Friday, August 31, 2012

A Football Wife's Take on Training Camp Cuts... Part II

This time of year brings back so many memories - some good, some bad. As NFL teams across the country wrap up the preseason and prepare to make final roster cuts Friday, I can't help but to reminisce about Ryan's NFL career and the rollercoaster ride life in the NFL took us on.

Part I of this story ended with Ryan contemplating a major decision back in 2003 after being out of football for two years - stay in camp with the Los Angeles Avengers or give the NFL one more shot. Ryan had all but given up on his dreams of making another NFL team and he was understandably wary of sacrificing so much - his health, potential income, etc. - with no guarantee that he'd make that 53-man roster. In the end, the opportunity just couldn't be passed up and Ryan became a Buffalo Bill.

Ryan worked diligently to get ready for camp that year. He was always in the gym lifting or catching passes from a former QB teammate of his at UCLA. One day, Ryan was running routes and he injured his hand catching a pass. We actually contemplated not calling Buffalo - we were scared to death that if they found out he'd gotten hurt, they'd cut him. End of story.

Well, Ryan's injury ended up being pretty bad - he'd actually done some damage to the tendon and there was a chance he needed surgery. He knew he had to call the team. Much to our surprise, the Bills didn't cut Ryan - they actually flew him out to Buffalo so he could be treated by the team doctor.  Several weeks in a good splint did the trick and Ryan was ready to go.

Training camp that year was intense.  Ryan was vying for the third tight end spot.  The guy he had to beat out had been on the team the year before and was “boys” with then-quarterback Drew Bledsoe.  More politics and a non-skill related hurdle to overcome during training camp.  But Ryan had something the other guy didn’t – versatility.  Ryan long-snapped, excelled on special teams, and could play both fullback and tight end.  Advantage – Ryan.

During camp that year, Ryan got close to blocking a punt during drills and the special teams coach, Danny Smith, took notice and moved Ryan up the depth chart.  This was a huge departure from what Ryan had experienced in Seattle.  Ryan finally felt like he was being given a fair shot. 
The Bills spent some time in Cleveland practicing with the Browns during camp that year.  After a particularly good special teams practice, Coach Smith came up to Ryan in the hotel and told him he was going to find a way to get Ryan on the team.  The boosted Ryan's confidence about his chances of making the team but he knew there were no guarantees.

The first cut down day came and after a long day of waiting by the phone, Ryan hadn’t gotten the call.  Every time Ryan walked into the facility he wondered if someone was going to come up to him and tell him the coach wanted to see him (and to bring his playbook), but that never happened.  When final cut down day rolled around, if Ryan was going to get cut, he wanted to hurry up and get it over with, so he decided to go up to the facility early instead of waiting by the phone.  While he was walking through the hall to get to the locker room he ran into his tight ends coach Dan Neal who broke the good news – he said, “Congratulations.”  Ryan, stunned and prepared to get cut, replied, “For what?”  Coach Neal couldn’t help but laugh and told Ryan he’d made the team.
I was practicing law in L.A. and Ryan called to give me the good news.  I took the red eye to New York that weekend to make sure I was in the stands for Ryan’s triumphant and against-all-odds return to the NFL.  Even thinking about sitting in the stands that day listening to the national anthem while military jets flew overhead makes me emotional.  It had been such a long road – I can’t even begin to explain the toll the past couple of years had taken on Ryan, on us, on our marriage.  Ryan later told me he was pretty emotional that day too.  He said he was overcome with every single emotion you can think of – excitement, fear, pride, joy, nervousness, and above all else, grateful that God had given him one more chance.  It was an awesome day.
I’d already told my firm that if Ryan made the team I was moving to Buffalo and a couple weeks later, the Neufelds were residents of Hamburg, New York.  I printed out “We’ve Moved” postcards to send to all of our friends.  Those postcards sat on my desk for about three weeks.  I was terrified that if I put them in the mail, Ryan would get cut.  After some encouragement from another one of the wives, I put those postcards in the mail and decided to live in the moment instead of always anticipating the bad ones.
The rollercoaster continued over the next five seasons.  We survived three coaching staffs, tight ends getting drafted, coaches bringing in their “guys,” a contract expiration, and some injuries including plantar fasciitis in both feet that landed Ryan on IR one year.  Another season, Ryan was a long shot to make the team after the Bills seemed pretty sure about the top two tight ends and their new draftee Kevin Everett.  But for Kevin tearing his ACL during minicamp that year Ryan would not have made the team.  Another thing I remember so clearly is how awkward cut day was.  We were so used to Ryan being on the cut list that when he made the team and we had to say goodbye to good friends, we almost didn't know what to do.  We certainly didn't know what to say.  I remember one of my friends telling me she didn't want to get together for coffee or anything before they left town - it was just too hard.  I understood.

After five seasons in Buffalo, Ryan’s NFL career came to an end. 

Ryan's last season didn't go exactly as we'd hoped, but that's another story for another day.  But Ryan's second contract with Buffalo expired after the 2007 season and the Bills weren't interested in re-signing Ryan.  Before we left Buffalo, we invited our friends and family over to meet Bryn and to say goodbye.  Unlike my friend, I wanted the opportunity to see all of our friends one more time before we left Buffalo.  It was tough and I managed to hold it together until Coach Perry Fewell gave me a big hug and told me if I ever wondered how much we were loved in Buffalo to look around.  Surrounded by Ryan's former teammates and coaches, their wives, and our Buffalo friends, we felt the love.  I certainly think that was a better way to go out than getting the call on cut day.
I read yesterday that with today's team roster cuts, there are now 1,100 free agents out there.  WOW!  I hope this story might encourage them to keep their heads up.  This NFL journey is a difficult one and the truth is at some point, every player is going to get the call...

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Thanks for sharing your story!! It is hard to remember that other people have similar stories and have been through all this before.