Undrafted but Undaunted, An NFL Hopeful Persists

By Les Carpenter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 5, 2009

GREEN BAY, Wis. -- Early on Sunday, with the lazy morning sunlight splashing through Lambeau Field's atrium, the Green Bay Packers personnel department gathered in a third-floor conference room. The topic was the future of the 22 players invited to try out at the team's three-day rookie minicamp.

The time had come to pick those who would be offered contracts. Folders were opened; notes consulted. Two days of practice were examined. By 9 a.m., decisions had been made.

They would not be revealed for several more hours.

As he prepared for the last practice of his tryout, former Maryland tackle Dane Randolph would not know his fate with the Packers was sealed. He had driven any thoughts of his football survival from his mind since he arrived on Thursday. It was obvious his chance of making the Packers was almost impossible. He could see that every time he looked around the alcove off the team's locker room where the players on tryout dressed two to a locker. There were so many of them. And they seemed so good.

Thinking about the futility of his dream would do nothing to help, however. So he focused his attention on the more tangible aspects of his tryout, like the Don Hutson Center, the Packers' eight-story indoor practice facility where the three days of workouts were held. Here on the soft turf, under the buzzing stadium lights strung in the ceiling, he knew he had a chance. Three days of practice, each running about 90 minutes, which meant he had about 4 1/2 hours of football, none of them in pads, to show the Packers they should keep him.

He hoped for something, anything, that would make them notice.

Then, on Friday afternoon, during the first practice, it happened. He made a mistake, something he didn't notice at first. It came during a pass blocking drill when he pushed the player he was blocking back, away from the quarterback. Then, when it felt as if the play was done, he stopped.

"No," offensive line coach James Campen said. Randolph had given up too soon. What if the play wasn't over? It is always at moments like this when the pass rusher is at his most dangerous, coming back at the quarterback from behind.

A few minutes later, another pass rush came Randolph's way.

"Sit down on him!" Campen shouted as Randolph crouched, pushing the pass rusher away, holding him off with a stiff right arm for what seemed like 10 seconds.

Campen nodded. He called Randolph over and shook his hand. Randolph had passed his first test. He had taken a coach's instruction and then applied it the next time he could. After the practice, as the offensive linemen stretched before heading to the locker room, Campen told the group, "What Dane did was perfect."

The next morning, as the offensive linemen met with Campen, the coach again mentioned Randolph and tried to show the film of the play. Except that Randolph had held the block for so long, the person taping the practice cut the taping off before Randolph was finished. Still, the glow lingered for Randolph.

"I feel like I'm making an impression," Randolph had said Friday night, talking from his hotel room near the city's airport. But it seemed ridiculous to calculate the chances of him landing a contract, especially because the team had taken two tackles in the draft. Even if Randolph dazzled the coaches, the team was trying out a new 3-4 defense, and it might have far greater needs than right tackle. He wasn't sure they knew that much about him anyway.

The Packers, it turned out, knew quite a bit about Randolph. Lee Gissendaner, the team's East Coast scout, had seen him play twice in the fall, as had its director of college scouting, John Dorsey, who grew up in Maryland.

The team liked his speed and strength, the way he moved, the way that, at 6 feet 5 and 300 pounds, he looked like an NFL offensive lineman. When Dorsey spoke with the Terrapins coaches, they raved about Randolph as a person, about his gentle demeanor, his easy laugh and the ability he seemingly has to get along with anybody.

The problem Green Bay had, as with other teams, came in his play.

"There are too many inconsistencies," Dorsey said.

When the draft came, the Packers graded Randolph too low for any of the seven rounds of selections. And when it came time to sign undrafted free agents, he still fell below their line. But his skills nonetheless intrigued them just enough to take another look. When they were done signing free agents at the end of the draft, they called his agent, Josh Stevens, and invited Randolph for a tryout.

"You wanted to keep him alive," Dorsey said.

Given the chance, Randolph had indeed impressed the Packers. After his second practice, on Saturday afternoon, Campen stood in a Lambeau Field hallway and marveled about Randolph's strength and the way he held off pass rushers so easily. He also liked the way Randolph seemed to grasp the playbook right away. Many players struggle with the adjustment from the college playbook to the far more complex professional books in which plays and formations might change from week to week.

Over the weekend, Green Bay gave a lot of plays to the prospects to learn, and it was obvious Randolph had studied them and could pick them up quickly.

"He's a hard-working kid who's a little better than I thought," Campen said. "It's hard to completely judge a kid on tape. You evaluate them, and you are looking at the football fundamentals, but you don't know much about the person."

For Campen, maybe there was something else, too. He had read The Post's stories about Randolph through the draft. He had seen, too, the video Randolph did for The Post on draft day as he sat in the living room of his mother's townhouse in Owings Mills watching round after round pass without his name being called, hearing from his agent the Redskins might be interested, only to find ultimately they weren't.

Campen watched the video closely, studying Randolph's reactions, looking for clues as to how he was handling the disappointment. On the screen, Randolph never got mad. He didn't frown or slap at the coffee table before him. He simply said he would have to make the most of whatever opportunity came along.

This took Campen back almost a quarter of a century, when as a college center he went unpicked in a 12-round draft after his senior year at the University of Tulsa. The snub angered him. Eventually he talked his way into the New Orleans Saints' training camp, where he was the seventh of seven centers and played with a rage to prove everyone wrong.

Standing in the Lambeau hallway, Campen shook his head.

"I know from my mistakes," he said. "I was working to impress others when the only one I needed to impress was myself."

Randolph, he added, never showed bitterness in the video, nor in the meetings. He wore only the determined expression of a player who wanted badly to make a team.

"He's ahead of me when I came out," he said. "It's refreshing to see someone who has the approach that he has."

Randolph, of course, knew nothing about Campen and his battle to make the Saints. Nor did he know the Packers had such an extensive file on him. All he realized was he was falling in love with Green Bay.

Every day, the players were taken somewhere new. On Thursday, they had dinner in a suite high above Lambeau, where they met the coaches and most of the team executives -- people who actually sat with them and talked to them.

The next night, they were taken on a tour of the team's Hall of Fame, which is headquartered in Lambeau's atrium, and were introduced to this year's inductees: Dorsey Levens and Antonio Freeman. Saturday evening, they toured the Oneida Golf and Country Club, a sprawling complex on the edge of town.

Earlier in the day, as the shuttle bus brought him from the Hutson Center to Lambeau, where the locker rooms are, fans were waiting. They asked him for his autograph. A few even clutched photos of him in a Maryland uniform. He was stunned.

Thinking about this later, he laughed. "I think I'm really liking this place," he said one evening after practice.

But the reality of Randolph's situation was impossible to ignore. During the weekend, Packers Coach Mike McCarthy talked a lot in his news conferences about "tough choices" the team was going to have to make.

Randolph shrugged. He had another tryout scheduled next weekend with the Baltimore Ravens, yet he knew enough to realize the Packers' offensive line was more unsettled than Baltimore's.

On Sunday, when the last practice ended, McCarthy and other executives thanked the players. Then the players dispersed, their futures more ambiguous than ever. Randolph held his helmet in his hand and headed for the Hutson Center door to catch a shuttle bus across the street to Lambeau.

Suddenly, Reggie McKenzie, the team's director of football operations, was standing beside him.

"I would like you to see me after you shower and eat," McKenzie said.

See him? In a few hours Randolph had a flight home to Baltimore. Why would the team's director of football operations want to speak to him, unless . . .

His heart thumped as he showered. He could barely eat, looking around for the team official who was supposed to take him to McKenzie's office. "Act cool," he kept telling himself.

Finally the man appeared. He took Randolph and Maryland teammate Dean Muhtadi, a defensive tackle, into an elevator and up to the third floor, where the doors opened and McKenzie stood before them, smiling.

"Congratulations," he said.

They were getting contracts. Four players in all received deals.

In a room just inside the Packers executive suite, Dorsey told a reporter, "I don't think [Randolph's] ceiling for development has been reached yet."

Then Dorsey added a word of caution, warning that Randolph can be cut at any moment and is not even guaranteed a spot in training camp. Randolph may barely see any of the $310,000 his standard rookie contract calls for this year.

"He has a long way to go," Dorsey added. "He's continuing the journey of chasing the dream. That's all you can ask."

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