What It’s Like to Get Whacked
Austen Lane’s first-person account of the pain, self-doubt and uncertainty that comes with losing your job in the NFL
Austen Lane, 25, enters his first training camp with the Kansas City Chiefs this week, trying to make the team as a free-agent defensive end. Until mid-June he’d never been anything but a Jacksonville Jaguar. In part one of a two-part series for The MMQB, Lane describes the hard reality of living on the edge of a roster.
By Austen Lane
I wake up to my alarm with an unusual sense of urgency. Instead of throwing it on the ground like most mornings, I ignore the snooze option and toss my legs over the side of the bed. I find they haven’t taken on their usual morning state of gelatin, and my back doesn’t feel like an elephant used it as a personal trampoline. There is a reason I’m not dragging around like a sloth who should have regretted playing two hours of Call of Duty last night instead of getting two hours of beneficial sleep. It’s the last day of minicamp, and the sensation I feel waking up could only be described as the same feeling I got as a child waking up for the last day of school. Vacation’s almost here!
I get in my truck and select a playlist for the 15-minute drive. As I’m jamming out to everything from Slipknot to Carly Rae Jepsen (two staples of the “A-Train Gameday Mix”), I pull up to the stadium and park. I head through the main doors to start the same morning routine I’d used for the past three seasons—since the Jaguars, the only pro team I’d ever known, drafted me in 2010.
The routine: Review yesterday’s install, drink a protein shake, head to the cafeteria, get four scrambled eggs with ham, a big bowl of oatmeal, two orange juices and three strips of crispy bacon. This is the combination that has fueled me for practice and gotten me through many, many days. As I wait for meetings I find myself in conversation with some teammates about plans for the summer. My plan of going home to Wisconsin doesn’t really impress them. They’re going to Vegas, to Europe, to glamour spots. Hey, I love Wisconsin. It’s home. It’s my way to decompress before the pressure of camp and the season.
The entire team heads into the main meeting room inside our stadium practice facility. We wait with great anticipation for our coach, Gus Bradley. While some meetings you might feel a little bored, and have to rely on sunflower seeds or chewing tobacco to stay awake, Coach Bradley’s meetings are full of laughter, entertainment and inspiring stories. The best way to describe Coach Bradley is this: Imagine a kid on Christmas morning waking up, bounding down the stairs, seeing all the presents under the tree, and ripping open gift after gift. That’s how he feels about football, and that’s how he comes to work every day. Like with most of his speeches, I find myself today holding back the urge to spit out water or fall out of my chair because I’m laughing so hard. While it is a relaxed environment I always leave the meeting feeling motivated and having a new sense of confidence to be the best player I can be. Might be corny, but it’s the truth. I’m really excited about playing for this guy.
The defense disperses from the room as we head to our unit meetings. Walking out of the meeting room, I quickly switch from laughter at today’s story to visualizing our new blitzes in my head. Seeing the blitzes is a habit I’ve gotten into so I don’t look like a deer in the headlights in front of my team if a coach ever asks me a question.
“Hey, Austen,’’ I hear.
It’s an unrecognizable voice. I can’t explain exactly why, but I feel a moment of panic rush over me. I turn around to see one of our scouts. I start to slowly walk as he waves me over. Before I get the chance to say hi, the scout quietly says, “Dave needs to see you.”
Dave. David Caldwell, the general manager. Oh my God.
Suddenly, a cocoon of panic and fear surrounds me. You think that’s a little dramatic? To you, maybe. But you have no idea how a football player feels when, out of the blue, a stranger who works for the team says the general manager wants to see you. It just isn’t good. In fact, it’s usually life-changing.
I turn back around to see two of my teammates, who have stopped in the doorway to stare at me. They stare as though I’m a ghost. “What the hell is happening?” one says.
You tell me.
I turn to the scout and reluctantly start following him. My breath starts to shorten and my chest feels like a microwave in a washing machine, the only relief being if my heart tears out of my chest and spills on to the floor. I mean, it’s hard to control my emotions. Very hard. I notice another player in the same predicament I’m in. That player became my shield to block out everything in my mind, because in that instance my focus shifted directly towards him. He was a rookie who I had a few conversations with. We crossed paths often. I tap him on the shoulder.
“Keep your head up,’’ I said. “You will be okay.”
He gives me a nod but doesn’t look me in the face. I don’t blame him. As football players we are taught at a very young age not to show pain or emotion. We are engineered not to show tears; the liquid that comes down our faces represents being less of a man. I hold back any emotion, just as my teammate walking along side of me does. We finally arrive to the main office, walking in what seemed to be slow-motion. The scout tells us to grab a seat.
The scout says to me: “This isn’t the end for you. You’re going to be picked up someplace.” Once again I feel a wave of emotions burrow its way through my brain. Afraid to show vulnerability, I say a quick thank you. Dave comes out and calls the rookie first. Now I’m alone. I feel like a teenager waiting nervously outside of the principal’s office. My remaining emotion begins to turn into anger. I am one pissed-off Jaguar.
Here’s what I’m thinking: “Why would they cut me? I’ve done everything they asked. After all of the hard work I put in, all the times playing through pain … ”
Seriously, I bet I say to myself 10 times: “I’ve done everything they asked.” Like that’s going to change anything.
“I’ve done everything they asked.” Again and again, with the occasional F word being thrown in for good measure.
After 10 minutes the door opens, and I can’t look my teammate in the face for fear of seeing his reaction. I do give him a hug, though. I say: “I’ll see you down the road.”
David Caldwell, our new GM, young and eager to turn our team around, greets me at the door. I can tell he wasn’t liking his job at the moment. I’ve seen Walmart greeters who have worked a double shift with happier looks on their face. While the anger is still in my mind it starts to dissolve when Coach Bradley, catching me off guard sitting in the corner of the room, comes to greet me as well. I sit down. I quickly scan the foreign room known as the GM’s office and look at pictures hanging up. Just then my focus shifts as I hear my name called again.
“Austen,’’ the general manager says, looking me in the eyes. “We are releasing you.’’
Cue numbness. A verbal lobotomy. That’s what the words “We are releasing you” feel like. I just sit, nodding my head like a human vegetable, saying nothing. Some sentences seep into my consciousness.
“You’re a great player.”
“We just can’t see you fitting the system.”
“You’ll get a shot on another team.’’
The rest … gibberish. Remember the old Peanuts holiday shows? The sound Charlie Brown hears when his teacher is talking?
After Dave shakes my hand and thanks me for all I have done, I feel a new, larger respect for him. He decided to let me go early so I could find another team before training camp. Coach Bradley (who has been silent the whole time) tells me to come to his office. As I get there, the numbness starts to leave. I now comprehend what is going on. And now the sorrow starts to rise. Coach Bradley thanks me for the hard work and toughness I have brought to the team. After wishing me luck and telling me that he is always here for me, I decide to say what is on my mind.
I tell him the truth, and the dam that was holding the sorrow back starts to give way. I tell him that even in his short time here having him as a coach was some of the most fun I’ve ever had playing the game. I tell him it was an honor having him as a coach and that the team is heading in the right direction. I wish him the best of luck and give him a hug. I walk out of his office as he leaves to prepare for practice. I find myself in the hallway alone, not knowing what to do next. Do I get my things? Do I just head home? A few minutes pass and the scout comes back and directs me into a different office to sign my waiver sheet.
Then he takes my iPad, which contains our playbook and lots of our video to study. I’ll really miss that machine. I loved how much easier it made our jobs. Then I sit in another foreign office to sign a slew of papers covering my release and my medical condition. I keep my emotions together until my mind is swept back three years.
This is the very room where I signed my rookie contract to play with the Jaguars! And here is where it ends. I think back to how happy I felt and how elated I was just knowing that I had finally accomplished my dream, signing an NFL contract. Those memories of jubilation soon are replaced with shock. Where had the last three years gone? After the brief daydream, I focus back on the papers that I don’t even bother reading because I don’t care at this point. I just want to get out of the stadium and into my truck. I finish.
“You were one of my favorite players,” the director of football administration, Tim Walsh, says to me.
I smile, say thanks, and walk back in the hallway to await further instruction.
And all I want to do is get in my truck and speed away.
Again I am alone for a brief second until I see my strength coach and an assistant coach in the hallway. I thank them for all they’ve done for me and wish them well. Growing tired of waiting for further direction, I go the locker room, praying for it to be empty.
I wish they would have gone more in-depth on Hard Knocks about players getting cut, because I have no clue what to do. I head into the locker room and frantically grab all my stuff. All of my teammates are in meetings, and I want to beat them out before they come back. I look around at the vacant lockers and feel a single tear drip down my cheek. A new emotion hits me, one I can’t even name. Here I am trying to get out of the stadium as quickly as possible, but at the same time I feel like going as slowly as possible because this is last time I will ever be here. I want to abandon but cherish this moment, all at the same time.
I take a few deep breaths and grab the rest of my things. The locker-room door opens. Just what I didn’t want: The entire defensive line group is done with its meeting, and now my guys are coming my way. I take one giant deep breath, stop packing and walk up to them. I have no idea what to say, and I don’t want to say much because I don’t want to cry. I shake hands with some, hug others.
“Ball out,” I say, over and over. And they walk away.
I grab the rest of my stuff trying to hold back the tears. I rush out of the room and through the two main doors into the parking lot.
Damn! Forgot my training shoes!
But there is no way I’m going back into that stadium.
I get into my truck, throw my keys in the passenger seat and put my head on the steering wheel. My mind starts wandering to a million places. Here are a few of them:
“What am I going to do now?”
“I don’t even have a college degree yet.”
“What am I going to tell my family and friends?”
“Should I just go out on a bender this weekend?“
“Do I really want to be seen in public?”
“Should I just drive for a few hours away from this city?”
“I didn’t even get to say goodbye to everyone.”
“Am I ever going to play this game again?”
“I let everyone down.”
Ten minutes of that—random and pointless, but so unavoidable. Ninety minutes ago I was a Jaguar. Now, without warning, I’m … I don’t know what I am.
I put the keys in the ignition and drive home. I turn the music off and drive in silence. So many things are rushing through my head that my body doesn’t have time to cry or even feel sad. I call my mom in Wisconsin. No answer. Call again. No answer. She must be at work. I don’t want to leave a message having her worry about me. I then call my agent, Scott Smith. He picks up, and I tell him the news. Within minutes of talking to him I begin to feel better. He explains the process of going on waivers and how the team with the worst record from last year has first dibs and it continues all the way to the team with the best record. He puts my mind at ease and assures me everything will be okay. Then I call my mom at work and tell her the news. The whole time I am trying to remain as calm and optimistic as possible because I know if she hears any sadness in my voice her mom intuition would kick in and she would start to worry about me. I get sad but play it off as much as possible and assure her I will be okay.
“I love you, Mom,’’ I say. “I’ll be okay. Keep you posted.”
Right as I pull into my parking garage my phone starts beeping with text messages from people who had just heard of the news. After hearing 20 different beeps I decide to turn my phone off. I get through my door and collapse on my couch. I am officially a rookie again.
There are 31 teams I could play for, 31 possible different cities to live in, 31 different sets of teammates I’ll have to make friends with. Intrigued about where I might end up, I take my iPad and search for the NFL’s waiver order but can’t find it anywhere. How the hell hasn’t someone ever posted it? I throw my iPad down in frustration and decide to do the one thing that always seems to calm me down and get me through a hard time. While some people may do drugs or drink liquor to alter their state of mind, I simply listen to music. This day calls for something extra strong. I go with one of the greatest and most complete albums of all time. Dark Side of the Moon, by Pink Floyd. For 45 minutes I am taken to a place with no stress, no judgment and no pressure.
When the album ends I open my eyes, breathe a sigh of a relief as if a giant weight has been lifted off of my shoulders. I realize that there is no changing my predicament, and whether I like it or not the sun will come up tomorrow and the world will keep going, not caring how I feel. I can’t control what has happened, but I damn sure can control how I will react to it.
Everything, I decide, is going to be okay.
Coming soon: NFL life starts again for Lane