taxi squads and hot dogs: life as a n.f.l. practice player

“He’s being paid to play too, Sammy! Just like you are!”

That’s Marty Schottenheimer, head coach of the San Diego Chargers, talking to Sammy Davis, defensive back and first round draft pick, as I confidently jog back to the scout team offensive huddle. Sammy has taken a lot of heat for not performing as well as a first round draft pick should. His confidence is slowly fading, cracking under the pressure. I just streaked by him during the scout offense/first team defense portion of practice. I’m pretending to be Randy Moss of the Minnesota Vikings. Last week I pretended to be Marty Booker of the Chicago Bears. The week before I was Chris Chambers for the Miami Dolphins. Every week I pretend to be somebody else. Anybody but myself. I’m good at my job.

It’s week 10 and we’re up against the Minnesota Vikings this Sunday at Qualcom Stadium. Our record is 1-7. That’s 1 win and 7 losses. Everybody’s been walking like they just had their pinkie toes cut off. Coaches and players alike. Who’s getting cut next? Dave Redding, AKA Red, our strength and conditioning coach—a kind hearted, no bullshit-talking man from Holdenville, Oklahoma—makes comment every so often.

-Ya’lls asses are tighter than drum skins. Relax, you pecker heads!

In the midst of all this job security, I purchased a car last week. I keep telling myself it was out of necessity. Being the good coach and father he is, James Lofton—former receiver, Hall of Famer, and our receivers coach—attempted to steer me in the right direction by showing me car ad’s in the newspaper. Lease a SAAB for low monthly payments. Right now! But I don’t want a Saab, I need a tricked out BMW! My college friend needed his Volvo family wagon back which prompted my need for a new car quickly. Which was fine because I was tired of my shirts being ruined by the little black fuzziest that would shoot out from the vents every time I turned the air conditioner on.

Fellow receiver, David Boston—a behemoth of a man (250 pounds, 5 percent body fat)—offered to sell me his “midnight blue” tricked out 2001 Chevy Suburban. $15,000, Cash. Seemed reasonable. Then I saw it. The outside: Candy paint, 23”chrome Lexani rims, Limo-tinted windows, Super-charged engine. The inside: Two 12” television monitors, four air-bag suspension switches where the center console used to be, and a bed of eight 12” Orion competition bass speakers—which takes the place of the third row where passengers might have been able to sit. My stomach tightened just looking at it. Red flags went up everywhere. So I did what any rookie trying to fit in would do. I handed him a wad of bills and drove my new space ship home.

Sunday arrives, game day against the Viking’s. I’m in my sweats and sweatshirt, standing on the sidelines, wishing I was out on the field with my teammates. I’m talking with back-up quarterback, Cleo Lemon—a laid-back, easy-going guy from Greenwood, Mississippi. Both of us were long shots, both of us made the practice squad. We’re reminiscing about how good the hot dogs were in the Cleveland Browns visitor locker room after we lost in week 7.

Why hot dogs were brought to our visiting locker room after a loss I have no idea. Usually, after a loss, there’s to be no smiling, no laughing, and no talking. No eating hot dogs like you just won the Super Bowl. It’s an unspoken rule. Shut-up and look pissed. So I carefully MacGyvered two of them into my sweat-pant pockets, hid around a corner where the equipment bags were stacked, and inhaled them as fast as I could. Halfway through my second one Cleo came around the corner, having the same idea, not knowing I had beat him to it. His eyes bugged out at the sight of me: hunched over like some wild animal tearing through the delicious mystery meat. The sight of me threw him into silent hysterics. In trying to hold back my laughter I sucked in a bunch of air which lodged a piece of hot dog into my throat. I couldn’t breathe. Cleo hit me on the back a couple times and the hot dog dis-lodged itself. We didn’t speak. Only smiled and finished our post game meal.

I’m realizing the importance of moments like those. Being able to laugh and relax, even if it’s just for a minute or two. The tension around the facilities is palpable. Stress is the norm. If I let myself get caught up in that whirlwind I become extremely depressed. I watch other practice squad players fall into that trap. Each day they search for meaning in their life. I am more than just a shape, color and line on a laminated sheet! No. You’re not. Do your job or we’ll find somebody else who will. It’s that simple. Each day their energy drops a little more. Faces grow a little longer. Until…Sssssssssnip! Their thread of hope is cut. Out on the streets with you former NFL athlete. Your worst nightmares are right in front of you. Good luck!

I choose to laugh in the face of my nightmares. Even if it means choking on a hot dog.