Monday, September 3, 2007

When the cheering stops...

I wanted to share an article written by a good friend of ours Ross Tucker. Ross and Ryan came to Buffalo at the same time in 2003. Those guys bonded right away - both were undrafted out of college and faced an uphill battle making a career out of the NFL. That year, they both made the team. Ross has since moved on but after a recent injury, his NFL career is over. He's written a poignant account of what he's experiencing right now. It gives excellent perspective on the trials and tribulations players and their families often experience off the field.


The final cut
First-hand account of an NFL career coming to a close

The press release below, was one of scores issued by NFL teams in the past week, when all 32 clubs had two cutdown dates -- last Tuesday, cutting to 75, and Saturday, the final cut to 53.

Washington Redskins Reach Mandatory Roster Limit Ashburn, Va. -- The Washington Redskins announce today they have reached the mandatory roster limit of 75 players by releasing defensive tackle Joe Salave'a, placing offensive lineman Ross Tucker and wide receiver Jason McAddley on injured reserve, and waiving injured fullback Pete Schmitt.

Each team brings 80 players to camp, more in some cases with roster exemptions for NFL Europa players. By Saturday night at least 27 players per team had to be whacked from the July rosters ... players who came to camp with such high hopes, players who left their small towns and big cities six weeks ago, heads high, fired up about playing on the biggest football stage on Earth. That's 864 dreams, give or take a few, crushed. This is the story of one of them.

Before training camp, I had asked Tucker, a veteran offensive lineman, to keep some notes and to write something for Monday Morning Quarterback if the Redskins let him go. "It's one of the things we never get a good view of,'' I told him, "and you're smart enough to convey the true feelings of what a player goes through when he's cut.''

Tucker, a Princeton guy, is a 6-foot-4, 305-pound veteran of six NFL seasons. He started 24 games, mostly for Buffalo, in a career that also included appearances for Washington and Dallas, with camp stops in New England and Cleveland. Though technically it was only Tucker's 2007 season that ended when he was put on injured-reserve last Tuesday, you'll see that it was much more.

**************

By Ross Tucker

I knew instantly what was happening when my cell phone vibrated and I pulled it out of my pocket.

"703"

The only number I know with a 703 area code is the offices of the Washington Redskins. So when I saw the "703," I got sick to my stomach. It took my breath away, literally. I got the call last Monday at 5:30 p.m., while waiting to pay for my sandwich at a Subway restaurant in Ashburn, Va. I didn't answer the call because I was about to pay, and besides, I already knew what the phone call meant. I can only imagine how pale my face looked as I paid for my sub and walked out.

After 18 years of football, the last seven of which were in the NFL, my dream was likely over. Even though I knew it was probably going to happen at some point this week, like most of the 900 or so players in my shoes in the last week also facing the death of their dreams, my heart still told me I had a chance to make the team.

I never thought the end would come like this -- with me holding the end of my life's passion in one hand and a foot long Italian sub on wheat in the other.

I could almost predict word for word what the message would say because I had heard it all before. "Ross,'' the voice said, "This is Louis Riddick with the Redskins. Please call me as soon as you get this message."

Riddick is the director of pro personnel for the Redskins and a former player. Most fans who dream of being a GM or working for an NFL team as a scout or coach never think about how hard that part of the job must be. You pick up the phone and shatter dreams with every call you make.

I called Louis back as I made my way toward Redskin Park for the inevitable and he said, "Ross, we have to make some cuts today. Can you come over to the park?"

"Yeah, sure," I said. "Should I bring my playbook?"

"Yep."

After picking up my playbook at the hotel where the "bubble" guys who don't have residences in the area stay, I felt like everything I had done since March 8 when I signed with the 'Skins was for nothing. I quickly shook that thought off and reminded myself what this was really about. It was about me giving it everything I had every day and playing to the best of my God-given ability. It was about being able to walk away from the game with no regrets and the feeling of peace and contentment that comes only when you know you did your best.

I couldn't help but think about the whirlwind training camp had been. The first week I was third-string center, got very few repetitions and was often left wondering if I was an afterthought. The second week I was moved to second-string right guard and had one of the best weeks of practice in my career. The third week I was back to center, this time at second-string when they moved Mike Pucillo into the starting lineup at left guard. Things changed in the fourth week, on Aug. 23. As I sat in my happy place, the team hot tub, getting loosened up for the day, I was struck with some news that hit me like a bolt of lightning. Taylor Whitley, another veteran lineman battling for a roster spot, was the bearer of this news.

"Did you hear?" said Whitley.

"No, what?" I said.

"We traded for Pete Kendall from the Jets."

"Oh, man, that's not good."

I knew immediately I might be in trouble. Kendall would be the starting left guard, Pucillo would be the back-up interior guy, and I would be competing with a whole bunch of guys for probably the ninth and final offensive line roster spot.

They tell you to never look at the number of guys at your position or to not worry about who they sign and to just focus on playing your best. Yeah, right. Every time I hear a player say, "I don't worry about any of that, I just do the best that I can,'' I chuckle. Although all of us block those thoughts out when we are on the field and simply compete as hard as we can, I find it very hard to believe that those guys never think in bed at night what may happen or what the coaches might do.

I was very much looking forward to our third preseason game against the Baltimore Ravens because I anticipated getting a lot of playing time and wanted to give the coaches an indication of what I could do. I made sure my immediate family was at the game because I knew they wouldn't make it down to Jacksonville for the final preseason game.

One of my wife Kara's best friends from college was getting married that same day and Kara was torn as to what she should do. "Kara," I said, "You really need to come to this game. It very well could be the last time you ever see me play."

It was a strange night, to say the least, and most certainly not how I envisioned my last football game. First, the game was delayed for over an hour due to lightning and thunder. Then, I surprisingly got a "stinger" during pre-game warm-ups when I hit 330-pound Samoan defensive lineman Joe Salave'a head to head. A "stinger" occurs when you pinch a nerve in your neck upon contact and it is a numbing, painful, tingling sensation that shoots down your neck toward your shoulder and sometimes even goes all the way down your arm into your fingers. Kind of like hitting your funny bone, only it's in your neck -- and it is no laughing matter. It usually lasts a couple of seconds. It is a somewhat common football injury and not usually a cause for concern.

It was in the back of my mind, however, as I lined up for my first action of the night as the "wedge-setter'' on the kickoff-return team. The collisions between the wedge and the wedge breakers are some of the most vicious in football, and it takes a special person to want to perform these duties. And I don't mean "special" in a good way, either. You have to either crave physical contact, be a little crazy, or maybe a combination of both. I looked at No. 54 for the Ravens, a rookie linebacker from Michigan named Prescott Burgess, and knew he was my likely target. As always, there was a little fear, but that fear is a good thing. I have always tried to harness that fear and use it to my advantage. Someone is going to get the better of the collision, and you are either the hitter or the hittee.

I pulled my shoulder pads forward so that my neck roll was tight against the back of my helmet, still somewhat mindful of the stinger from pre-game. I put my mouthpiece in and decided it was time. It was either going to be him or me.

The ball was kicked and I hurried to set the four-man wedge, the group of players who stay close together and run toward the opposition like a moving wall. Burgess was running down the field at me. Not many people in the world know what it is like to see a 240-pound man who probably runs a 4.6 40-yard dash bearing down at you on a 50-yard dead sprint. I got as low as possible right before impact as Burgess attempted to split the gap between myself and a fellow wedge member.

Upon impact, it was one of the best bad feelings I have ever had. The painful stinging sensation from the pinched nerve was offset by the fact that we crushed our guy and did our job to perfection. The three or four seconds of pain were worth the small victory that had just occurred. Burgess lay on the field. He hurt worse than I did. I found out the next day that he had a shoulder injury and a concussion. I take no pride in the fact that he was hurt on the play, though one thought did cross my mind. Better him than me.

The night got weirder, however, as the lightning came back and the game was canceled early in the second half before I got any playing time at center. I'll have to show them what I can do at Jacksonville on Thursday, I said to myself. That opportunity never came.

After arriving at Redskin Park to collect my belongings and fill out my paperwork, I made a point to personally thank all of the coaches and staff for the opportunity they had given me. There were no explanations given to me by anyone in the organization as to why I was being released and none needed.

Offensive line coach Joe Bugel had a smile as we shook hands, following my lead. I was proud of my effort and I wasn't going to walk around there with my tail between my legs.

"Thanks for the opportunity, coach," I said.

"You bet, Tuck. You did a good job. You gave it everything you had," said Bugel.

I knew this was a bottom-line business and the bottom line was they didn't need me. Interestingly enough, the only time I got even a little bit emotional was when I spoke to the owner of the Redskins, Daniel Snyder, for the first time in my life.

I asked Mr. Snyder's assistant if I could thank the Redskins owner for the opportunities he had given me. In his office, I choked up a bit as I said, "Thank you so much for giving an undrafted free agent rookie from Princeton an opportunity in 2001. You really changed my life." It's true -- the Redskins gave me my first and my last chance at my dream. In an attempt to lighten the mood I told Mr. Snyder I still had one claim to fame. "I am pretty sure that I am the only 28-year-old Princeton grad that has been fired five times already." He laughed.

Before signing my medical paperwork, I asked the team for an MRI to make sure my neck was OK after having those two stingers in the game. It turns out I have a herniated disc that may require surgery at some point. Two doctors told me I shouldn't play again this year because of some signs of spinal cord irritation. They don't think it is a good idea if I ever play again. The Redskins put me on injured reserve, but the end result is the same: I will never play football again.

My wife was calm and business-like the night before when I told her that I was getting released. She was quite the opposite when I told her of the diagnosis. I told her what the first doctor had said as positively as I could, but I could tell she thought the worst.

There was no response on the other end of the line. "Oh no," I thought, "She is pretty upset." She cried and cried as I told her that I was fine and that it wouldn't get any worse because I would never play football again. I promised her it would be OK, even though I wasn't exactly sure myself.

"Your neck is going to hurt for the rest of your life," she said, "just like your back." I had a back surgery in 2005 that feels fine right now but gives me some discomfort from time to time. Her point was well-taken and it sunk in that my pain may hurt her as much as it hurts me down the road. I really don't know how I will feel when I am 48 or 58. No active player does.

Most of the guys who got cut in the last few days will go back to their hometown and things will feel a little bit different. Guys who are used to being cheered and revered every time they go back home will now be met by people with a puppy-dog expression in their eyes that says they know something bad has happened. Some might ask things like, "What happened? Why did they cut you? Have you talked to any other teams? What does your agent say?" It would almost be easier to wear a T-shirt that said "Got Cut, Not Sure, Thanks for Your Support."

Unless you have been there, nobody knows what it is like to drive home and look your wife in the eyes and tell her that you weren't able to get the job done. It just occurred to me as I write this how fortunate I am to have a supportive wife who is happily married to an unemployed, overweight, and slightly balding 28-year-old man. I will definitely be able to get a job and lose some weight now that I am done playing, but there is not much I can do about the balding part.

Although all but a few of the cut players attended college, I'm sure more than half have no idea what they're going to do now. Most of these young men are facing failure and rejection for the first time. Getting cut from a team or being anything less than the star has never even been a consideration for them until this point. At times when I have struggled with the pain and frustration of getting released it has made me think about how hard it must be for the seventh-grader who gets cut from the junior-high basketball team when most of his friends make it. If it is hard for me at 28, what must it be like for a 13 year old?

I consider myself very fortunate in the sense that I have been preparing for this moment from the time my career started. When I first made the Redskins as an undrafted rookie in 2001, I realized that might be my only year, so I invested the money, continued driving my 1990 Jeep Cherokee, and began thinking about what I would want to do when football was over. I was keenly aware that football was just a temp job. I have a couple of business interests, such as www.gobigrecruiting.com, that will occupy my time, and I am more than excited about the possibility of writing or talking about football for a living. I figure if I can't play anymore, that would be the next best thing.

But it is not the same as playing. Nothing else in life can replicate the feeling of running into another man in front of 90,000 people and hitting him as hard as you possibly can. My mom will probably hate reading this, but more than the paycheck or the camaraderie of the locker room, I will really miss the violence. It is just an amazing and pure primal feeling that you really don't understand if you have never had the chance to do it.

It is hard to know when it will hit me the hardest that my time has come. It could be on Sundays when it is hard for me to watch the TV and see the guys I know playing. It is more likely that it will sink in when I sit in the stands of a random high school football game on a Friday night and my eyes fill up as they play the National Anthem.

My wife and I drove 20 minutes from our home to Pottsville, Pa., Friday night to see the Crimson Tide of Pottsville take on my alma mater, the Wyomissing Spartans. It was a back-and-forth game between two storied programs, though I felt like I spent as much time explaining what injured-reserve meant as I did watching the game.

"What does it look like for next year?" a few people asked.

"There is no next year," I responded. "I'm done."

There was no time for sorrow, only happiness. Because the Spartans earned a thrilling 24-20 victory.

Life goes on. And yes: I still love football.

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