Many professional football careers aren’t as glamorous as often portrayed to football fans. Glorified are the careers of NFL superstars such as Ray Lewis, Troy Polamalu, and even the recently retired Hines Ward. With 24 Pro Bowl appearances, 5 Super Bowl rings, and 3 NFL Defensive Player of the Year awards combined, the glory is worthy.
They have all had the fortune of enjoying a decades worth of pro football service with the same organization and will undoubtedly land themselves in pro football royalty in the near future, the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
These three juggernauts have lived the football fairytale, one that experiences having his name called during the NFL Draft, playing for only one franchise throughout a career, earning “all-star” distinction, and winning football’s ultimate prize, a Super Bowl ring.
Often lost among pro footballs intriguing stories is that of your football journeyman. Let us walk in his traveled shoes to catch a glimpse of a less celebrated but respected journey.
The journeyman has taken his last trip.
As he looks over his shoulder, he reflects on the highs and lows of an 8-year professional football career. A career that includes service in 3 separate leagues and 5 different organizations.
He has no Super Bowl rings, no pro bowl appearances, and has never been on a playoff team. Yet the wares of a demanding game are indeed present, the 11-inch scar that runs down the back of his arm represents a broken humorous that was surgically repaired with a titanium plate equipped with 12 screws. Sounds painful right? Not nearly as painful as the impact that it may have had on what was thought to be a promising young NFL career.
The journeyman’s pro football beginnings were less than ideal. He was not invited to the NFL scouting combine nor was he selected in the NFL Draft. Belief, hard work, dedication, and perfect timing all allowed him to defy heavy odds and make an NFL roster.
He reflects on many early successes. Successes that saw him lead his team in special teams tackles and make the dream play of his young career when he intercepted a future Hall Of Fame quarterback and returned it for 6 in his MNF debut.
Strangely enough, the undrafted journeyman was so “unknown” and underappreciated that there wasn’t even a picture of him readily available to post on the “horse trailer” after his Monday night efforts. An auspicious start to a career that would eventually see him cut 5 times and shuffle through 5 agents in the coming years.
He is not Ray Lewis, he is the football journeyman.
After 3 years in the NFL (the average career length of an NFL player) and another spent traveling from city to city working out for various teams, the journeyman decided that at 26 he had more football ahead of him. He decided to travel north of the border to join the Canadian Football League where he experienced a different culture of football. The differences were aplenty.
Imagine a playing field that is 110 yards long, 65 yards wide, with 20-yard end zones. Much, much bigger than an American football field. How about having 12 players on the field at a time, or having only 3 downs to operate with instead of 4.
The journeyman quickly realized just how fortunate he was to experience some of the smaller perks that he took for granted during his time in the NFL. The spacious oak lockers, free cleats and performance gear, chartered flights, and packed stadiums just to name a few. Not in the CFL. A trailer housed the team’s locker room, equipment room and training room.
It would mark the first time since high school that the journeyman had to purchase his own cleats, gloves and athletic apparel. He even learned how to “spat” (tape up) his own cleats and taped his own wrists for practices and games. With only a couple full-time trainers on staff, players were forced to learn these types of skills to maintain themselves. It would turn into a skill that the journeyman would carry throughout the remainder of his career, even diagnosing injuries of his own.
It was just a different game, one where you have the ability to score a single point, or where drawn out TD celebrations are welcomed. What would happen in the NFL if a player scored a touchdown, then jumped into the stands to chug a fans beer mug? Pay an unpleasant visit to Roger Goddell.
One of the most eye opening experiences that he had as a CFL player was driving himself to an away game 45 minutes or more away, purchasing his own pre-game meal – a number 6 from McDonalds with a HiCi Orange, and paying $20 to park at a game where he was a part of the main attraction. Does Jay-Z pay to park at his concerts? How about Troy Polamalu when he pulls up to a home game at Heinz Field? I doubt it, but this is the culture of Canadian football.
He is not Troy Polamalu, he is the football journeyman.
After time spent in the CFL, the journeyman traveled back south to be a part of the United Football League (UFL). This was a league that primarily consisted of football journeymen who at one time or another played in the NFL. He would spend the final years of his playing career with a different peace of mind.
No longer did he complain about having to tape his own ankles and wrists, instead he enjoyed teaching younger players how to do it themselves. At this moment, the journeyman was considered a well-respected veteran and looked up to by his teammates. He had experienced just about everything a professional athlete could minus the lofty awards. The respect that he received from his peers meant so much more than the respect given to him by football decision makers.
It had taken a relentless grind and an unwavering confidence just to stay on course, just to have a fighter’s chance. For the journeyman, he had exceeded the expectations placed on him as an undrafted player, for he wasn’t supposed to last as long as he did.
There are many triumphant stories still being written by current NFL journeymen today. You know, the London Fletchers, Kassim Osgoods, and James Harrisons of the world are journeyman names that you may be familiar with. They are undrafted and unheralded players who have paid their dues and then some in order to carve out outstanding careers.
But the next time that you see these weekend warriors flashing across your screen, take a minute to think about the unpaved roads that these journeymen have endured to give you entertainment on Sundays.
They sure deserve it.
I am your football journeyman.