Demetrius Hartsfield arrived in Green Bay last Thursday along with other tryout players vying for a contract. The former Maryland linebacker had known for several days he was headed to the Packers, which removed the drama from the previous weekend’s NFL draft. He watched the rounds lurch past without worry, without much attention paid to the other linebackers picked. After more than a year rehabilitating a torn ACL, simply knowing where he was going, and when, offered some comfort.
When Hartsfield flew into Green Bay, the drafted rookies and undrafted free agent signees had already been there for several days, receiving a head start on the playbook. Once Hartsfield and his fellow tryout players arrived, they immediately entered meetings and scoured the schemes installed for Friday’s practice. On Friday, they awoke around 6 a.m., ate breakfast, attended meetings, then practiced. It felt like any other practice in college, attired in helmets and shorts, except faster.
Maryland’s leader in total tackles two seasons ago despite missing three games, Hartsfield adapted to the playbook easier because it felt similar to what he ran with the Terrapins under defensive coordinator Brian Stewart. He was tasked with calling the plays from his linebacker perch and making adjustments, much like he did so effectively in College Park.
“The scheme and stuff wasn’t hard,” Hartsfield said Monday by telephone. “The hardest part was learning all the adjustments that I would have to make for the D-line. On that level, you have to learn fast.”
Like most of the tryout players, Hartsfield departed Green Bay without a contract. But he was pulled aside by a player personnel official, someone he knew from his Green Bay workout last season. The official said the Packers were impressed by Hartsfield, but didn’t have a spot for him at the moment. The linebackers coach, Hartsfield recalled, said that even if Green Bay didn’t offer a deal, he would reach out to other teams to help Hartsfield find an opportunity.
“After that I felt a little better after the whole situation,” Hartsfield said. “Of course I wanted them to let me know right then that they’d sign me and keep me there. But they didn’t sign anyone from that day.”
Still, being on a football field represented a milestone for Hartsfield. After tearing his ACL on a cut block vs. Georgia Tech on Nov. 3, 2012, Hartsfield underwent surgery and faced a long road back. He trained with Tobe Stephens, a former college basketball player who has worked with several NBA draft picks recently, and watched his knee slowly heal. Last summer, he turned down a minicamp invitation from the Cleveland Browns because his knee wasn’t ready. He worked out with the Packers last year, too, only to learn they preferred someone who could play right away. Meanwhile new players leaped from the college ranks, which meant fresher bodies competing with Hartsfield, who graduated in 2013.
“I don’t feel like I’m back yet at all,” he said of the rookie minicamp. “It felt good to experience football again, organized football again. But I still feel like I’m a ways from where I need to be. I feel like it’s been a process, it was definitely hard to get in, but I’ve improved. It was just a matter of someone trusting my ability to do that.”
His knee felt perfectly healthy last weekend. He had no issues in Green Bay, no red non-contact jersey to wear. More secure in his health, Hartsfield has only one more thing left on his mind:
“Signing an official contract and just knowing, at least for the time being, I have somewhere to call home, to call my team,” he said. “Once that happens, I’m definitely going to feel more comfortable and happy that I am somewhere.”