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Rams sign 2013 UDFA LB Pat Schiller

Discussion in 'RAMS - NFL TALK' started by DCH, Jul 22, 2014.

  1. Alan Well-Known Member

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  2. Rambition Member

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    i had read this earlier before coming over to ROD. quite an interesting read, not only for background on schiller, but for the detail it provides on the life of a UDFA in today's NFL. recommended reading. hope no one minds if i give the article a bump...
    The Hard Life of an N.F.L. Long Shot
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    Christaan Felber for The New York Times
    Pat Schiller

    By CHARLES SIEBERT
    Published: November 21, 2012 89 Comments


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    More in the Magazine »
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    Christaan Felber for The New York Times
    Pat Schiller, center, stretches during a workout at the Atlanta Falcons’ practice field in Flowery Branch, Ga.

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    Christaan Felber for The New York Times
    At the Costco in Buford, Ga., Schiller buys snacks for his veteran teammates.

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    Christaan Felber for The New York Times
    Schiller greeting a fan at Adam’s Restaurant and Piano Bar in Buford, Ga.

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    Christaan Felber for The New York Times
    Schiller at a home game against the Carolina Panthers on Sept. 30.

    Last April 28, a splendid spring Saturday that fairly begged you to be outdoors, I spent all afternoon in front of my living-room TV, anxiously watching the last day of the annual N.F.L. draft, live from Radio City Music Hall. As big a football fan as I am, I had never seen any part of a draft, to say nothing of its final four rounds, which are a roughly seven-hour marathon that lasts until sundown. And yet, on that day, I sat riveted.

    I had in front of me what’s known as a Draft Scout Player Profile: a starkly efficient, computerized summation of every draftable player’s past prowess and future prospects. I, however, was interested in only one, my nephew, my younger sister’s son. His specs were, of course, familiar to me. But somehow the officious, bare-bones alignment on my computer screen — in categories befitting a prize steer at auction — rendered him a complete stranger. And a rather impressive one at that.

    Name: Pat Schiller. Number: 53. Position: Outside linebacker. Height: 6-foot-1. Weight: 234. College: Northern Illinois. Under “Pro Day Results” — his audition, essentially, before several N.F.L. scouts at the DeKalb campus of Northern Illinois University earlier in March — were 22 bench presses of 225 pounds, a 35-inch vertical leap and, for a linebacker, a head-turning 4.65 seconds in the 40-yard dash. Under his “Draft Scout Snapshot” was a link to game-highlight footage: a rapid-fire sequence of heat-seeking-missile launches into ball carriers; the all-out, “high-motor” mode of play that garnered No. 53 a team-leading 115 tackles in his senior year, along with second-team All Mid-American Conference and Northern Illinois’s Linebacker of the Year honors. As for Pat’s “Projected Round,” there was, after the word “stock,” a bright red, upward-pointing arrow, followed by the words “shot late.”

    Some 800 miles west, meanwhile, in a two-story modern colonial on a neatly etched cul-de-sac in the western Chicago suburb Geneva, Pat lay on the living-room carpet, holding his golden retriever, Champ. Around the TV with him was his immediate family: his father, also named Pat, a longtime excavation contractor as well as an accomplished pianist and songwriter in the Billy Joel mode, with a couple CDs to his credit and a No. 6 single on a 2004 adult-contemporary-music radio chart; Pat’s mother, my younger sister, Cathy, a doctor’s medical assistant; my niece, Stephanie, a classically trained vocalist who now works in the admissions office at Northern Illinois University, her alma mater as well; and her fiancé, Michael. My nephew, my sister had told me, wanted to keep things low-key, wanted to avoid the roomful of slack faces and well-meaning condolences should things not go as hoped.

    He was, in a sense, already chosen. Of the 80,000 or so who play college football every year, no more than 1,500 are even scouted by pro teams. On average about 300 of those players will be invited to show their stuff at the weeklong N.F.L. scouting combine held every February at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis. Hundreds more will perform at regional combines or at their college team’s pro days. Among the heads Pat turned was that of Ran Carthon, son of the New York Giants fullback Maurice Carthon. Ran Carthon was also a former N.F.L. running back before becoming a scout for the Atlanta Falcons. The Falcons called Pat four times in the previous week alone, the final call coming that Saturday morning.

    “Stay by your phone for Rounds 6 and 7,” he was told.

    What followed was a slow-motion combo to the gut. The Falcons’ sixth-round pick went to Charles Mitchell, a safety out of Mississippi State. In Round 7, they took Travian Robertson, a defensive tackle from the University of South Carolina. Four picks later, the Indianapolis Colts took as the draft’s last selection Chandler Harnish, the quarterback at Northern Illinois and my nephew’s close friend and college housemate.

    “The room went kind of quiet,” Pat told me. “There was like this skipped heartbeat. And then the waiting started all over again.”

    Seconds after the official N.F.L. draft ends, a whole other nether-draft begins, one far more frenzied and dramatic than the one at Radio City. From 1967, the year the N.F.L. instituted a joint draft with the more recently established American Football League, until 1976, the draft went 17 rounds, with about 450 players being selected. The current seven-round format totals about 250, leaving a vast countrywide bin of talented discards that general managers, coaches and scouts start madly ferreting through, like a group of shoppers who have been granted a limited after-hours spree for bargain-basement gems.

    Not two minutes after Harnish’s selection that day, Pat’s phone rang. Ran Carthon was on the line. The Falcons wanted him.

    “The truth is,” said Dave Lee, Pat’s agent, a partner of PlayersRep based in Cleveland, “when you get toward the bottom of the draft, basically from the fifth to the seventh round, the talent level isn’t all that different from that of the undrafted free agents. Teams at that point are just looking for guys that fit their system, and it’s anybody’s guess whether you’ll get drafted or not. The Falcons wanted speedy linebackers. Pat shows a lot of speed. They said, ‘We think it’s a great opportunity.’ They went through the reasons. Obviously we said, ‘We’re getting other calls,’ so we could play a bit with the signing bonus, but it was pretty easy to jump on their offer.”

    A contract was soon faxed to the Schillers’ home, its terms at once bleak and beguiling. Up front, Pat would receive just a $1,000 signing bonus, along with per diem expenses of $155 during spring camp. Should he make it as far as preseason training camp beginning in late July, the payment would be the N.F.L. Players Association’s stipulated $850 a week. The big money, big for a rookie at least, was all in the offing: the standard first-year salary of $390,000 he receives only if he makes and remains on the 53-man roster for the entire season. Should he be picked for the team’s eight-man practice squad instead, he would receive a salary of $5,700 a week, amounting to $96,900 over a 17-week season and more if the Falcons made the playoffs.

    Pat and Dave Lee were encouraged by the fact that the Falcons hadn’t picked any linebackers in the official draft. The team did, however, sign three other undrafted linebackers and a total of 23 undrafted free agents in all, the most of any team in the N.F.L. In the end, 623 undrafted free agents were signed in 2012 to the same basic contract that arrived at the Schillers’ home that evening. It all seems wildly prodigal. But not in terms of breaking owners’ bank accounts so much as players’ hearts. Two, maybe three, of the undrafted free agents annually signed by each N.F.L. team will make the 53-man roster. Of the 23 undrafted players on the Falcons roster at the start of last season’s minicamp, one player made the roster.

    With a signed contract in hand that Saturday evening, my nephew descended the stairs to the family’s finished basement to use the fax machine in his father’s music studio. The Falcons ask that their players send such contracts back before midnight. It’s the undrafted free agent’s peculiar inversion of the Cinderella tale: having to rush to ensure the right to arrive at the N.F.L.’s ball in a pumpkin.

    Six weeks later, his sculptured frame blurring in the gridiron-warble of a Georgia June sun, Pat was standing on the Atlanta Falcons’ practice field in Flowery Branch, learning the consequences of living his dream. Midway through the Falcons’ six weeks of spring-training sessions — each N.F.L. team’s yearly padless orientation ritual — Pat had just got what all first-year players in the N.F.L. most crave: a play, a “rep.” Reps for a rookie are but a few precious crumbs left after the daily scrums of the first and second teams — the “Ones” and “Twos.” It’s one of the crueller realities of the N.F.L.’s strictly enforced hierarchy, a classic Catch-22: what you most need in order to make a team as a rookie, especially an undrafted one, are opportunities to show what you can do. You have little chance of getting those, however, precisely because you’re a rookie. There are so few chances, in fact, that when a rep does come your way, the tendency is to get a bit greedy, to overplay.

    Mike Nolan, a former defensive coordinator for the New York Giants, Jets and five other N.F.L. teams before being hired by Atlanta last winter, had just signaled for the “Threes,” with Pat at middle linebacker or “Mike,” to execute a “Dallas freeze,” a package featuring two blitzing linebackers. As one of the scheme’s designated blitzers, Pat shot toward the quarterback then deftly swerved inside a blocking fullback to get at his target. Another head-turning display, although in this instance for entirely the wrong reasons. Coaches love speed. They love schemes even more, and in that one Pat was designated to be the “contain man.” His responsibility was to go outside the blocking back to prevent the play from developing wide.

    “Give me two good reasons,” Nolan’s voice boomed, “why you went inside.”

    Pat went slack beneath a bowed helmet, then shrugged.

    “That’s right!” Nolan replied. “Because there aren’t any!”

    Over dinner that evening at the nearby Legacy Lodge on Lake Lanier, where the Falcons were staying throughout spring camp, that play came up, just as it would, Pat assured me, at team meetings the following morning.

    “I heard ‘freeze,’ ” Pat said, “so I knew I was going to be one of the blitzers. I got that. But I treated it like a normal blitz, where you find any way you can to the quarterback. I didn’t realize I was the contain player. Unfortunately, in this league, you don’t get many chances, and that’s a blitz I’d only run maybe twice in the three weeks that I’ve been here. So you do all these things right and then you mess up the last one, and you’re getting yelled at. N.F.L. coaches will tolerate physical mistakes but not mental ones.”

    Weeks earlier, when I first mentioned to Pat the possibility of my writing a story about his attempt to make the Falcons as an undrafted free agent, he was open to the idea. His time in N.F.L. camp, however, had altered his outlook. He called me the night before I got on a plane to go down to Atlanta.

    “I think you might be wasting your time,” he said. “I mean you can still come down, but the story really can’t be about me anymore. I’m mostly just going to meetings and trying to learn the playbook. I’m kind of nobody around here.”

    He paused a moment.

    “Let’s see . . . how do I put this? You go from being one of the top players in college. O.K. not one of the top. If I were that, I would have been drafted. But I would say one of the top three to four hundred players. And then you come to the N.F.L. and, well, I’ve never felt so bad at a sport I know I’m good at.”

    He still looked a bit beleaguered as we sat at the dinner table at Legacy Lodge. A pained twist of his torso and head roll elicited an inner ball-bearing rumble. I noted over the years the Hulk-like morphing of my nephew’s body toward the formidable adult frame that presently houses the same sensitive, soft-spoken kid. But at age 23, football’s ravages had him constantly making his own chiropractic adjustments. There was no thought, he said, of seeking out a trainer. Everything a rookie does in camp is documented, and visits to the training room leave the wrong impression.

    “We have an expression here,” he told me. “ ‘You don’t make the club in the tub.”’

    I had always followed Pat’s progress from afar, heard the hopeful murmurings about him “playing on Sundays.” And yet it was only now that I was getting a chance to really spend time with the guy. Watching his contortions that night, I started feeling guilty about my own delight in his achievements. I didn’t know whether to give him a pep talk or the suddenly more urgent seeming advice, given the very slim odds of his realizing his dream, to get out while he was still intact, both in body and in mind.

    I thought of the conversation I recently had with his father about the constant threat of injury to his son, who had already overcome a badly shattered ankle in his freshman year of high school and a torn knee ligament at the start of his junior year at Northern Illinois.

    “I don’t think of the knees and hips,” Pat’s father told me. “They can replace those now. The thing I’m most worried about is his brain. I’ve been reading a lot lately about concussions.”

    My nephew told me that night that he had his share of concussions over the years but said he was never forced to leave a game or miss part of a season because of one.

    “I’ve had it where I’ve been hit, and the lights go out,” he said. “You stand up, and it’s like, ‘Whew,’ and then you’re good. I’ve also had it two or three times where a play will be called and you have no idea what it is or what to do, and you’re just out there aimlessly wandering around the field. But it’s never been to the point where I wake up the next morning really sensitive to light or I’m getting sick from it.”

    Another torso twist and head roll.

    “You do get to this point,” he told me, “where you feel your body is telling you to chill out, take a break, but your mind stays on the prize. And part of that now is the paycheck. What gets me through coaches screaming at me and the way my body feels is the thought of that $390,000. I’ve talked to other guys here about it, like, ‘Is that O.K. to feel that way,’ and they’re like, ‘Oh, man, don’t even think twice about that.’ ”

    I knew that when he was a sophomore at Northern Illinois and still living at home, he witnessed firsthand the effects of the recent financial meltdown. His father told me that late in 2007 and into the first two months of 2008, he was still receiving a number of job bids, and his bank repeatedly asked him if he needed a higher line of credit. By March, though, clients weren’t able to pay him. He turned to the bank for the higher credit line, but by then the bank was drastically reducing his credit: cards with a $50,000 limit were cut to $2,000. By the fall of 2008, work had completely dried up, and Pat had no other choice but to close his business. To pay off his debts, he got whatever he could for his bulldozers, backhoes and trucks at unrestricted auctions, $200,000 machines going for as little as $50,000. He was soon getting up at 4 a.m. to drive backhoes at distant work sites.

    “It’s tough seeing your dad break down,” Pat told me when I brought up the subject at dinner that night. “His name was now coming off the building he owned. Everything he’d worked for was gone. Everything you’ve seen in our house, all the nice stuff. That’s an illusion. He can’t really afford it anymore. He keeps it going for us. I remember thinking when everything was coming apart for him, O.K., I’ve got to help in some way. What am I good at that could also pay decent money? Well, I knew the answer to that one.”

    Being an undrafted free agent in the N.F.L. is an extended exercise in ego abnegation. You’re not only stripped of your college number; you’re exiled from the N.F.L.’s mandated numerical bracket for your given position. Linebackers on all final team rosters must bear a number in either the 50s or 90s. Pat, for now, was given 45. As for his fellow undrafted competitors, Max Gruder, a linebacker from the University of Pittsburgh, wore 46; Rico Council, a middle linebacker from Tennessee State, 43; and Jerrell Harris, an outside linebacker for last year’s champions, Alabama, 49. Some days in practice, Pat wore 40 and then was switched back to 45. Coaches and fellow players, meanwhile, were constantly confusing Pat with a third-year safety, Shann Schillinger, whose seniority naturally merited his getting dibs on the nickname “Schill,” thus saddling my nephew with — for obscure reasons — “Patty Melt.”

    Nolan kept calling Pat “Gruder” through much of minicamp. In a practice roundup in The Atlanta Journal Constitution one morning, my nephew — whom I watched the previous day grunt, sweat and double over with the rest of the squad — was listed as absent. After he made five tackles in the Falcons’ second preseason game against the Cincinnati Bengals later in August — finally turning coaches’ heads for the right reasons — the team statistician, apparently confused by the presence of two number 45s on the roster that night, credited Pat with none.

    “Well,” Pat told me on the phone later, “at least they can’t erase my film. Can they?”

    After one workout that spring, all the undrafted linebackers were headed back to the locker room with an extra helmet in hand bearing numbers in the 50s.

    “Yep,” Gruder said, smiling. “We’re also the vets’ helmet lackeys.”

    And water boys. At team meetings each morning, before taking their seats in the very front row — the better for the coach’s eviscerating explications of rookie screw-ups — the 40s brigade takes water and Gatorade to the veterans. The Falcons’ linebacker coach, Glenn Pires, told a story one morning from his days coaching for the Arizona Cardinals. The vets sat up front at the Cardinals’ team meetings, the rookies in the far back. Pires said a longtime veteran linebacker there had only to hold up a hand: one finger meant water, two Gatorade, three a cup of coffee.

    Of course, getting things for vets is standard rookie boot-camp stuff. Getting any time with one of them is the real challenge. At practices each day, the Threes are forever pacing the sidelines, craning their heads to at least get mental images of the plays being run by the Ones and Twos. They sidle up to them afterward with questions. It’s as though rookies are kept penned in a mental cage of the playbook schemes they’ve been studying from the start of camp. You can almost hear the whirring of all the Xs, Os, arrows and bent-Ts inside their helmets, like so many gnats they would love to have swatted away with one good hit.

    “They give you all this information,” Jerrell Harris told me after one practice. “But without the actual reps, if you don’t pick things up off the mental, then you’re just out there flying around.”

    I always heard that rookies are overwhelmed at first by the speed of the game at the pro level. But everyone I asked about this had the same response.

    “It’s not the speed,” the third-year linebacker Robert James told me. “It only seems like the game is a lot faster because you’re always trying to figure out what you’re doing and where you’re supposed to be. Once I began to learn the defenses, the game slowed down for me.”

    Much of the learning in the N.F.L. begins with unlearning. In college, Pat told me, coaches stressed never crossover running with your feet so that you can keep your depth and be available to make a play. In the pros they tell you to crossover run.

    “It’s no longer ‘keep your depth.’ ” Pat said. “In the N.F.L., everything is downhill right now. Get to the ball as fast as you can. Those things you perfected to a T in college are no good here.”

    For Pat and the other free-agent linebackers, what made the N.F.L. learning curve especially steep was the lack of extra time on the side with coaches.

    “You don’t get the patient schooling of college here,” Bart Scott, a Pro Bowl linebacker now with the New York Jets, who started out as an undrafted free agent, told me by phone. “It’s mostly on you to find ways to figure it out. To be mature. To be a man.”

    I asked Scott what advice he would give Pat.

    “Get with a vet and track him,” he said. “Everything he does. Learn it. Copy it. Then try to outdo it.”

    The one veteran Pat said he had begun to bond with was the three-time Pro Bowl linebacker Lofa Tatupu. The Falcons had just signed Tatupu, the 29-year-old former Seattle Seahawk, to a two-year, $3.6 million contract to shore up the Mike position after losing their star middle linebacker, Curtis Lofton, to free agency.

    “We’ve been out to dinner a few times,” Pat said. “A movie. He’s so generous. Doesn’t let me pay for anything. We were shooting pool here the other night, and somehow we got to talking about my highlight tape. We went up to my room to watch, and he’s like, ‘Hey, you got speed, man.’ Then he told me: ‘Look, you’re a rookie. You can’t control what you can’t control. I’ve seen lots of guys who should have made it get cut. The only thing you can control is what you do when you go in there.’ ”

    At the Lodge one evening a few days before the close of spring camp, Tatupu stopped by our table, dwarfing it with his mesalike shoulders. His injured hamstring, he told Pat, was going to keep him out of tomorrow’s practice, and Akeem Dent, the Falcons’ current starting middle linebacker, would be away as well, tending to some personal business at home.

    “You’re getting lots of reps with the Ones tomorrow, rook,” Tatupu said, heading off to his room. “Better study your playbook tonight.”

    It had been maddeningly difficult to get any indication of how Pat was doing outside of the occasional tongue lashings in practice. I had an agreement with both Pat and the Falcons’ communications coordinator, Brian Cearns, that I wouldn’t tell Mike Smith, the head coach, or any of the other coaches that I was Pat’s uncle or ask them specific questions about his performance. I knew my share of football coaches in the past and could well imagine the guff Pat might get if word got around camp that the no-name undrafted rookie had a reporter uncle following him.

    When I asked Pat for his own assessment of his play, he just shrugged.

    “It’s hard to get a good measure,” he said. “You don’t hear anything about the good stuff. That’s just the way it is here.”

    At the following practice, Pat got the promised reps with the Ones. It was always easy to tell when just the Threes were on the field. You couldn’t hear anything. Everybody was unsure of what they were doing, and so nobody talked. Now the vets were giving Pat his checks, he was chattering back to them, and, with the doors to his mind’s playbook-cage flung open, he was looking again like the guy in his own highlight reel; briefly playing in that realm of informed thoughtlessness that had turned scouts’ heads in the first place.

    Driving his gray pickup back home in Geneva during a break a few weeks after the close of minicamp, Pat popped in a CD. He wanted me to hear the motivational music he listens to before games or personal workout sessions like the one we were driving to that July morning at the ProForce training facility in Batavia, the adjacent town. He still had another couple of weeks off before the start of padded, preseason camp at the end of July. But on the verge of his first and perhaps only crack at the N.F.L., he had no intention of relaxing. He reached over and ramped up the volume, his pickup trembling now as soaring chords and tribal chants swirled above the same slow, propulsive backbeat.

    “O.K., don’t laugh,” he said. “But when I’m listening to this, I imagine myself running through a primeval forest somewhere with just a loincloth on and a huge hunting knife in my mouth. I’m really looking to kill something.”

    I often found myself trying to construct some kind of half-baked genealogy of Pat Schiller’s athletic prowess, his possible pigskin pedigree. His paternal grandfather, Eddie Schiller, a k a the Blond Tiger, was a boxer in the late 1920s and early ’30s who fought, for a time, out of Kid Howard’s downtown Chicago gym. Pat’s father told me he was kept from the gridiron by his mother to preserve his fingers for the keyboard. On my sister’s side, there was my mother’s brother, my uncle Carl Valle, a 6-foot-2, 240-pound all-city lineman at James Madison High School in Brooklyn who went on to play two seasons at Boston College. Carl’s equivalently proportioned nephew, my cousin Ralph, knocked about as an offensive lineman in the semipros back in the 1960s, playing for the Brooklyn Mariners and the Long Island Bulls, the New York Giants’ former farm team, briefly making the Giants’ taxi squad in 1968 and 1969. And then there was my older brother Bob, a linebacker and offensive guard at Archbishop Stepinac High School, in White Plains. He went on to play at Holy Cross in Worcester, Mass. But the combination of an outsize will in a somewhat plodding, too-small frame led to so many concussions that he walked away before the start of his sophomore season.

    Bob shaped my own football career. The summer of his sophomore year, appalled that I was still riding the bench as a wannabe fullback after my second season at Ossining High, he took matters into his own hands. Every day before dinner that summer, he put a helmet on my head, dragged me into the backyard, put me in the proper three-point guard stance and had me charge on his count into his bare, upward-flailing forearm. We did this until my face bled. We did it until I learned to get my face mask into his chest faster than his forearm could get to my face. I never sat on the bench again. By the end of two varsity seasons with only one loss, individual all-league honors and a late growth spurt that took me to 6 feet tall and 205 pounds, the college recruiters came calling. Mostly smaller schools like Bates, Colby and Colgate. Lehigh treated me to a New York Giants game. Brown had me up to Providence one weekend to meet with coaches and party all night with some players in their dorm.

    Still, I knew I wasn’t going any farther with football. Even on game days, I always felt that I had one foot outside the experience. During pregame psyche drills with my friend, Mike Chernick — a standout fullback and middle linebacker who went on to play at Yale — the two of us would be on the sidelines, pounding on each other’s shoulder pads, growling. Occasionally I looked up and saw the wild whites of his eyes and thought, He really means this.

    Pat Schiller really and wholly means it; he is all in. He flies around a football field overturning ball carriers with full-bore, joyous immersion.

    “I enjoy hitting,” Pat told me as we pulled into the lot of the ProForce training facility in an industrial park on Batavia’s flat, barren outskirts. “Especially when you stop someone short on third or fourth down and you look up and the crowd’s going nuts and you’re like: ‘I did that. Me. You’re welcome.’ That’s cool. People always ask me, ‘Do you change when you get on the field?’ Before a game starts, I have my routine, I listen to my music and I walk out and look up at the crowd and I . . . I’m getting goose bumps right now talking about it. It’s crazy. My body is filled with emotions I can’t even describe. I come out of my body, and I’m like, ‘I’m going to kill somebody.’ I become this lunatic. And even when I start to come back down after the first few plays, I’m still a different person. You know, a savage. But when I first come out, it’s like a drug, I’m literally trembling, almost crying. I have so much emotion.”

    For the next three hours that morning, ProForce’s founder and head trainer, Chris Browning, a defensive end and linebacker who starred at Batavia High School and Western Michigan University, had my nephew and his workout partner, Pat Brown, an undrafted free agent from the University of Central Florida who played offensive tackle for the Minnesota Vikings in 2011, gasping for breath in the 90-degree, midsummer heat. This was their daily, self-imposed “off-weeks” regimen, designed with Browning, to get them in the best shape possible for the start of preseason camp now only a few weeks away.

    Pulling thick steamship lines, they each took turns dragging a half-ton weighted sled atop which sat a screaming Browning, back and forth across ProForce’s hollowed-out industrial warehouse space. They repeatedly flipped an enormous tractor tire. They did position-specific agility drills tethered to wall-mounted resistance bands. Pat occasionally slipped out a side door to be sick and then bounded back inside to start anew.

    Sitting afterward with the two Pats and Browning in his office, I realized I had before me the entire spectrum of the undrafted free-agent experience. Browning got eight phone calls from N.F.L. teams on the last Saturday morning of the 2002 draft. Four days later the Bears invited him to rookie camp, but he failed to make the team. The following season he was invited to try out with the New Orleans Saints and again failed to make the squad. He ended up playing Arena Football for the Chicago Rush, New Orleans Voodoo and Columbus Destroyers.

    “Arena was very big then,” he said. “Guys could get a shot at the pros. For a lineman like me, you could make $60,000 to $80,000 a year. You didn’t have to mess with all the ups and downs of the N.F.L.”

    No one knows those up and downs better than Pat Brown. Signed by the Carolina Panthers after the close of the 2009 draft, he was released, picked up and released again five times from 2009 to 2010.

    “I lived in hotels the first two seasons,” he recalled. “It can be a bit of a shot to your ego. Getting told multiple times on multiple teams that you’re not good enough. Some guys can handle it. Some guys can’t. You just have to love it, because it’s mostly out of your hands.”

    Brown just completed his first full season with the Vikings, and had playing time in 16 games. I asked him if he was finally feeling a sense of security.

    “Never,” he said. “Never. I’m always looking over my shoulder. You don’t relax until you get that five-year, $25-million deal and so much money guaranteed. Then you know you’re an investment.”

    Undrafted free agents are forever asking themselves how long they’ll stick it out; how long they’ll continue to work out and wait by the phone, forestalling a real job. When I asked Rico Council, he didn’t hesitate: “As long as it takes, man. Football is what I know. I’m going to be in it one way or another. I’d rather it be as a player.” Max Gruder told me that he would figure it out as he went, that he had a lot of other interests to pursue when he was done with football. Pat said he would probably give himself a full year of not getting anywhere and not hearing from anybody and then move on.

    “I’d finish my degree in education,” he said. “I still have to do a semester of student teaching. But I’ll also not commit to anything serious for a while. I could end up playing in Canada. I’d do that.”

    All of those in the tribe of the undrafted can cite the inspiring precedents for persistence; the well-known N.F.L. Cinderella-man tales they repeat to themselves like soothing bedtime stories. Kurt Warner quarterbacked for the Iowa Barnstormers in the Arena Football League and stocked groceries before his meteoric rise. James Harrison of the Pittsburgh Steelers was cut four times and did a stint with the Rhein Fire of N.F.L. Europe before becoming a four-time Pro Bowl linebacker and, according to a poll last year of his fellow N.F.L. players, the most feared man in football. Chase Blackburn was back home in Marysville, Ohio, at Week 12 of last season, about to take a job as a middle-school math teacher when he got the call from the New York Giants. He ended up making the key interception of a fourth-quarter Tom Brady pass that set up the Giants’ game-winning drive in last year’s Super Bowl victory over the New England Patriots.

    “I’ve been telling your nephew, he may bounce around three or four times before he finds a home,” Browning told me. “That’s tough, but, hey, he’s young. Have fun. So few people get this experience. And don’t get too logical about it. He could get cut because of salary considerations. Some other guy’s agent might have a better relationship with the team. But then what if someone like Lofa goes down. Pat beats out the other undrafted free-agent linebackers and guess what, that boy is dressing.”

    Later that evening, my last night in Geneva, Pat and I stopped into a few of the local haunts along his hometown’s historic main street (a location for the period film “Road to Perdition”). Wherever I went with “Mayor Schiller,” as one friend called him, drinks materialized and tabs disappeared. Owners, managers, friends and friends of friends all stopped by to ask how Pat was doing and to wish him well.

    “It’s weird,” he said to me during a rare lull. “For some reason I’m cool because I’m able to play a game. And they don’t realize how hard and cutthroat it is now. They’ll say things like, ‘Hey, worst-case scenario, you’ll be on the practice squad.’ And I’m thinking, Are you kidding? That would be unbelievable. But these people are really counting on me, and I feel a lot of pressure to not let them down. That’s a big part of what drives me. And I like being the interesting guy, you know? I want to be talked about and turn heads when I walk into a place. Who doesn’t? It sounds so egotistic, but it’s what it is. And to think this is all going to be done one day, probably sooner than later, and I’ll have to face reality. Have a 9-to-5 job, not be Mr. Interesting anymore and never have the rush that I get before games. That’s scary to me.”

    A week before Pat was scheduled to return to Flowery Branch for the five weeks of preseason camp, he received a text message from Lofa. He had torn a pectoral muscle while lifting weights. Less than a week later, the Falcons released Tatupu and signed Mike Peterson, 36, a 13-year veteran who wasn’t resigned by the Falcons at the end of last season after three years at linebacker. My nephew’s stock as a middle linebacker, Lofa’s intended role, had suddenly soared even as his heart sank.

    “People keep texting or talking to me about what a big break Lofa’s injury is,” Pat told me. “But they don’t get it. This was the one guy I could really talk to about stuff. Plus, you just hate seeing anybody go down, especially someone that you were getting to know and feel closer to. But that’s the N.F.L. Injury is the No. 1 thing on a player’s mind.”

    Two weeks later, in early August, I was watching Pat from the sidelines at the Flowery Branch facility as Keith Armstrong, the special-teams coordinator, closed a practice with a kickoff-coverage drill. Special teams, it is constantly stressed at N.F.L. camp, are about the only place for rookies to get reps in preseason games and “make good film.” One or two eye-catching plays can be enough to prompt a phone call from a team looking to fill roster holes constantly being opened by injury.

    On Armstrong’s signal, one waterfall of would-be tacklers after another were unleashed — the Ones, followed by the Twos: swift, downfield flows soon met at staggered, eerily soundless intervals by pad-wielding blockers. A consequence of the heightened concern about concussions in the N.F.L. is that even fully padded practices have become largely clashless choreography, like ballet without the music: that singular symphony of crashing bodies we cringingly thrill to on game days.

    All through camp, Nolan stressed being offensive on defense. The simple 11-on-11 math of football inherently favors the offense. It has a “12th man” in the form of a play only its players know. What Nolan wants from his defensive unit is to find ways to “change the math.” Players, especially linebackers, are expected to “shock and shed”: engage their respective blockers and then throw them off on the way to the ball. To stay within their defensive scheme and yet be fast and supple enough to invent ways to be offensive and make a play.

    Pat seemed to be ever balanced on that edge between his natural speed and the confines of the scheme. When the Threes’ rotation came up in the kickoff-coverage drill that day, he was repeatedly the first one down the field. His swiftness, however, would soon send him flying past his scheme’s scripted pas de deux with a notably tardy counterpart. Seeing that his man wasn’t there, Pat just blew by and got directly to the ball carrier.

    “Schiller?” Armstrong fumed in his deep, drill-sergeantese. “Schiller, you’re killing me!”

    The only time I could get with Pat now was quick snatches of conversation along the sidelines after practice. Preseason camp days started at dawn and didn’t wind up until 10 p.m.: days of meetings, meals, practices, more meetings and then bed, all confined to the Flowery Branch facility. But as a sweat-drenched No. 45 headed toward the team locker room after kickoff-coverage drills that day, he gave me a knowing wink and smile as he passed.

    Two days later, just hours before the Falcons’ first preseason game against the Baltimore Ravens, Pat exuded the same sense of inner assuredness, one that he, too, seemed surprised by. “It’s crazy,” he told me in the lobby of the team’s downtown Atlanta hotel. “We play tonight, but I’m not worried. I feel calm. The key thing the coaches are looking for is how fast we play with the right technique. If they see that your footwork is wrong or that you’re at all hesitant, that sends up red flags. That’s trouble. When you do things fast, it means you’re confident.”

    From the Georgia Dome press box that night, I watched the Blond Tiger II pace the sidelines, still looking for some way out of his mind’s playbook cage. It wasn’t until midway into the third quarter that he took the field. Not on special teams, but as the Atlanta Falcons’ middle linebacker. On his first play in an N.F.L. game, a run off-tackle, he flew through the offense and brought the runner down at the line of scrimmage: speed and scheme melding at last.

    He tallied four tackles for the night. In the postgame locker room, he and his fellow undrafted linebackers, Max Gruder, Rico Council and Jerrell Harris, were all wide-eyed from the adrenaline rush of finally having their first taste of N.F.L. action. As he dressed, Pat handed me his cellphone to read the pregame text he received from Lofa: “Tear it up tonight!”

    The last three weeks of preseason whirled by in a maddening vortex of Sphinx-like silence from the coaching staff about the makeup of the final roster and increasingly rampant speculation by everyone else. My younger brother, Joe, was sending me so many e-mails with the latest blog predictions that I finally had to repeat to him Pat’s admonition to me way back in minicamp, when I kept citing blog posts picking him as the most likely to make team.

    “Ignore that stuff,” he said. “It’s not really based on anything.”

    By the night of the Falcons’ final preseason game against the Jacksonville Jaguars on Aug. 30, the original 90-man roster had been cut to 75. Gruder was the only linebacker released. The final cuts down to the 53-man roster would be made by noon the next day.

    The math of making an N.F.L. roster seems straight forward. There are 40 or so players who are Ones and Twos on offense and defense. Then there is a punter, at least one kicker, a long snapper and often a third-string quarterback. This leaves just a handful of positions available. The Falcons’ starting linebackers were set: Akeem Dent would be the starting middle linebacker with Mike Peterson as his backup. Sean Weatherspoon and Stephen Nicholas would play on either side. For the other two backup linebacker spots (if the Falcons decided to go with six), Spencer Adkins, a three-year veteran from the University of Miami, and Robert James, an undrafted free agent from Arizona State who spent the last two seasons on the practice squad, seemed favorites. It would be up to the three remaining undrafted free-agent linebackers to find some way to change that math.

    I watched that final preseason game on TV. Pat didn’t get a single rep on special teams, but he played the better part of the second half at middle linebacker in an inspired trance, calling checks, conducting the defense and taking down ball carriers like a seasoned pro. On one sweep, he shocked and shed two blockers, did a full 360-degree turn and somehow found the running back again, taking him down for a loss.

    He ended up tying Akeem Dent for the team lead in tackles with eight. In the postgame locker room, thoroughly drained by the Florida heat, he had to hydrate intravenously.

    “I was dead,” he told me later. “Played something like 60 reps. My sweat was sweating. I went into that game thinking, This is the last time you’re ever going to put on a helmet. I did everything like I did in college. Wore my face paint. Got into a zone. Didn’t give a damn what anybody thought or said. I was out there just flying around. I was a savage. Whether I got cut or not was out of my hands, but I never felt more at peace. I had no regrets.”

    Coach Pires made a point of stopping by Pat’s locker. “He said: ‘You played your tail off tonight. No matter what happens tomorrow, you’ve got to be proud,’ ” Pat told me.

    At just past 9:30 the following morning, Pat was back at the Flowery Branch facility getting a long-craved training-room massage when he got a phone call. It was from the Falcons’ football-operations office. They wanted to see him in the team-meeting room.

    “I knew right then,” Pat told me. “I’m thinking, You have got to be kidding.”

    Followers of HBO’s N.F.L. training-camp series “Hard Knocks” know this moment well: the solemn handing over of the team playbook, the heart-to-heart send-off by the coach. The Falcons, however, have players turn in their playbooks at the end of each week. Pat entered the meeting room empty-handed to see 16 other teammates with the same empty expressions. Among them were the other undrafted free-agent linebackers, Rico Council and Jerrell Harris, and also Spencer Adkins. The team was going with only five linebackers. Robert James got the fifth spot.

    They all sat there together, quietly talking about how lousy it felt, as one by one each player was escorted up to Smith’s office. Pat was among the last three guys to be called. After waiting well over an hour, he now found himself sitting before Smith and the general manager, Thomas Dimitroff.

    “They shook my hand,” Pat said. “Coach Smith did all the talking. I can’t remember his exact words. I was half-listening. I was so bummed. I’m getting cut. The thrust of it was that of all the players in camp, I was one of the guys who’d improved the most from week to week. He said: ‘You played your heart out last night. We really feel you’re going to be playing in this league somewhere. Unfortunately, we’re releasing you. We just don’t have a spot available for you now, but if anything changes, we’ll call you.’ I thanked them for the opportunity, and that was about it.”

    Downstairs, he noticed a group of five players sitting off to one side.

    “I went over and asked them what’s up,” Pat told me. “They said they were being kept around for the practice squad. That’s when it all really hit me that I was finished.”

    At 11:56 that morning I received an e-mail from Pat’s father.

    “C, Patrick was released. He’s not in the mood to talk to anyone at this time. FYI Pat.”

    On the hour drive south that afternoon from Flowery Branch to Hartsfield-Jackson airport in Atlanta, my typically text-happy nephew numbly watched as one message after the next came in. The veteran linebackers Stephen Nicholas and Sean Weatherspoon both texted to say how great he played against the Jaguars and that he shouldn’t be surprised if he got picked up by someone right away. Pires, the linebacker coach, phoned as well. None of it was helping.

    Back home that night, his parents wanted to take him to dinner. They purposefully chose a place in Elgin, a couple of towns over. “Mayor Schiller” couldn’t bear the thought of coming face to face with any of his eager hometown followers. His reputation, however, clearly extended beyond one suburb’s borders.

    “We’re just sitting down,” Pat told me, “and sure enough this waiter comes over. ‘Hey you’re Pat Schiller. You play for the Falcons, right?’ And I’m like: ‘Well, not anymore, dude. Just got cut.’ ”

    In his old bed that night, beneath the framed photo of the Blond Tiger that he keeps above a pair of bronzed boxing gloves, Pat felt deeply conflicted about being back home. He said he hated himself for liking it so much, right down to the warm heft of his dog Champ and the chance to just hang low for a while and heal.

    He slept well into the following morning, got up around 11 a.m. and shortly after noon headed out the front door with his father to shop for a new laptop. By then, Pat told me, he was beginning to take some stock in what Smith, his teammates and his agent all told him: he had made good film.

    “But dude,” Pat told me, “I’ve got to admit, I was thinking, If someone is going to call, I hope it’s two or three weeks from now. I was really looking forward to some time off.”

    Pat and his dad had just climbed into the cab of his pickup when his phone rang. It was the Falcons. They wanted to know if Pat would consider coming back to be on their practice squad.

    “Consider?” Pat told me. “I mean a couple of weeks off would have been nice. But to play for the team whose guys and system I know?”

    He was back in Flowery Branch by 9 that night, having never unpacked his bag.

    Six weeks later, I flew down to Atlanta to watch the Falcons’ away-game matchup, against the Washington Redskins, on TV with Pat. There’s a certain ghostly quality to being on an N.F.L. practice squad. You work all week with the team, attend all the same meetings, eat the same meals, accrue all the same weekly bumps, aches and bruises and yet walk the sidelines in the team’s official civilian clothes for home matchups and don’t travel for away games. An injury to one of the Falcons’ five active-roster linebackers could have Pat dressing for the next game. He could also be dropped at a moment’s notice for a needed backup at another position. Or he could be picked up by any of the league’s other teams for their active roster, forcing Pat to pack his things and break the lease he signed on the two-bedroom town house in Atlanta’s northern suburbs.

    The farthest Pat had previously lived from home was the place that he and Chandler Harnish shared near the DeKalb campus of Northern Illinois University, just 25 miles from Geneva. His parents took care of most of his bills, including car and gas and his auto and health insurance. His mother did his laundry at home. He never balanced a checkbook. Now, before a small whiteboard in his narrow kitchen, the two of us stood reviewing the monthly cost of living his dream.

    Rent: $975

    Furniture rental: $400

    Gas/power: $55

    Car: $310

    Fitness: $30

    Cable: $40

    He knew he could save more of his weekly $3,500 paycheck (after taxes) if he bought furniture. But to stay as mobile as possible in case of a sudden call to another team, he chose to rent: the headboard and clothes dresser in the bedroom; a spare wood table with four metal chairs in the dining room; and the L-shaped leather living-room sofa with a coffee table/ottoman. All the pieces seemed to barely touch the carpeting, as if they, too, were somehow keenly aware of just how provisional the life is that they’re furnishing. The air mattress in his guest bedroom was a last-minute donation from his former practice-squad mate Bryce Harris. Harris was signed by the New Orleans Saints to fill a hole in their roster during the first week of the season, just days after he moved into a condo a few doors down from my nephew’s.

    “It’s not easy,” Pat said, “having to pick up everything just like that, break your lease, go to a new town and learn a whole new system. But, hey, for $390,000 a year, you break your lease.”

    He told me he feels much more relaxed now with his teammates, more like one of the guys, but is still very aware of where he stands in the N.F.L.’s strict hierarchy.

    “You have to know your place,” he told me. “And believe me, I know. I’m always the first guy at meetings, and I’m the first guy back in the room after breaks. I still get the vets water and Gatorade. I dropped over $100 at Costco the other day on bulk candy, fruit roll-ups, Starbursts, beef jerky, sunflower seeds. We’re in there watching film for hours, so that’s my contribution.”

    He occasionally goes out with some of the other guys on the practice squad, but not much with the veteran linebackers.

    “I talk more now about the game with them,” he said, “and they’re all cool guys, but I don’t want to say, ‘Hey, you want to hang out?’ You don’t want to be that guy. Everybody does their own thing. They’re living their lives. But it’s not like I sit at home and say: ‘Oh, this is so sad. I don’t have any friends.’ It gets lonely at times. But I just kind of chill, and I find things to do.”

    That afternoon, Pat and I sat in front of his new flat-screen TV — the only thing in his place other than a coffee maker that he bought — watching his teammates’ come-from-behind victory over the Redskins, the Falcons fifth win against no losses. Pat watched like any modern-day, tech-savvy youth: a MacBook Air propped on his belly, an iPhone beside him, deftly surfing the Internet, fielding and sending texts between plays and during commercials, eyes darting between multiple screens until a play propelled him off the sofa with a thunderous roar.

    “That’s it!” he yelled at the tight end Tony Gonzalez. “Give me more of that Y.A.C.” (yards after contact).

    Somehow it wasn’t until we were watching postgame highlights that either of us noticed the backup linebacker, Robert James, whose former place on the practice squad Pat now held, had come into the game sometime during the fourth quarter. Pat sat bolt upright, grabbed the remote and scrolled back through the game to determine the precise moment James entered. He then went to the Falcons’ game thread on his computer, eyes narrowing, lips slightly parted in anticipation.

    “Stephen Nicholas,” he muttered. “Ankle.”

    For the next two days of my visit, we were on the Stephen Nicholas ankle watch. Texts and calls came from all directions. Everyone Pat knew, it seemed, was aware of Nicholas’s ankle. Gruder, with whom Pat had only exchanged a couple of text messages since Gruder was released in August, wrote, “You getting called up this week?” Chris Browning of ProForce phoned to ask the same thing. Over dinner the following night, the number of Dave Lee, Pat’s agent, flashed up on Pat’s cellphone. Pat held the phone to his ear. A protracted silence.

    “No, dude,” he finally interrupted. “That’s a funny story. I just thought you were calling about something else.”

    He hung up. A moment later he looked down with a quizzical head tilt at another call coming in.

    “Crazy,” he said. “You see a number pop up you don’t know, and you think: This is it. A team calling to pick me up.”

    Nicholas’s ankle injury turned out to be less serious than originally thought. But in the Falcons’ seventh game of the season, the linebacker Sean Weatherspoon was carted off the field with his own ankle troubles. He was out of the lineup for the next two games. When I checked with Pat a few days before the Falcons’ game against the Arizona Cardinals, Weatherspoon’s status was being listed as questionable, and the Weatherspoon ankle watch was still on.

    “Who knows?” Pat told me. “But if the call comes, I’m ready.”

    My last night with him in Atlanta, we went back to his town house after dinner to watch a little Monday-night Football. During a break in the action, he led me into his clothes-and-sneaker-strewn bedroom to show me the huge walk-in closet he felt would allow him to send back his rented dresser. I noticed that the dresser was topped with all manner of balms, unguents and painkilling medications: a 23-year-old with the medicine cabinet of a septuagenarian.

    Somehow, it was only then that I felt the full weight of what my nephew had managed to pull off: the ridiculous odds he overcame; all the excellent players he beat out. I suddenly felt more like one of his hometown acolytes than an uncle to a kid who grew up a thousand miles and, in terms of life experiences and career pursuits, a world away from me. A kid I only came to know at this juncture because he is so good at a game that I, like millions of others, so love to watch.

    “Dude,” he said, as I stood staring at his dresser. “I swear to God, if someone tells me right now there’s some miracle body cream out there that would make me feel 100 percent and prevent me from getting hurt but that could also cause cancer or liver damage down the line, I’d use it in a heartbeat. I would.”

    He picked up an empty bottle of anti-inflammatory pills and tossed it in the trash.

    “Even if I make it,” he said, “the average career is what, three or four years tops. But if I get hurt now, I’m gone. It’s nothing personal. If I’m injured, I’m dead weight. I’m stealing their money. Do you know how many linebackers there are sitting home right now that want my job? Hundreds. I mean, let’s get real. As much as Coach Smith or Coach Pires might like me, it would be: ‘Hey, it’s been a fun ride. You’re a good kid. But see ya, Schiller!’ ”


    Charles Siebert is a contributing writer and the author, most recently, of “Rough Beasts: The Zanesville Massacre, One Year Later.”
     
    #22
    LACHAMP46, rhinobean and Alan like this.
  3. DR RAM Rams Lifer

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    #23
  4. shaunpinney Well-Known Member

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    Ried is my under the radar guy for 2014 - there, I said it!
    I also think that he must HAVE something otherwise Fisher would have cut him early on for his jail time...
     
    #24
  5. brokeu91 Well-Known Member

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    Championship

    [​IMG]
     
    #25
  6. Alan Well-Known Member

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    Great story. One of so many.
     
    #26
  7. 551staaa Turtlemongers Annonymous

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    I wouldn't expect too much from the guy. Nothing good has ever come out of Northern Illinois. ;)
     
    #27
    Alan likes this.
  8. LACHAMP46 Well-Known Member

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    Thanks for this Rambition....gotta finish this in 2 parts, lol.....Dude can run...not sure if he's made for this game....I worry about fringe players like this, what will they play through, is the injury risk worth it?
     
    #28
  9. JS-Hawkeye New Member

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    Thanks for sharing my bro's article about our nephew. Tough road indeed. Sometimes a little extra heart & passion makes the difference.
    GO SCHILLER!!!
     
    #29
  10. LACHAMP46 Well-Known Member

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    welcome, and glad you found it. Tell your brother he's a great writer. Will Schiller play tonight?
     
    #30
  11. JS-Hawkeye New Member

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    Thx!! Will Do!! Not sure at this point.
     
    #31
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  12. Alan Well-Known Member

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    Hey JS, if I haven't welcomed you officially (I just made that official part up :LOL:), stop by the Re: Introduce Yourself thread and tell us a little about yourself and where you were posting before (just what you feel comfortable saying of course). I'll welcome you there and possibly even send you a fruitcake if I can sneak it by the mods. Any lies you might have heard about my fruitcakes are due to jealousy. At least that's the verdict I'm sure the jury will find.
     
    #32
  13. JS-Hawkeye New Member

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    LOL...fair enough...I'll give it a shot....you can hold the fruitcake :)
     
    #33
    Alan likes this.
  14. Alan Well-Known Member

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    :( Nobody seems to want my last two. You're loss. No pain no gain is what I always say.
    To others.
     
    #34
  15. Sum1 Well-Known Member

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    I've always kind of thought that some of these fringe moves are simply to get some new bodies in camp. This way they've got some different players with different strengths getting out there to go against the players they really want to evaluate.
     
    #35