Grasping for the Golden Ticket
Thursday, August 31, 2006
As the players walked toward the parking lot, heads down, their belongings in clear trash bags slung over slouched shoulders, there was in reserve defensive lineman Cedric Killings a soft stab of empathy. Twice in his life, he had been one of them.
The final days for some Washington Redskins players were Monday and Tuesday as the team released a parade of them -- the Redskins have cut 15 since Monday and must cut 23 more by Saturday -- and sent them toward uncertain futures.
In a game driven by star power, Tuesday was a hard reminder for players whose place in the glamorous world of professional sports is never secure and rarely glamorous. They are players like Ben Emanuel, who was released both by San Francisco and the Redskins in the span of eight days, or more drastically, the punter Eddie Johnson, who was heading for a job interview as a salesman in Arizona before signing with the Redskins on Tuesday, only to be released later that very day.
Even Joe Salave'a, the starting defensive tackle who is now a key member of the Redskins' defense, was released by Tennessee and spent the 2002 season out of football.
"It's true," said Marcus Washington, a second-round draft choice in 2000 who is now a star linebacker. "If you're not a star in this game, it is very hard. It's hard, anyway. But people don't realize how hard it is to come in and try and make a team every year."
And then there are players like Jimmy Farris, the unfailingly upbeat wide receiver who was undrafted but signed in 2001 by San Francisco, released three times by three different organizations and lives on the margins of the NFL, fighting to make a team every year, cobbling together a career one week at a time. He was signed by the Redskins last season, released after the final exhibition game and brought back in November after David Patten was lost for the season because of a knee injury. With the Redskins, he played in the playoffs against Tampa Bay and Seattle, and was brought back this season, but now finds himself in the difficult position of being a wide receiver on a team that already featured Santana Moss and signed Antwaan Randle El and Brandon Lloyd.
"You think with no injuries, and things work out the way they look on paper, it looks pretty bleak -- for this team," said Farris, whose work on special teams helped him beat out Taylor Jacobs for a roster spot. "Now, there are a couple of other factors. Number one is that you never know. Injuries -- sometimes a team decides to go in a different direction on a guy -- could open up one of those five or six spots. Then there's the possibility that as long as you played well, somebody will hear about you and want your services."
Around the same time Farris was signed by the 49ers five years ago, San Francisco released Killings, who was out of football for months. He went home to Miami and worked out, hoping the phone would ring. For two months, it didn't. In midseason 2001, with his finances dwindling, he was signed by Carolina for the remainder of the season.
"It was in my second year. I didn't see it coming," he said of being cut by the 49ers. "It was the roller coaster of not knowing when the next opportunity would come. I was okay financially, but after a while it started getting tight."
In 2004, after being released by Minnesota the previous December, Killings was out of football again for nearly eight months before being signed by the Redskins in December 2004.
They live in the odd, often bizarre environment of the itinerant football player, fighting each year with hundreds of other players to win a place on an NFL roster, yet living side by side with multimillionaire teammates who often do not hesitate to show off their affluence in dozens of ways that can challenge a marginal player's self-esteem. The parking lot at Redskins Park, for instance, resembles a luxury car auto mall filled with the latest from Hummer, Mercedes-Benz, Lexus and Range Rover.
But the only way to experience the good life is to make the team. During training camp players do not earn regular season salary. According to figures provided by the NFL Players Association, rookies earn $775 per week, while veterans earn a weekly pay of $1,100, plus a $200 per week bonus once preseason games begin.
"It's tough seeing all of that," Killings said of the opulence. "You just have to know where you came from."
Farris survived the Tuesday cut, and is hoping his special teams play and durability -- he and Moss are the only Redskins receivers to not miss a practice -- keeps him with the team.
"I'm just committed to doing the best that I can. I'm going to play and prepare like I'm a number one or number two guy," Farris said. "I'll sit in meetings like I'm a starter. I'll try to be as good or better than Santana or Brandon and those guys when we're out on the field. And there's always the special teams element. I feel like when I'm out there and get in the right position I can make plays on special teams, because I feel like I'm as good as any of the wide receivers in the league playing special teams."
The life of a journeyman football player is not easy on the self-esteem. Some players lay so low on the priority list that until they prove they can become an important part of a team, they literally are anonymous bodies in a hundreds-deep casting call. When the Redskins' camp opened, there were so many players that Coach Joe Gibbs tacitly admitted he did not know all of their names and certainly was not familiar with all of their abilities.
On Tuesday, assistant head coach-defense Gregg Williams first spoke of not wanting to waste precious time explaining regular season, game-day situations to players who had little chance of making the roster, a mistake he said he and the coaching staff made last season. Moments later, Williams attempted to display a degree of compassion for a largely forgotten element of the NFL lifestyle.
"Those things are hard," he said. "It's physically and mentally draining, and that's just the way it is. It's a tough business for some of those guys like that."