Chasing the dream: Six inspiring training camp backstories to follow
- These players may be flying deep under the radar, but their unique backstories are what makes the fight for roster spots so compelling as training camps open around the NFL.
We’ve made it! After 170 days of draft chatter and contract blather, we have officially arrived at the return of football. And with it, comes a portion of the NFL calendar unlike any other.
Simply put, training camp is where dreams go to die. The math demands it. Ninety men will report to each team this week after months of preparation. Yet in four weeks’ time, just over half will still be around. But of course, for those men who were once just boys with aspirations, training camp is also where dreams come true—and therein lies the draw. Legacies may be defined in January, sure, but lives are altered in August.
That’s certainly been true for Bills cornerback Mario Butler.
Butler’s journey to Pittsford, N.Y., started with tragedy. A father stabbed and stuffed in a refrigerator 16 years ago in Jacksonville. A 10-year-old son left without answers.
Jeff Sr.’s death didn’t do Mario in, though. Just the opposite, as he set out to honor his father by escaping the environment that consumed him. Bolstered by a strong support network at home and at school, Mario developed into a three-star recruit and earned a scholarship to Georgia Tech. There, he started 39 games, made the ACC Academic Honor Roll, and capped everything off with a go-ahead 85-yard interception return for a touchdown on senior day as the Yellow Jackets earned bowl eligibility. All of his hard work led up to the 2011 NFL draft, when Butler’s family gathered at his grandmother’s house to watch. Over three days, 254 picks went by without his name being called. That moment set the tone for what was to come.
Undeterred, Butler earned an invite to Cowboys training camp, where he played well enough to latch onto the practice squad—for a year. Dallas waived him in October 2012. His wife and their two children, including a newborn, moved back to Jacksonville at that point while Butler sought another opportunity, strengthened by what he felt had been a few impressive preseason performances. Two weeks later, he set out for Denver, where he again earned a practice squad spot—for a year. Butler opted to stay on the Broncos’ practice squad that first season rather than take an offer to join an active roster, hopeful that his loyalty would pay off. Yet, he could only watch as the team added several corners that off-season, and though he tried to give even more than usual during the preseason, it was not enough. He was let go on Aug. 25, the date the team had to go down to a 53-man roster.
As Butler returned to his family in Jacksonville at the start of that NFL season, the way he thought about his father’s death changed. No longer did it solely serve as motivation—it helped him gain perspective.
“The way my attitude towards most things now is not stressing a lot over what I can’t control. That’s the biggest thing,” Butler says. “If I can’t really control it, then I don’t worry about it.”
Of course Butler had discouraging days while he was home wondering when or if another NFL team would call as weeks turned into months. But he tried to make the best of his time. He watched his son’s first season of youth football, grew closer to his wife, and trained constantly. Butler flew across the country to work out for several teams, though each trip proved fruitless. After three months of false starts, he decided it was time to unpack his bags in Jacksonville. Maybe, he and his wife thought, emptying his luggage might prompt God to make a move.
The next day, Buffalo called. “We had been praying that wherever I went next, it was for the long haul,” Butler says.
Butler spent ’14 on injured reserve with an ankle injury, his first serious injury, but “it was just another obstacle that I had to overcome, just like anything else,” he says. “I just added it to the list.”
He made a team for two straight camps for the first time in his career last August, and in December, earned his first career start. He wore special gloves and shoes for that game, each emblazoned with ‘J. Lee’ in honor of his childhood friend, Joshua Lee, who he’d lost to colon cancer hours before kickoff. Lee had always encouraged Butler, telling him, “This is your year. This is your year.” He was right. By the end of the season, Butler had tallied nine tackles and five pass deflections. He had entered 2015 with none of either.
You might think Butler had made it, that he had finally broken through. But that’s not the case. This off-season, the Bills brought in Sterling Moore from Tampa Bay, Corey White from Tennessee, and former second-round pick Javier Arenas to compete for spots on the 53-man roster. When Buffalo training camp starts this week, everything resets. Butler is back to being the former undrafted free agent chasing his dream. For five years, he’s done enough to stay in the league, longer than most of those who came in with him in 2011, but those past performances cannot help him now. So Butler enters camp No. 6 with the same mentality he entered the league with: Make plays. Every day.
If Butler has changed during his time in the NFL, the difference is most notable on the mental side. He’s not nearly as nervous as he was heading into this first season. He’s learned what he can and cannot control. And he’s started to see himself in the bigger picture.
“There’s a lot more Mario Butlers out there,” he says. “Guys that have been on the bubble. Guys that continue to fight. Not only a lot of people in the NFL or the NBA but people that are living it every day that may be going through some things.”
This is all to say: Let’s stop counting the days until the Panthers and Broncos play on Thursday, Sept. 8, and start appreciating the players giving their all now. The preseason doesn’t count, but it matters.
Here are a few other players around the league whose futures could be shaped this August...
For Peyton Barber, family comes first
Some doubted Barber’s decision to leave Auburn early and enter the NFL draft this winter—until they heard him speak. At the combine in February, Barber explained that his mother was homeless, as she had been when he was a young teen. That was not the only challenge Barber has faced, though. Through his junior year of high school, he was put in special education classes due to his ADHD, and his ability to attend an SEC school was in doubt. Soon after arriving at Auburn, he was diagnosed with dyslexia. He finally knew why reading has always been more difficult for him. Still, Barber managed to make multiple SEC Academic Honor Rolls. On the field, he broke out last season to the tune of 1,017 yards and 13 touchdowns.
Teams asked Barber about his ability to learn a new playbook during interviews. Those concerns, combined with the fact he played only one full year at an increasingly devalued position led teams to pass over him during the draft, though he drew several suitors as an undrafted free agent. Barber decided to sign with Tampa Bay to stay close to his home in Georgia, and with the hope that the state’s lack of an income tax would allow him to do more for his family.
Barber also liked his chances of making the roster for the Bucs, who currently have six running backs. They carried four last season. He’s already been able to provide some aid after earning close to $10,000 from various autograph sessions. He has his sights set on much more, though, namely getting his mom out of the crowded two-bedroom apartment she is currently in.
The first step to accomplishing that is studying the Buccaneers’ system, which Barber says shares almost no overlap with what he had learned with the Tigers. After being given the playbook on a tablet, he has diagrammed every play in a five-subject spiral notebook, taking up over 150 pages, and he has put many on notecards as well. “I’m still learning it,” he says. “It’s been difficult but I’m going to get it.”
A self-described introvert, Barber says he wishes he hadn’t drawn attention to his family’s situation at the combine. “That’s the only thing in my life I hadn’t wanted to happen,” he says. As for actually struggling with homelessness as a kid, Barber would not have it any other way. “I wouldn’t be the same guy if I hadn’t gone through something like that,” he says.
And how about the decision to turn pro?
“I definitely enjoyed the time I was at Auburn. If you ask me today, ‘Do you miss it?’ Heck yeah,” he says. “Do I wish I could go back? Yeah, I do. But you’ve got to do what’s best for me and my family.”
Lawrence Okoye puts Oxford on hold
The British record holder in discus and 2012 Olympian has had less success stateside since making a career switch in ’13. Now, he is running out of time to achieve his dream of becoming England’s biggest NFL star.
Okoye was first introduced to the sport as a teenager by way of games broadcast on Sky Sports. He quickly figured the skills he had developed playing junior rugby union might transfer to the football field, and after competing in the London Games in discus, decided to pursue the dream he’d been harboring.
Okoye’s hunt for greatness started with an impressive showing at a regional combine. Scouts envisioned the 6' 6" 21-year-old as a defensive end, and he signed a month later with the 49ers, becoming a project for then defensive line coach Jim Tomsula. But Okoye spent his first year there on injured reserve and his second season on the team’s practice squad. San Francisco waived him a year ago. Even though Tomsula let Okoye go after becoming head coach, he said, “What he’s done in three years or two and a half years is remarkable.”
Okoye had the ability to return to discus (many throwers don’t peak until their late 20s) or find a new path in life (he has earned admission to Oxford to study law but deferred until at least 2017). Yet, he decided to continue his NFL odyssey, heading to Arizona. He only lasted there for a month though, before being cut for taking a reserved parking spot, as we learned during the premiere season of the Amazon docuseries All or Nothing earlier this summer. “There weren’t any parking places, so he just parked and came running in,” Cardinals coach Bruce Arians said on the show. “He has a different sense of entitlement having been an Olympian. He is a talented guy. He ought to go to Oxford.”
After that, the Jets brought Okoye in and began molding him into a potential offensive tackle—a change Okoye took in stride. “I’m using it as a way to broaden my horizons in the game,” he told NJ.com in December. That experiment did not last long though. They waived him in June. Okoye signed with the Cowboys a week later and returned to the defensive line. Dallas tried something similar last year when they signed Efe Obada from England, but they cut him in March. Okoye is hoping to last longer. Otherwise, another career change may be on the horizon.
Meet New York’s second most interesting man: Anthony Dable
Odell Beckham Jr. probably has a lock on the “Most interesting Giants receiver” title, but this Frenchman might not be far behind. A year ago, Dable was playing wideout for the New Yorker Lions, but he could hardly have been farther from the Big Apple. The team is based in Braunschweig, Germany—the name comes from the squad’s sponsor, a fashion label. After tallying 145 catches and 32 touchdowns over two years for the Lions, Dable caught the eye of former Giant Osi Umenyiora, who helped get the 27-year-old a tryout in February. “I was shown a video and I was like, ‘Wow,’” Umenyiora said to Newsday. “The things he was doing on the football field, you could tell they would translate. ... We’re not just talking about a special teams guy.” The former defensive end made sure Big Blue got to see Dable first, and New York signed him before he could attend scheduled workouts with the Seahawks, Chiefs and Jaguars.
Dable grew up competing in taekwondo and handball, not football, but picked up the American game after learning about it through NFL Quarterback Club 98 on the Nintendo 64. From there, he joined a local amateur team, quickly falling in love. After finishing his rounds as a cycling postal worker each day, he would stay up late to stream NFL games and watch NFL Network shows. Dable learned English by watching those games and highlights, and when you hear him speak, you can tell how much time he spent glued to the screen.
Fluent in French and German as well, he is now learning new Giants head coach Ben McAdoo’s offense after showing potential during OTAs. Dable recalls being stunned by how bright Manhattan was during his first night in town, but he has decided not to explore until he makes the team. If that happens, he will also have to figure out if he should uproot his 2-year-old daughter, Zoe, and bring her over as well. His position on the roster became more precarious with the addition of second-round draft pick Sterling Shepard, though there may still be space for him as he battles the likes of Dwayne Harris, Geremy Davis and Myles White for the No. 4 and 5 receiver spots.
Dable’s story, as well as those of German Viking Moritz Bohringer and England’s Harry Innis, who trained all trained together this spring, was told during an NFL Network special Sunday. Watching a pre-release version was special for Dable. “It’s funny that some parts are about me,” he says. “I watched so much of NFL Network reportage things, so having me on it is crazy.”
But Dable still is looking to achieve more. “You don’t come from France just to say, ‘I was on the practice squad’ or ‘I was signed and then released,’” Dable told ESPN in April. “There’s always a point where you make a play or do something that makes people notice you and that’s your start. I know there’s a moment coming like that for me ... and I just can’t wait for that.”
For now, you can enjoy these clips of Dablatron dominating his German competition.
The first native Kenyan to be drafted, Rees Odhiambo is just getting started
When Odhiambo was drafted in the third round this year, he was cooking pot roast and veggies. There was a time he considered himself to be a Day 2 prospect, but after an ankle surgery cut his senior season first, he was preparing for a call in one of the later rounds. Instead, he heard his phone ring in the other room and, after picking up, initially only managed to make out one word: “Seahawks.”
The first ever Kenyan-born player to be drafted, Odhiambo lived in Nairobi until he was seven. After his father died, his mother moved to the U.S., getting settled for a year—though it felt a like longer to Rees—before he and his sister joined her in Texas. There, he was quickly introduced to the local sport, though he was not pushed into trying out until going through a growth spurt in high school.
Tragedy struck again when his mother, shortly after receiving a degree in chemistry, died of a sudden illness at 38. Odhiambo, 17 at the time, was taken in by other family in the area, who helped keep his life together. Meanwhile, one of his high school coaches drove him to football practice everyday, and his lone scholarship offer, from Boise State, gave him something to work for.
After a redshirt year, Odhiambo appeared in six games for the Broncos and then started eight the next year. He would miss five games for injury that year though, and was sidelined for another four in 2014. In October of his senior year, during what was going to be his final drive of a comfortable win over Wyoming, Odhiambo heard his ankle break. An X-ray confirmed what he feared: his college career was over. He would not be able to perform at the NFL combine, either. Instead, he would have to answer tough questions about his injury history in between telling stories about his parents he had not thought about in years.
His agent told him to expect the injury to drop him two rounds, from the second to the fourth, at least, but the Seahawks—a team with an affinity for players who have overcome adversity—had other plans for the 6’4” lineman. Now, Odhiambo is adjusting to a new city, new teammates, and a new position as he transitions from tackle to guard. He has already found a rental home close to the team’s facility and has identified a few good eats nearby. Though he was drafted higher than many expected, Odhiambo says he does not feel any pressure to live up to the draft slot. Instead, he is getting another clean start.
“The way the Seahawks work, it’s not about where you are drafted,” he says. “It’s all about, ‘Can you come in and work hard and perform?’ They could care less where you were drafted…. To me, that works perfectly.”
Neiron Ball forced to bounce back one more time
Ball had already overcome more than his fair share of challenges by the time he reached the NFL. When he was six, he lost his mother to a heart attack. Three years later, his father died after battling lung cancer. Neiron’s brother-in-law, Dary Myricks, took the kid under his wing at that point and helped him develop into a four-star recruit. But one year into Ball’s Florida career, Myricks felt helpless as his surrogate son lay in the hospital with a brain bleed in 2011. Doctors eventually diagnosed Neiron with arteriovenous malformation, a rare condition that leads blood vessels to rupture. The condition could have been fatal. After losing both of his parents, Neiron thought he might be next. “This is a kid who has gone through a lot in life—a lot,” Myricks told ESPN. “He’s seen so much death. … For him to be dealing with an uncertain future, it was just so hard to watch.”
A risky surgery and a lengthy rehab process followed as Ball suffered from sudden loss of balance and light sensitivity. A year after surgery, he was cleared to practice again. When then-Florida coach Will Muschamp delivered the news to the team, "It was epic," teammate Ronald Powell said to Yahoo! Sports. “Special. The odds were so far against him ... it was joy for everybody.” Ball never put up big stats at UF, and his senior season was cut short by a knee injury, but he still did enough to get selected by the Raiders in the fifth round of the 2015 NFL draft.
Given everything he had overcome, what happened to Ball in his rookie year seemed especially unfair, particularly given how his nascent career was developing. He had tallied his first sack in Week 3. “It felt really good,” he said at the time. “My eyes got really big when I saw it coming, And then when it happened, I knew I had to celebrate, gotta make it cool.” Two weeks later, he earned his first start, one of the best stories of the season. But his next game would be his last of the year due to another knee injury.
Since then, a promising Oakland team has added several new linebackers to a young defense, forcing Ball to earn his roster spot again this August. Through it all, Ball has somehow kept an upbeat attitude, earning the nickname “Little Kid” as a Gator and connecting with young fans who have also had to battle brain disorders. It’s hard to see Oakland not continuing to invest in his future.