By Les Carpenter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 27, 2009
Every year on their birthdays, Dane Randolph and his mother, Angela, pick a goal they hope to accomplish in the ensuing months. It is a kind of New Year's resolution with the twist that unlike most New Year's resolutions, these promises are actually kept.
And so on Sept. 4, 2008, right around the start of his senior football season at the University of Maryland, Randolph made his new birthday vow: to make the roster of an NFL team. This was a somewhat unlikely proposition, given his status as a fringe professional prospect. But nonetheless it became one he met after surviving a May tryout with the Green Bay Packers and lingering on the team's roster through training camp.
Right up until 11:30 a.m. on Sept. 4, 2009, his 23rd birthday, when the phone rang in his Green Bay hotel room. Reggie McKenzie, the team's director of football operations, was on the line. Could Dane please drop by his office?
And that's when he knew.
He was being cut.
This is the way most dreams die in the NFL, on cutdown day a week before the season, when phones ring and harsh knocks come on hotel or dormitory room doors summoning doomed players to a meeting in which their fates are revealed. Then, even before they realize that the end of their careers has likely arrived, they are headed home, where they soon have to contemplate a real job for the first time in their lives.
Last Tuesday afternoon, Randolph did not seem ready to concede his football hopes as he sat in the Comcast Center office of Natasha Criss, his academic counselor at Maryland. It wasn't a meeting to discuss his new career goals. Criss wasn't even in the room, instead loaning it to Randolph so he could have a quiet place to finish an interview about the whirlwind of his football life the past six months.
"I still want to play in the NFL," he said.
But the two cellphones that sat on the desk before him had not chirped with an opportunity in 18 days. This is usually a sign that the NFL isn't interested. His agent, Josh Stevens, had been calling teams, trying to arrange tryouts. A couple said they might be interested if there were injuries. They'd let him know.
In other words, he had nothing.
Randolph tried to keep himself busy after driving back from Green Bay the day after his release. He returned to his mother's townhouse in Owings Mills, Md., and spent the first couple of days talking to her. They made a new birthday goal: This time he would not only make an NFL roster, he would stay on it.
He lifted weights and ran through a list of exercises the Packers had given him back in the spring. He ran. He tried to do things that would keep him in shape. Last weekend, Dean Muhtadi, a former Maryland defensive lineman, came over. Muhtadi had been signed out of the same tryout camp in the spring as Randolph and had also been cut at the same time. Like Randolph, he was hoping for any opportunity. They got helmets and met another former Maryland teammate, Alex Schultz, to work out on a private school field in Baltimore. There really wasn't much for them to do but to line up in their stances and crash into each other. Yet even that felt good.
"You can stay in shape, but it's not the same as making contact," Randolph said. "You need to keep making contact so you are in football shape if they call you.
"If you don't have someone else to do that with, the only thing you can do to duplicate it is to do up-downs," he continued, referring to the drill in which players throw themselves to the ground and then hop back up only to repeat the process again. "I think you would look pretty silly doing up-downs all by yourself in a park."
But with his phone silent and the conditioning from two practices a day in Wisconsin starting to wear off, Randolph laughed and said he was about ready to begin doing the drill.
It wasn't hard being cut, he said. He was expecting it, actually. The Packers had two right tackles battling for a starting job in training camp. They were only going to keep nine offensive linemen and it wasn't likely they would want three right tackles.
All through training camp, his real hope had been to make the eight-player practice squad that is formed right after the final cuts. Practice squad players get a salary of $5,200 per week, dress in the locker room, practice with the players and essentially are a part of the team aside from the fact that they are not part of the 53-man roster and do not dress for the games. But they are always a spot away should someone on the regular roster get hurt.
Randolph thought he had shown enough promise in training camp to be kept on the practice squad. Yet as he moved from meeting to meeting on cutdown day -- from McKenzie to Coach Mike McCarthy to offensive line coach James Campen and assistant line coach Jerry Fontenot -- he heard encouraging things about his play, but nothing about the practice squad.
"You definitely have the ability to play in this league," Campen told him. "Good luck."
All of them made the same vague references to never knowing if they might need him again someday, but Randolph wasn't sure if it was something they really meant or something they said to all the players as they were cut.
At that point it didn't seem to matter. He went back to the hotel, packed his bags and drove home.
As he sat in Criss's office on Tuesday, a sense of foreboding lingered in the air. The other four offensive linemen on the third team with Randolph in Green Bay all found NFL jobs. Tackle Andrew Hartline was on the Miami Dolphins' practice squad. Guard T.J. Lang had made the Packers' active roster, as had center Evan Dietrich-Smith. Tackle Jamon Meredith, his roommate in training camp, was the lone offensive lineman the team kept on its practice squad. Just the night before, the Buffalo Bills had signed Meredith to their 53-man roster.
Randolph sighed. That morning Stevens, his agent, had called him suggesting the loss of Martin might open a spot for him. For a moment, Randolph seemed encouraged. But as the day went on, it seemed more of a faint hope than anything else. It was getting late in the afternoon and if the Packers were going to call, they probably would have by then. Things were starting to look bleak. He talked about a highlight tape he had put together for the new United Football League.
Then one of his cellphones rang. He glanced at the screen. The area code was 920.
"Hold on, this might be something," he said.
It was Tim Terry, the Packers' assistant director of player personnel. Meredith's departure had created an opening on the practice squad. Would Randolph like to fill it? If so, could he leave that night?
Yes, of course, Randolph could certainly do that.
Terry had a few questions for the plane ticket. What was the closest airport? What was his full name? What was his birth date?
Funny he should ask. Sept. 4.
After a couple more quick answers, Randolph said, "Thank you!" and put down the phone.
"All right," he said. Then laughed.
The flight left at 7 o'clock. It was already 3. He had to get back to Owings Mills and pack and race to the airport in Baltimore. There wasn't much time. He walked out of the room and found Criss, who was standing with a handful of people. She chided Randolph -- a favorite of hers -- for not coming by more.
"You haven't been here since July," she said.
"And now I'm leaving again," he replied. "I'm going back to Green Bay tonight."
She gasped. Everybody smiled. There were hugs and then Randolph started to walk out of the room, down the stairs and out to the parking lot. Criss followed, peppering him with questions about his old, new home.
"I want to see Lambeau Field," she said.
He laughed again. Then he walked to his car. He remembered he had to tell Stevens.
"And my mother," he said. "I need to call her."
So much to do. He waved and climbed into his car, ready to drive into a dormant dream that was suddenly alive once again.