Most of them carry their broken dreams in large black trash bags slung over the shoulder as they trudge out the door. Anything that can be gathered quickly -- cleats, socks, shorts, hope -- is scooped out of a locker and stuffed into a plastic bag as the finality of being cut from an NFL team, and the uncertainty of when their next paycheck will come, sinks in.
For NFL nomads, those who bounce around the waiver wire without a guaranteed contract or fat signing bonus to fall back on, yesterday was the best and worst of times. Some will earn roster spots for the first time, but for the 17 players released by the Washington Redskins at the league deadline, this is the darkest weekend of the year. The Redskins reached their 53-man limit by cutting defensive end Ron Warner, who started twice last season; linebackers Robert McCune (a 2005 fifth-round pick) and Brandon Barnes; offensive linemen Mark Wilson (a 2004 fifth-round pick), Tyler Lenda and Jon Alston; defensive backs Garnell Wilds (who appeared in two games in 2004), Rufus Brown, Eric Joyce, and Siddeeq Shabazz; wide receivers Kevin Dyson, Jimmy Farris, Jamin Elliott and Rich Parson (Maryland); defensive lineman Aki Jones; tight end Robert Johnson; and punter Chris Mohr.
"Certainly, there are players there that you wished you could have on your squad," Coach Joe Gibbs said, "and your heart goes out to them. I had some tough conversations today."
Conversely, punter Andy Groom made his first NFL roster after being cut each of the last two years, and ultimate long-shot Zak Keasey, an undersized linebacker from Princeton, was the only 2005 undrafted free agent rookie to make the roster. "Nobody would have given Zak a chance," Gibbs said. Of the six players Washington drafted in April, only ninth overall pick Carlos Rogers and seventh-round selection Nehemiah Broughton can be expected to contribute this season (sixth-rounder Jared Newberry was already cut, fourth-rounder Manuel White was placed on injured reserve and first-round pick Jason Campbell is the number three quarterback and is expected to watch all season). Eight players will be thrown a lifeline by being named to the practice squad today, but the rest of these NFL casualties -- almost all in their twenties or early thirties -- have already hit a profound crossroads.
"The reality is, what are you going to do next?" said Redskins starting defensive tackle Joe Salave'a, who spent 2002 out of football and thought his career might be over. "Do I have to go back and finish college? Do I have something to fall back on? Am I going to be able to pay my bills? And in a lot of cases the thing is, you're trying to sell whatever possessions you have to get by until something else comes along.
"Some guys are willing to pawn all kinds of things to make ends meet, because if you're not equipped to have a second plan, then it's drastic. Some guys can do it, and for some it's a really harsh reality, because all you've done is play football. And then you couple that with relationship and kids? Man, that's tough. You've really got to be a man about it and find a way to bring that income home. It feels like the end of your world."
Sweeping cuts are a natural byproduct of a sport that demands a plethora of bodies to churn through August's preseason parody before results start to matter in September, and factors like depth at their position, salary and practice-squad eligibility enter the equation. A salary structure that rewards players for experience -- increasing their minimum compensation based on seniority -- can be a blessing and a curse.
"A lot of the time at the end it's not even the best man wins," Dyson, who has not played regularly since 2002, said prior to the preseason finale. "I've sort of been a part of that for the last couple of years, where I made more than a younger guy, who may not have the same talent I have, but he's cheaper. I have buddies that have been out of the league at 28 or 29 because they had to make a certain [contract] number, and there's only so much money available under the salary cap."
The Redskins try to handle their cuts delicately, and Gibbs meets individually with as many of the departing players as possible, but the process can be cruel. Having to break that news to family while sorting through the remnants of a modest training camp check only deepens the anxiety. The next call is almost always to an agent to see if there might be a job in Canada or the Arena League.
"You just wait for that phone call from your agent, basically," said starting linebacker Lemar Marshall, who was cut by three teams before starting for the first time last season. "And that's the worst, because they always say, 'If you're sitting there waiting on that phone call, it ain't never going to come.' It's not an easy thing to go through, especially when you have a family. You've got to be willing to jump up and move to any other city and hope you get picked up."
The NFL tries to prepare players for this eventuality, through advanced education and internship programs, but the lessons do not always sink in. John Jefferson, Washington's director of player development, said his efforts to counsel the players for the future are sometimes futile.
"Things change when you're no longer on the inside," said Jefferson, a former wide receiver. "Some guys come around here for help then [after being cut], and it's kind of targeted toward current players. There's so much going on when they get let go, so I call them later on to make sure they're doing all right and keep up with them."
Gibbs, meantime, urges the players he let go to continue pursuing the game they love.
"I tell them, 'Hey, I'd go to the bitter end, until I have no more options,' " Gibbs said. "And then you can look back for the rest of your life and not say, 'Well, I coulda, or I wish I had.' I think that's the best way to go. If you have a burning desire to play, then stay after it, and if it's taken away from you, then you have to chart the rest of your life and go on. But it's a tough thing for all of us. It's a tough day for everybody."