Being released from an NFL team [A former player perspective 2019]
"Times change, circumstances change, and that's the reality of playing in the NFL."- Peyton Manning
When I walked into the Seahawks locker room in Kirkland WA for the very first time for a tryout, I walked in on Jerry Rice (naked) and on his last day with the team. One of my childhood heroes... Right in front of me! If he wasn't buck naked I probably would have asked him for an autograph. Growing up in the Bay Area in the 80s and 90s I was born and raised a 49ers Fan. "MONTANA TO RICE" over and over and over...then it was over, Montana was released and eventually so was Jerry Rice. The unfortunate truth about being an NFL player.
Yesterday the Seahawks released two of my favorite players in a similar unceremonious fashion. I bet there is a young guy out there somewhere who thinks of Doug Baldwin and Kam Chancellor the way my brother and I thought of Rice and Ronnie Lott. Heroes, legends, larger than life...gone.
I thought it would be cool to share some insight on how things go down. Thanks to the HBO series Hard Knocks fans got a chance to see some of the anatomy of roster cuts but I wanted to share a little more. This is probably not a good thing but I am somewhat of an expert on the subject (personal experience). Check out these headlines:
I made the team!
I made the team!
Cardinals' defensive end/linebacker Joe Tafoya finds himself on the bubble heading into the team's final cuts Saturday.
I broke my foot and my career was over!
I am very proud of my career. 8 Years in the NFL is a lifetime achievement and a lifetime worth of experiences. Fighting for a spot on the roster of an NFL team is something that 99% of all college football players never even get the chance at. We all hear about the big name guys but an NFL roster is made up of 53 guys and 5 practice squad players. Each of them in their own right is a top talent deserving of being there. Many we don't know or have never heard of. There is just so much competition and not enough room. All it takes is once shot and sometimes that's all you get.
Every September during roster cut down there is a guy on the team staff who's job is to go into the locker room and tap guys on the shoulder. We called him/her the "Grim Reaper" because when they touch you, things go cold. They are usually someone who you have never seen before no matter how long you have been on the team. A nice and unassuming face with a tough job. "Joe, coach want's to see you. Bring your playbook." Your blood goes ice cold
"Every football player understands—even before he reaches the coach's office, he knows—that his dedicated young life, all that he has loved so much, is over. Football is done, and there is no place to go to. You are…cut." -Frank Deford (legendary sports writer)
Depending on who you are, status on team or years in the league, you will might not see the head coach. Or you might see the head coach and the general manager.
Rookies or rookie free agents:
Expect to go into a room with the grim reaper and see a scout or position coach. Grim reaper exits stage left and the talk probably lasts all of 3 minutes and is very boiler plate: "We all agree that you had a great mini camp. We love your work ethic and think you would make a valuable addition to any NFL roster. Unfortunately we have some really top talent ahead of you so at this time we are going to have to release you. Don't give up on the dream and stay ready just in case a spot opens up." Usually the player thanks them for the opportunity and the coach will instruct them to leave the door open for the next poor soul.
If there is a chance that the player will be picked up by a different team, the organization will release them outside of the major roster cuts. This is actually a sign of respect shown to the player. When a ton of guys hit the waiver wire at the same time, they are usually grouped together and organizations know that this level of talent is going to be roster filler or bargain deals. The organization will release a veteran who they respect away from all of the noise and give them a fair chance to get picked up by another team. Sometimes the player knows it's coming, and sometimes it's a shock to everyone on the team and staff. I've seen grown men breakdown and cry as their teammate packs up his locker and moves on. The grim reaper knows no bounds so it doesn't matter who you are, they can come for you next. They lead you into a room and the head coach will be there waiting. It goes a little something like this : "How's the family doing? Look, we are going to have to let you go today. Our staff is doing everything they can to let anyone interested know that they are getting a hell of a football player when they get you. We can't thank you enough for all that you have done here for us. We are probably going to regret this decision when we see you in the future."
All Pros:___________I don't have this kind of experience but I would think there is a lot of ass kissing and ceremony?? Probably not though.
Before you leave the office, they tell you to leave your playbook and that makes it final. It doesn't matter who you are and what level you are, getting released from an NFL roster is one of the most depressing feelings a football player can experience. I can't explain the wave of emotions that go through you. Adrenaline, sadness, anger, hurt and then you start to realize that everything is going to change drastically. I might have to move, I have to call my friends and family, will I get another shot??? So much unknown. This all usually happens as the reaper is leading you back down the hall. Sometimes the other coaches and staff will want to say goodbye. When I left Seattle, I said goodbye to so many friends in the locker room and around the building. Equipment manager, security staff, grounds keeper, secretary, coaches, strength coach, teammates...The list of people goes on. I was saying my goodbyes for an hour. All the while the reaper is by your side. Then you have to walk back into the locker room. If you are lucky no one is around but that usually isn't the case.
Angry and sad you have to clean out your locker (usually stuffing everything into a black plastic bag) among your peers who try to sympathize as much as an alpha male can. A few more hugs and hand shakes and then you are asked to turn in your security key. If you are a rookie, they usually book you a flight home.
After talking to your family and significant other for support, you usually get a call from your agent. "I can't believe they let you go!" Standard response followed by, "I have a bunch of teams that will be interested in you, don't worry." How can you not worry!? There is a 24hr period after each player is released from his contract where he hits what is known as the "Waiver Wire." This is a period of time where another team can pick up the player and his existing contract. It happens but not really that often. Depends on the time of the year I think. If multiple teams "claim" you on a waiver then you are forced to go to the team with the worst record from last season. I ended up in Arizona under Denny Greene after being claimed from Chicago. That is probably a story for another time but what a trip that was.
In a period of so many unknowns this is by far the hardest time for a player recently cut. Waiting for your phone to ring.
Not knowing if you have played your last snap. Not knowing if you have to go get a real job, not knowing what you are going to do. The wait can go on and on and on. It's almost easier to get injured and end your career that way then it is to standby and wait. Usually your agent is talking to multiple teams for multiple reasons but the agent isn't responsible for you getting on a team. Your film is. That is a hard pill to swallow if you aren't getting any calls. I've personally seen guys wait up to 10 years for "another shot" holding on to the dream. Something that is hard to get past is the idea that you are no longer in the spotlight. For some guys this can be the straw that broke the camel's back. Causing a downward spiral of financial ruin and relationship problems. For others it's a release of duty and on to the next phase.
Guys like Jerry Rice, Doug and Kam have made incredible impacts on the community. They don't just fade away. They are etched into our memories and engraved in the books as legendary. I was sad to see Doug and Kam go yesterday under the circumstances but a small part of me was happy to know that when they leave another Joe Tafoya will have a chance to claim their roster spot in the ongoing NFL circle of life.
-Joe Tafoya Former DE