A Game With No Clear End
When you’re cut for the second time in three months, you begin to see football, and yourself, in a new light. You’re waiting for a call from a new team, or for an alarm to go off telling you it’s time to move on
By Austen Lane
JACKSONVILLE — When writing part one of my crazy football story 10 weeks ago (you may recall What It’s Like to Get Whacked, about being cut from an NFL team), I knew in the back of my mind that part two would be my redemption piece. The first article was about sadness, frustration and disappointment when I was cut out of the blue by the Jaguars in June, a bad fit for coach Gus Bradley’s new defense. The second part would capture my return to glory, a phoenix rising from the ashes of self-doubt and uncertainty and depression into the light, back into my rightful place playing in the NFL.
See, the Kansas City Chiefs had picked me right after the Jaguars fired me, thinking I could be a fit as a fast, pass-rushing type defensive end. And the first game of the regular season, perfectly, was Chiefs-Jags—in Jacksonville. Part two was going to be a story of perseverance, hope and the power of a positive attitude.
Unfortunately, this is not that story.
There is a special time every year when Sundays aren’t just for church and doing work around the house. The special months between September and January feature Sundays when you assemble your friends, drink some beer and, most importantly, watch football. That’s for fans. As a player, Sundays were everything to me. Sunday was the one day a week I could just let it loose and have fun.
These days my Sundays aren’t as amazing as they used to be. Quite honestly, they stink. The smile I woke with every Sunday morning is now replaced with a scowl, much like the one you might come across in a long line at the Department of Motor Vehicles or the Post Office. This is my normal Sunday now: alone on the couch in my apartment in Jacksonville, flicking through channels like someone with advanced OCD. I watch parts of games, but even that enjoyment is now corrupted. It’s impossible for me not to key on the defensive ends and nitpick everything they do.
Ever watch a football game and question your own morality? That’s what I find myself doing every weekend. I have never wished harm on any player in my life, but I am also not blind to the fact that with injuries comes a higher chance of me playing on a team again. Instead of checking box scores and stats, I find myself checking injury reports. The inner conflict in me struggles to wrap my head around the fact that I am actually looking up the injury status of players whose availability, or lack thereof, might open a spot for me on one of the 32 NFL teams.
It’s been four weeks since I last stepped on a field. That was at Arrowhead Stadium in Kansas City. We’d beaten the Green Bay Packers in our last preseason game, and that should have made me happy. I’m an ultra-competitive guy. Always have been. As a seven-year-old I used to the throw the Candy Land board across the room when I lost. I should have been high-fiving my teammates after beating the mighty Packers. But no.
First, I was coming back from torn rib cartilage, and the heavy wrap made it tough to breathe. As the game ended, the look of my body language told the story of a guy who just lost the Super Bowl. As teammates around me were cracking jokes and walking in the locker room I just sat there looking around the stadium. For the first time in my entire life of playing football, I got a thought in my mind that I swore I would never get.
At that moment, for the first time in my life, I didn’t love football.
I don’t know if it was my rib injury that hampered me in camp, or my frustration of not being able to show what I could do. In the last two preseason games I had played a total of 12 snaps, and seeing how I wasn’t a starter, I knew this would be my last day on the team. Still, in the locker room I put on a fake grin the best I could. I congratulated some of my teammates, and we listened to coach Andy Reid’s postgame speech and had our team prayer. You could feel the excitement in the locker room. But one of my teammates saw through my fake happy demeanor.
“You okay?’’ he said.
“Hell, yeah, man,’’ I said, mustering up enthusiasm. “Just a little sore.”
But unlike my last day in Jacksonville, when I got the news this time I didn’t have any emotion. I was over it. Not sad, not angry. Just done. As I walked out of the locker room, I knew it would be the last time I’d share this room with these guys. I had to totally fake it when another teammate said to me, “Big homecoming for you next week—I know you’re going to be fired up.” All I could think to say was, “I know! Can’t wait.” Even though I knew it was a lie. A shame, because playing Jacksonville had become something of an obsession with me. I saw myself lining across the guards, working a pass-rush move and sacking Blaine Gabbert. It was always the same, and it always ended with me not celebrating but looking over to the Jacksonville sidelines and nodding my head. For three months I visualized it. Now I knew it wasn’t going to happen.
I left the locker room that night and met my mom and my best friend, both of whom were at the game. They knew what I was thinking.
“Mom,’’ I said. “No sense in going apartment-shopping tomorrow.”
That was it. Talking football fell to the wayside.
* * *
The final cut day is the worst day in the NFL. In one day a team is required to go from a roster of 75 players to 53. That’s 22 phone calls that are going to be made on every team to grown men, telling them they’re unemployed. Some of those players have families, some players are depending on game checks to make ends meet, and some players simply don’t see the cut coming. On this day I never worried too much because for the first three years of my pro career, in Jacksonville, I knew I would have a roster spot when the season started. This day, I found myself not worrying either. I already knew I’d be one of the Kansas City casualties.
The next morning, an unknown Kansas City phone number appeared on the screen of my cell phone. I knew what was waiting for me. It was pro personnel director Chris Ballard.
“Austen,” Ballard said to me, “we are releasing you. Please come to the stadium.”
My release from Jacksonville was a roller coaster of emotion. This one? As emotional as a kindergarten play. At the stadium I acted like a bitter ex fresh out of a long relationship. I left all of my gear, cleats and gloves behind in my locker. The memories they represented would only frustrate me more. I thanked Chris Ballard for the chance; I always thought he was in my corner. I never spoke with GM John Dorsey or coach Reid. That’s just the way some teams do it.
I saw some of my former teammates, now suffering the same fate as I’m suffering. A few guys looked shocked, while others like they were expecting it all along. We wished each other luck and exchanged numbers. These guys were complete strangers to me six weeks earlier and now I find them close allies—simply because they provide a positive outlet for me, like a drug addict in dire need of a sponsor.
Outside the stadium, I called my agent, Scott Smith, with the news, and he was there to pick up whatever pieces of my psyche that felt broken. He said I should have about a 50 percent chance of getting picked up. So I decided to drive home with my Mom. Maybe the short vacation would be good to clear my head before I make my start with another team.
Kansas City to Iola, Wis. Nine hours. About 615 miles. Lots of time to think. And time for a GM to phone me, offering me a rescue from the waiver wire.
We left at 8 in the morning. I kept thinking, as Missouri turned into Iowa: Is this ringer working? Do I have cell service out here in the country? Four hours into the trip, we’re north of Des Moines. Every five minutes or so I check my phone. Nothing. Nothing but texts from friends wishing me well. I text back that I’ll be fine, and I’ll get picked up soon.
Home in Iola. No call. It never came. I started working out. I saw old friends and family friends, and I told them the call will be coming soon. A week went by. The call never came, not even when teams could start signing players after Week 1, meaning they don’t have to guarantee your contract. Essentially, you sign a contract with a team, and they pay you week to week, and can cut you any time with no guarantees.
My shield of self-denial comes down. Reality comes back, knocking on my door. Reality bites, I must say. I had lost my ”constant” in life. While some people have family, kids or faith to keep them grounded, I had football. Family and faith are a big part of my life, but I spend the most time with football. Football was the one thing that kept me balanced, and while everything had changed the past 15 years of my life, football stayed the same.
It was my escape and comfort. Now it is gone.
Even though I enjoyed spending time with my family and friends, I started losing motivation to work out and I began to sleep in way too long. I sat glued to my couch from 11 a.m. until 6 p.m., flipping through channels or napping. Sleep was my ally. I felt if I slept maybe I would wake up and realize that my predicament was just a bad dream. For the first time in my life I wasn’t cleaning out my mother’s refrigerator. I’d lost my appetite. The only productive thing I would do all day was stretch. I tricked my body into thinking that if I made some kind of effort, my day wasn’t a complete waste. Looking back on it now, it was. My days used to be filled with excitement of game preparation and sharing the unexplainable camaraderie with my teammates. Now the highlight of my day was waiting until 6 o’clock for my friends to get done with work so we could go to the local bar for $3 tacos or $4 burgers.
Suddenly a weekend of partying and drinking was sounding better than focusing on getting my dream back. That’s when I knew it was time to head back to my home in Jacksonville.
* * *
With the change of scenery I was back on my normal regimen of weight training, yoga and running. But even that didn’t fill the void that football once took up. My workouts lacked intensity, and for the first time in my life I found myself losing self-motivation. That’s when I decided to visit my friend Matt at his boxing gym. Boxing has been my saving grace. While it’s not football, it’s the closest thing I can find. With every session I get worked to the point of having my heart beat so hard that I can feel it ringing in my ears. I get pushed to the feeling of almost puking, and then I get pushed some more. I don’t have time to think about football when I’m working on four-punch combos and have to focus on avoiding the mitts when they come back and try to hit me in the face. Hitting the heavy bag as hard as I can for a minute isn’t an activity; it’s a fight to survive. Boxing at the World Gym provided my cardio, and it made me have heart. You need heart to box—and to play football at a high level.
I still find myself telling people that I will get picked up soon, and the most frustrating thing is not knowing if that’s a legitimate statement or not. Four months ago I wrote my first article, a replacement Monday Morning Quarterback piece. I discussed the importance of present and future. I had a plan all written out, and it sounded like I knew what I was talking about. I thought I did, but the problem is this: How long do you go down the road, waiting for the NFL dream to continue? How long do I chase this pipe dream before I end up like an Uncle Rico from Napoleon Dynamite talking about the good old days and how he should have played longer?
That’s the torturous part of this. There is no alarm that goes off and says: No one’s calling. Stop fooling yourself. Get a job. Enter the real world.
Every day I live with the fear that I’ll never get another chance. It’s real. I feel it all the time. I feel for the first time I’m going to wave the white flag. Quit. The game was just too hard, and I couldn’t do it.
Ironically, that’s the same fear that drives me to push every day with a relentlessness I never knew I had—and that I’m not sure I’ve ever used to do anything in my life. My fear is now my biggest motivator. Others run from fear. I accept it. I embrace it. I eat with fear, sleep with fear, train with fear. When fear and my motivation are no longer married inside me, then I know it’ll be time to walk away.
That’s the moment I’ll finally find peace.
But not yet. I’m not ready.
So … life takes some strange turns. I finished this story and filed it to The MMQB on Tuesday of this week. Less than an hour after I finished it I got a text message from my agent.
“Get ready,’’ Scott Smith texted. “You have a workout next Monday with an NFL team.”
I’d rather not say the name of the team. Don’t want to jinx anything. But the hope is there.
And maybe, just maybe, there will be a Part Three of the Austen Lane story coming later this fall at The MMQB.