Next Man Up
I grew up in Compton, went to college at Stanford and got drafted by the Seattle Seahawks—never did I imagine I’d set foot in Richmond, Va. But there I was, standing on the football field at Varina High School on May 18 for one reason and one reason only: Michael Robinson asked me to be there.
My teammate for each of my two NFL seasons was hosting a youth football camp in his hometown. Normally, when guys invite teammates to a hometown camp, they understand that not everybody will make it; things come up, and for most of us it’s a hassle to break the routine of offseason preparation or to work around vacation plans. But when Mike Robinson asks you to be somewhere, you show up. Marshawn Lynch knows this. Leon Washington and Russell Wilson, too. We were all there, listening to Mike educate a group of 500 rapt young boys and their parents on the realities of our game. He told the children they could use football as an avenue to get to college, to better the lives of themselves and their families. But he warned the adults: “Every parent thinks their kid is going to go to the NFL and be successful and make all of this money, but that’s not the case for every kid, and it’s unfair to put those kind of expectations on a child.”
Over the next three months we continued on a championship grind, working through minicamp, training camp and, last Thursday, the final preseason game. The following Friday afternoon I dozed off while watching television and woke up to this tweet from Mike: “Been real #12thMan will always have love for ya.”
I gave him a call immediately. He was just as shocked as I was, and I could tell he needed some space and time to figure things out.
The feeling was surreal: They really cut Mike Robinson? There’s no way, I thought. Lynch, the man Robinson has blocked for since 2010, rushed for more than 1,500 yards last season. Mike was our NFLPA rep, a special-teams captain and a Pro Bowler in 2011. At this point you feel like guys like that, who put in all the work, would get a chance to be a part of this team, of this experience. You didn’t see him doing anything wrong, and you knew he wasn’t injured. So what happened?
I went into the next day of practice with those questions still on my mind. Lynch and others shared my sense of shock. When a veteran gets cut, we may discuss it privately amongst ourselves, but there’s no ceremony, no coach’s acknowledgement of the missing man. I never saw Mike collect his things from his locker, and I didn’t get to shake his hand. The next morning, it’s as if no one had ever occupied the locker that once read No. 26. In meetings, the agenda is the same as it was the day before: Win today. And somebody who’s no longer in the room isn’t a part of today.
When a veteran gets cut, there’s no ceremony, no coach’s acknowledgement of the missing man. The next morning, it’s as if no one had ever occupied the locker that once read No. 26.
Never mind that the veteran fullback had only three months ago assembled us here to face our collective demons. It was Robinson and a small group of veterans who called a players meeting in the wake of several PED suspensions to tell us this: “Nobody can control what you do outside this building, but you can’t hurt this ball club. You have to start thinking of yourself as part of this team, first.”
How devastating it must have felt, 100 days later, to be told you’re no longer a part of that fraternity.
So how do we, as players, walk that line? How does one give his body and dedicate his actions to the team concept with the knowledge that your own release could come at any time? It’s about living day to day, moment to moment, and not getting preoccupied with a long-term vision. When I’m out on the practice field or in the meeting room, getting cut is the last thing on my mind—I feel I'm the best cornerback in football. By the same token, I can honestly tell you that I’ve looked at my phone this preseason and wondered when I’m going to get the call to turn in my iPad.
Getting cut was probably the last thing on Mike’s mind most days. Same goes for Marcus Trufant two years ago. He was a former Pro Bowl cornerback, but he injured his back in 2011, leading to his eventual release and to me seeing the field during my rookie season. The only way NFL teams survive personnel losses—be they cuts or injuries—is a next-man-up mentality. Seeing Marcus go was not a wake-up call for me, because my eyes were already open. I hope and suspect that seeing Mike go was not a wake-up call for my teammates: Anybody who needed a kick in the ass already got it on the way out the door.
In the end, there is no man essential to the ultimate goal: We are each parts of a whole. Some parts become friends. You share meals with them, meet their children and show up to their summer football camps, no matter how far away. They become indispensable parts of your life. Yet to identify an indispensable part on a football team is to concede defeat in the event that man’s football mortality catches up with him. Every man can be replaced. In our case, fullbacks Derrick Coleman and Spencer Ware are up. Mike Robinson, unfortunately, is out.
Seahawks All-Pro cornerback Richard Sherman will be contributing to The MMQB throughout the season. Read what he’s written so far.