paper lion

After warm-ups and stretches, we break off into individual position groups for more specific warm-up drills. This morning we’re running short routes with the quarterbacks. The grass is much longer than the beautifully manicured Kentucky bluegrass of the Broncos facilities, and its wet, making it challenging to keep my feet. Nose over your toes, Grant, let’s go big fella, says wide receivers coach, Fred Graves—an old school receivers coach who still encourages his athletes to catch bricks with their bare hands, which we do before meeting up with the quarterbacks.

My legs feel rested. I’m quick coming in and out of breaks. The ball sticks to my hands like it should. On an intermediate route, running full speed ten yards then breaking straight across the field, my heel slides out from under me and I watch, in slow motion, as my knee hyper-extends, bending in a most unnatural way, causing the bones to clank together, then quickly, as if my leg is a sling shot, the ligaments holding my knee together snap back to shape with tremendous force.

Thunk!

It happens in the blink of an eye, quick enough that nobody notices, so I finish the route, even though I feel like I’m going to be sick. Not a good sign. In the past this usually has meant something serious has happened—snapped clavicle, torn ankle ligament, concussion. As practice moves along, I’m standing around more and doing less which causes my knee to tighten up. By the time we reach team offense and defense, the last drill of practice, I’m noticeably limping.

I have to laugh at my current situation, otherwise I’ll break down and cry. To work bitterly hard for so long, believing with my entire heart that when this impossible dream finally came true, two years ago in San Diego, that ribbons and streamers would fall from a blue sky, and all would be right in the world. But it’s the reality of my situation, being just another body in a camp of many, that’s crushing my childhood fantasy. Nothing is ever what it appears.

I want to leave this field. The facility. Fly back to Denver and hide in my small one bedroom apartment. Disappear from the world. Spend the rest of my life looking toward the snow-capped Rockies, reading memoirs by Frank McCourt, drinking coronas, eating Taco Bell until I pass out wishing I hadn’t done any of it.

I may regret what I am about to think, but I lost the ability to bullshit myself into doing things I don’t want to anymore: I need a break from the NFL.

After practice I receive a ligament test from one of the Detroit Lion trainers—sitting at the edge of a table he tells me to relax then pulls and pushes on my knee joint—just to make sure I haven’t torn anything, I begin my escape plan. I call my agent, Ryan, and tell him about my knee and how I want to fly back to Denver tonight. He asks if I can practice.

-I don’t think so.

He wonders if I might try.

-This might be your last shot at wearing an NFL jersey.

That may be, I say, but right now, I don’t care. I need to get the hell out of this city. My stomach turns, eyes begin to water. An emotional wave surges through my whole body. I’m angry. My body has failed me, my mind is so weak. I walk away from the hotel and hide behind some trees near the perimeter of the parking lot. Ryan asks again if I’m sure this is the route I want to take.

-I am.

That night, lying awake in bed with new roommate, practice squad wide receiver, Glenn Martinez, I begin to create distance between a game I have loved for well over a decade. This is not the journey I believed it would be. I don’t know what I was expecting when I arrived, but certainly not this.

The next morning I wake with a message from Ryan saying the best he can do is get me back to Denver later that afternoon. I’ll have to go through the motions of morning practice and meetings. I don’t plan on practicing and, since I know I’ll be leaving, I refuse to practice and risk making whatever I’ve injured worse.

I’m invisible walking through the locker room, observing everything from a distance. Everything takes on a new meaning from this perspective. Things aren’t as stressful. I stop caring about what teammates and coaches and trainers think. A trainer asks while icing my knee before practice why I don’t want to practice? I lie and tell him I wish I could, pointing to my knee as if all the ligaments have been ripped out. Fuck him. Fuck everybody.

Coach Mariucci—a kind man with perfectly combed hair and a great sense of humor—comes up to me during team stretch and asks me how the knee is. I tell him it’s sore.

-There’s no way to practice on it?

I shake my head.

-If there were a game tomorrow could you play?

A knife sticks into my belly. He knows this question will cut through any excuse. A guy wants to play or doesn’t, it’s that simple. Our eyes meet. I’m caught between wanting to impress this icon I used to watch on TV and saying fuck you to him and the entire league. I would try, I tell him. But I don’t think it would be pretty. He’s winces, face smaller, unsatisfied with my answer. He pats my shoulder, then walks away. This chance, however little it may have been, dies with that one exchange. I limp around the rest of practice, standing in the background, staying out of the way.

Later that afternoon, sitting in the lobby for my ride to the airport, Ryan calls.

-I let them know you just don’t have the passion anymore to play. That this would probably be the last team you try and earn a spot on.

His words hit like a hard fist across my chin. Football over? No. That’s not what I wanted to do here! I just need some time to mourn the death of my career in Denver. My heart is still laying on coach Shanahan’s desk. But nobody cares. The NFL machine continuously feeding on young men, chewing them up and spitting them out all over the country side—each one dismembered and confused, attempting to piece themselves back together one day at a time. A secretary approaches.

-Mr. Mattos a car is waiting out front to take you to the airport.

Her eyes are like cement, no feeling behind them. She hands me boarding passes back to Denver. I ask her if coach Mariucci wants to see me, seeing as though every team I’ve been released from the head coach left me with words of encouragement.

-No, Mr. Mattos. He is in meetings right now. Have a safe flight.

She rips out the knife that’s been stuck in my belly since morning practice. It’s one thing when a coach has to fire you. Encouraging words are plenty. But now, when I decide the direction of my future, I stand alone, without any promise of a future at all.

I throw my bag across the back seat and slump behind the driver. He’s quiet until we get closer to the airport.

-How was your experience with the Lions?

-About as useful as a paper lion.

His laugh is understanding. My boarding pass reads I’ll be flying back to Denver first class. The least they could do for a guy on his way out of this machine. I land in Denver well after midnight. After a 45-minute cab ride back to my apartment I jump straight into my car and drive north. I’ve never felt so free, unattached. I have nowhere to be. No one to tell me what to do. I can’t remember the last time I felt this alone. To counter this, however, is a knot in the pit of my stomach. What am supposed to do now?

An illuminated Taco Bell sign guides me off the freeway. I have some Coronas back at the apartment. Everything will be okay.

Everything will be okay.

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