“Don’t count your reps, make your reps count.”
This is what coaches tell players who have been stuck at the bottom of the depth chart—guys who haven’t had a lot of training camp action and think they’re about to get cut. With 90 players in camp, repetitions can be hard to come by as coaches prepare their starters for the season. Wide receivers, quarterbacks, and running backs especially, because there is only one ball, and to convince your coaches that you belong, that ball needs to be in your hands. Sometimes, you can go a whole practice without touching that ball in team activities. That’s hard to swallow, because in college, every one of these guys was The Guy With The Ball.
This shortage of reps ends abruptly at the end of August, culminating in a no-holds barred football game on a Thursday night ignored by most NFL fans. The fourth game of the preseason. The next morning, the phone either rings or it doesn’t. You’re hoping it doesn’t.
Coaches probably already have the starters figured out, so it comes down to 50 guys playing for 25 jobs. So leave it all on the field, they tell you. Put it on film. The tape don’t lie. Every other team is watching these games looking for players, they say. If it doesn’t work out here, someone else might sign you. This is a job interview for 31 other teams, they say. Now go out there and play together and have some fun.
The night before the game, you pace in your hotel room, looking at yourself in the mirror, repeating some mantra. This works best if you don’t have a roommate.
Then you try to get some sleep, and you’re going to need it. The starters won’t be suiting up and they won’t be in meetings with you. When you have bed-checks at 11:15, the starters will be at a gentlemen’s club sampling the local fauna, having been given the night off by a coach who knows they need it; who knows that this will be their last relaxing week of the year.
But this will not be the case for you. You haven’t earned that yet. So this game is, without any exaggeration, your Super Bowl—the biggest game of your life, and no one is watching. Well, you said you were frustrated with your lack of reps, right? Then get ready. You’re about to have all the reps you can handle.
Not only will you be playing the whole game on offense or defense, you’ll also be on every special teams unit—kick-off, kick-off return, punt and punt return. Special teams is football’s junkyard, where the night watch does its work. Most fans don’t care much about special teams, and I get it. A nicely placed ball lying first and 10 on the 25-yard line is a pretty picture indeed. Tight formations. Predictable scenarios. Ready for analysis. But the messy undertaking of changing possession, the handing over of goods; this is an altogether different game, and, in many ways, will determine who has a job next week and who doesn’t. If you’re on the bottom half of the roster, you have to play special teams. And if you can’t, bye.
So get nice and warmed up. Chances are, you’ll have some friends and family in the stands for this game. Wave to them. The pressure is on, but you won’t feel it. When you take the field for warm-ups, you’ll be struck by a feeling of calm and gratitude, a feeling of accomplishment. To have made it through the off-season, through training camp and into a position to be playing for a job, on an NFL field—that is all any of us wanted. And I don’t mean practice. (Practice? We talkin’ about practice?) NFL practices are scripted. Coaches are on the field, in the huddle, they call do-overs, yell at someone on every play. But during a game, all of that disappears. The coaches disappear. The game around the game disappears, and you are simply a football player again, getting lost in the rhythm of the game.
For me, I was always on the bubble, always looking to make that memorable play in the last game that makes the coaches think, “No way we can cut him.” To make that third-down catch that moves the chains. That block that springs a running back for a touchdown. That special-teams tackle. To show them that I could be counted on. That’s what every football player wants, and that’s what’s happening tonight—in a mostly empty stadium.
But the eye in the sky don’t lie. And the tape lasts forever. If you’re reading this Friday morning, the men who played in that game are sitting in some hotel room staring at their phones, hoping it doesn’t ring. Hoping there isn’t that cold voice on the other line saying that “you need to come to the facility, and bring your playbook (iPad).” Some of these bubble guys will make the team. Some will end up on the practice squad. Some will end up with another team, because warm bodies are needed throughout the fall. Some have played their last down of football of their lives and will start the long, strange journey home.
But all of them have endured something together and will forever remember that hot August night, when football finally felt like football again.
Nate Jackson played six years in the NFL and has written two books, Slow Getting Up and Fantasy Man. He co-founded Athletes for CARE, a non-profit that advocates for the health and wellness of athletes. He lives in L.A.