, too. He worked really hard. But he dropped a ball in the game and missed a block and the running back got blown up. Next day he was gone.
Last night in our offensive meeting, all of the starters were excused and all of us bubble guys stayed put and went over the game plan for the game. Sitting there while all of the starters filed out of the room laughing and joking, I felt like a failure just for being on the bubble. When I made it to the NFL I believed I would be a star. But I wasn’t even close.
My heart was beating out of my chest and my palms were sweaty. So much tension in that room. Most of us knew this was our last night. At the end of the meeting our offensive coordinator laid it out to us like this:
“Okay, guys. This week is hard for everyone. There are some great football players in this room, but as we all know, we can’t keep everyone. I wish we could. I really do. You guys have busted your asses for us. But it’s part of this business. And if you’re not one of the guys who makes this team, don’t get discouraged. We brought you here for a reason. Shit, every single one of you guys in this room can play in this league. I truly believe that. And remember, tomorrow night, when you get out on that field, leave it all out there. Everyone else is watching those tapes. Not just us. Every play is a job interview for 31 other companies. So put it on tape, boys. Put it on tape. The eye in the sky don’t lie. That tape lasts forever.”
His words are bouncing around inside my helmet as I pace the sidelines. I’d like to be in the game catching passes right now, but I’m not. I’m waiting. I know all my assignments. I’ve studied that damn playbook every night. But I know I’m not part of the offensive plans. If I have any chance of making this team, its going to be on special teams. Starters make up less than half of the roster. The rest play special teams. No one rides the bench once the season starts. Only 45 men suit up on game day; every one of them is contributing.
“Second team kickoff return! You guys are up! Let’s go!” That’s me. I’m on second team kickoff return, and second team everything else. All of the “Big Four” special teams units. Kickoff, kickoff return, punt, punt return. Kickoffs and kick returns are all but pointless with the ball being moved up five yards. But you never know. You can usually tell by the sound as it pops off his foot whether its a good kick or a bad one, hence whether or not it’ll be returned.
I take my place on the right hash around midfield and size up my man out of the corner of my eye. It’s a “middle return,” so I block the fourth man in from the right sideline. He’s just like me. All of us on the field are just like me. We all heard the same speech last night. We’re all on the bubble. Most of us are all but gone. So how do I do myself justice here? How do I leave it all on the field, like coach said? I don’t want to leave anything here, because I don’t want this to be over.
The ball pops off the kicker’s foot. It’s a weak kick. I turn and sprint back to the 30-yard line, drop my hips and turn to face the charge. My man is coming down the field. It’s the first action he has seen all game, and he’s determined to make it count. He needs to make this play. But this manic need to put it all together for this moment puts him out of his mind; he’s unaware I’m sizing him up out of the corner of my eye while I pretend to stare down the man next to him. His eyes widen in anticipation of making the tackle that will save his spot on the team. I turn on him and crack his chin with the crown of my helmet. He hits the ground with a thud. The whistle blows. He’s getting cut for sure. And I still might be too.
The next day, sitting and waiting by the phone, I can’t help but feel again like I’ve failed. I wanted to be a starter. Even if I make the team, that’s not going to happen.
This is the sorry conversation that went on in my head every year, from 8 am to noon on the day after the last preseason game, when they tell you to stay by your phone. I was always on the bubble. Always one mistake away. Lying on the floor, looking up at the ceiling, adding up the numbers, cataloguing the memories, dwelling on every missed block, every dropped pass, every glance from the head coach.
My phone rings. I know the number. “Nate, we’re gonna need you to come into the facility. And bring your playbook.” And bring your playbook. That’s the eulogy.
When I get to the facility, everyone is sitting in the hall outside the general manager’s office, waiting their turn to hear a letdown speech. After a few kind words from the general manager and a few from the head coach, I go say good-bye to my tight-end coach. I don’t know what to say. Thank you, maybe? But thank you for what? This part is so unsatisfying. All of it. Everyone’s speaking in hushed monotones. The equipment manager shakes my hand, gives me a trash bag to clean out my stuff. I sit down in my locker for the last time. Will I even want these cleats? These gloves? To remember this? I stand up, throw the bag over my shoulder, turn around and take one last look. Remember these smells. Remember this light. It’s over.