Thursday October 22nd, 2015

The first time you get cut by an NFL team, you meet with the general manager and the head coach. You talk to your position coach, maybe his assistant coach as well, possibly your coordinator. You have to settle accounts with the equipment staff. You have to be medically cleared through an exit physical and meet with someone from player personnel. There is the foreboding black trash bag, romanticized over the years on HBO’s Hard Knocks, to be filled with the belongings in your locker. And then, after the stray encounter with a final staff member or well-wisher, there is the door.

Free-agent offensive lineman Julian Vandervelde has those steps committed to memory, at least when it comes to the Eagles, who have released him three times since the beginning of September and have signed and cut him six times each in total since they drafted him with the 30th pick of the fifth round (No. 161) in 2011. Aside from a one-month stint in 2012 with the Buccaneers (who in that span signed him, released him two days later, added him to their practice squad and dropped him from their practice squad), Philadelphia is the only franchise Vandervelde knows, accounting for all 16 regular-season games he’s played in and 14 of the 18 transactions that outline the stop-start-repeat roadmap of his five years as a pro.

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That familiarity can help smooth and even shorten a day that players on the fringe of rosters around the league understandably never stop dreading. The second time he was cut by Philadelphia last month, on the Tuesday after Week 2, Vandervelde says he met with Chip Kelly, line coach Jeff Stoutland, player personnel, the trainers and the team’s strength staff. Upon his most recent release, on Oct. 13, he only had to sit down briefly with Kelly and sign his medical papers before leaving. 

“I think it streamlines the process,” Vandervelde says. “Every time it gets a little bit shorter and a little bit—I don’t want to say easier, because it never really gets easy, but you come to understand the situation that they’re in and you kind of understand your situation has less to do with anything, so you just kind of learn to roll with it.”

Vandervelde is far from the only player to find himself piling up short stays with the same team time and again, and no matter how small a blip players like him register on the transaction wire, they all owe their fleeting shots at NFL permanence to the dramatic twists—literal and figurative—of the season.

Lions defensive lineman Andre Fluellen could hardly believe the sequence that had him signing his ninth contract with Detroit to replace the IR-bound Tyrunn Walker on Oct. 7, five days after the Bills cut him on the Friday of Week 4. But as his service time has piled up over eight seasons, Fluellen says he has shied away from the “double-edged sword” of watching specifically for injuries that may put him back on a team’s radar.

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“It’s always funny,” says Fluellen, who started at defensive tackle and recorded two tackles in Detroit’s first win of the season on Sunday. “Every time I come back, I get the same lines. ‘It was like you never even left,’ or ‘We still got your parking spot saved,’ or ‘We still have your locker set up.’ I don’t know any player who’s been released and signed back by the same team so many times. I can get released as many times as I want because it’s just a blessing to play in the National Football League.”

This is not something people keep formal leaderboards for, but Fluellen certainly has company. Saints receiver Andy Tanner was added and then taken off the practice squad or cut 21 times between 2011 and 2015 while never appearing in a game, which puts to shame many of today’s fringe guys turned cult favorites, including Redskins 53rd man Frank Kearse, whose recent travails were chronicled by the Washington Post last week.

With his veteran perspective, Fluellen looks back on 2012, when he was cut by the Lions for the first time and later feared his career might be over after being released by the Dolphins that October, as a “traumatizing” process that helped him reassess how he valued himself without football as a guiding lens.

“I have a story,” Fluellen says. “There’s not many players who can say they’ve been released eight or nine times. That’s a story to me. And I can tell people now with hard work and the right attitude you can do anything.”

After struggling in Eagles training camp, Vandervelde largely saw the first cut of his season coming. An injury to backup center David Molk brought him back to Philly last month, but then a pair of injuries at linebacker forced the Eagles to add depth there, squeezing him out of the 53-man roster once again. Then starting right guard Andrew Gardner was lost for the season with a foot injury, and Vandervelde’s positional versatility and his decision to hang around Philadelphia after being let go the second time paid dividends—briefly.

“I was feeling good,” he says. “I was playing good and really felt like I’d found a spot that I was going to stick with for the season. So this latest cut kind of blindsided me. I really didn’t see this one coming at all. It’s a rough situation, but like I said, there’s nothing really that I can do to have control over it.”

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Vandervelde chooses to keep his family at their “home base” in Davenport, Iowa, where he and his wife grew up, but he knows other wandering players who bring wives and children along every time they get a call from a new team during a season. Teams are required by the CBA to put signees up in a hotel for a week as they adjust to a new city, along with transportation to and from the team facilities, but Vandervelde values having a set place to come home to in the off-season, no matter where he ends up by the end of the fall.

Vandervelde’s most recent stint with the Eagles was long enough for him to participate in a good-humored visualization of his transaction-heavy career for a local reporter using only facial expressions. After he was released, he tweeted a blatant wink at the roster churn he has so often been caught up in.

He credits some of that self-awareness to how he’s spent the days since being cut, regrouping back home in Davenport, Iowa, with his son and his wife, who is pregnant with their second child. There’s a balance to be struck between flushing the playbook from his mind to decompress and staying sharp for the next time the phone rings, but Vandervelde has kept himself busy in the meantime. He points to the cooking show he produces in Davenport called Body and Soul and the metal band he fronts (currently on hiatus) called Bigger on the Inside as proof that he doesn't let his tenuous hold on a roster spot bleed into life away from the field. But the dream of the NFL isn’t over yet.

“I’m kind of at the point in my career now where I understand that the possibilities of my career at this point go one of three ways,” Vandervelde says. “This is either the end of it, which for some people that’s the case. This is the beginning of my journeyman legacy, if you will, where I start bouncing around until I find my place. Or the other possibility that could arise is that there could be a situation where … they call me back, I wind up starting and I find my niche and just take off from there. I’ve met guys who bounced around the league for nine years before they started. To find your niche is not something that everybody does, but it’s something that everybody hopes to do. So that’s kind of my hope.”

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