A Not-So-Simple Twist of Fate
EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. — Call the bank. Call the cell phone company. Bring the suitcase sitting out in your truck into the locker room. At 10:30 on Monday morning, Zach Line was standing in front of his locker, running through the list of tasks he needed to finish before he and the Vikings departed for London.
That’s when head athletic trainer Eric Sugarman walked in, motioning for Line to come with him.
The rookie fullback has learned quickly that the NFL is full of surprises. Was this another one?
In just five months, Line had gone from one of about 500 undrafted rookies fighting for a place in the NFL to a starter throwing blocks for league MVP Adrian Peterson, a journey we’ve been chronicling at The MMQB. Line knew another hurdle was coming this week, when a spot on the Vikings’ 53-man roster would need to be cleared for the Pro Bowl player at his position, Jerome Felton, who served a league suspension the first three weeks of the season.
There wasn’t much time to decide. The Vikings’ team charter was due to leave Minneapolis at 7 p.m. on Monday, a day after a 31-27 loss to the Browns had dropped them to 0-3. Minnesota plays Pittsburgh this Sunday at London’s Wembley Stadium as “host” of the first of the NFL’s two international games this season.
When Line arrived at the team’s Winter Park headquarters on Monday morning, the signs were good. He found the same piece of paper hanging in his locker as all of the team’s stars, and the same orange prescription bottle sitting on the top shelf: Ambien, the note from the team’s medical staff explained, if you’d like help sleeping on the overnight flight to London.
On to Week 4? Not quite.
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Felton, suspended for violating the league’s substance-abuse policy (the result of a 2012 DWI arrest), called the first three weeks of the season “one of the more frustrating periods of my life.” For Line, it was a career opportunity he wasn’t sure he’d get as a rookie.
Line figured if he earned a roster spot this season, and if he were active on game day, he’d mainly be contributing on special teams. Instead, the 23-year-old Southern Methodist grad shared lead-blocking duties with converted tight end Rhett Ellison the first two games of the season, including the opener at Detroit, a 45-minute drive from Line’s hometown of Oxford, Mich. When Ellison was ruled out for the Browns game with an injury, Line made his first start.
Line played 16 snaps on offense in Week 1; 27 in Week 2; 25 in Week 3. He knew he did not execute every play perfectly. But this was an imperfect situation—a rookie who’d been a college tailback replacing a Pro Bowl fullback. Line worked to accelerate his learning curve, spending hours studying film of how opposing linebackers take on blocks, and trying to understand the chemistry Felton had with Peterson during his 2,097-yard rushing campaign. Peterson instructed Line to make quicker reads, to allow him to burst through the hole. Line had been a preseason darling, scoring a 61-yard touchdown on his first NFL touch, but blocking for the MVP when the games counted was a another stratum altogether.
“Have to keep moving forward,” Line reminded himself, an attitude that applied to the small picture (each play) and the big one (each week).
Every Vikings player leaving the Metrodome on Sunday afternoon was looking to move forward. The 2012 playoff team was off to a disappointing start, its run game still hadn’t found the otherworldly groove of last season, and boos had rained down from fans all afternoon.
Something else was bothering Line, too.
He’d gotten tangled up on a run play during the first half and tweaked his right knee. But as the only fullback active for the Vikings, Line was not going to miss time. He slid a compression sleeve over the joint, and the trainers rubbed on a warming gel at halftime. He kept playing, and he was going to continue to keep playing.
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The Vikings had other plans. Line came in for treatment 7:30 Monday morning—ice and electrical stimulation, followed by a ride on the stationary bike. He met with running backs coach James Saxon, who told him his blocking had improved from Week 1 to Week 2 to Week 3, “so that is always good,” Line said. By 10:30 Line was back at his locker, reviewing that pre-trip checklist, when Sugarman found him.
The team was sending him to get an MRI on his knee at a nearby orthopedic center. When Line returned, Sugarman took him upstairs to general manager Rick Spielman’s office. “We’re going to put you on injured reserve,” Spielman told him. He was out for the year.
In the span of less than two hours Line had gone from preparing for a trip to London to processing the reality that his rookie season was over. What happened? Though Line declined to share the specifics, citing a team rule not to disclose injury information, a person with knowledge of his diagnosis said he has an MCL injury that will not require surgery.
“I understand how it goes; you don’t want to have guys injured sitting around inactive,” Line said. “But obviously, as a competitor, I want to play.”
I knew this was the life I was getting into. I’m looking on the positive side: You’re not cut. You’re not looking for a new team.
The timing is certainly convenient for the Vikings, who needed to activate Felton. But Line’s experience is not uncommon for players on the edge of NFL rosters. Instead of exposing a promising young talent to the waiver wire, teams can create roster spots by placing such players on season-ending injured reserve with a middle-term injury needing about six weeks of recovery time. Like most undrafted rookies, Line has a split contract, meaning he earns a lower salary on IR than on the 53-man roster—a difference in his case of nearly $100,000 this season.
Oddly enough, however, Line’s injury has given him the first measure of job security he’s had in the NFL. He and his fiancée, McKenzie Redman, have been paying a nightly rate in temporary housing in Eden Prairie for the past few weeks. But now that he is on injured reserve, Line knows he’ll be with the Vikings through the season and into next year. He and McKenzie can now lease an apartment, retrieve their belongings from the garage of her family’s Iowa lake house and move in with their two dogs, a yellow lab, Addaline, and a dachshund, Olive, who have been living with their parents.
Spielman told Line he wants him to stay involved with the team on a daily basis for the rest of the season—starting with the trip to London. Line appreciates the Vikings’ message that he’s a player they have in their future plans. He’d just prefer to be in their present plans, too.
After he left Spielman’s office, he called his dad, Joe.
“Any other person, I would say getting paid to work out and get treatment is a pretty good deal,” Joe Line told him. “But I know you’re a different type of person. It’s not about the money, you just want to get out there and play.”
By that point it was early in the afternoon, and the Vikings were leaving for London in just a few hours. Line attended the team meetings, rushed home to say goodbye to McKenzie and crossed off the items on that checklist. By 6:30 p.m. he was aboard the team plane, taking the Ambien to fall fast asleep.
The next day, in his room at a luxury hotel outside London, he was still processing the past 24 hours. Not to mention the past five months.
“I knew this was the life I was getting into,” Line said. “I’m looking on the positive side of things. You’re not cut, you’re not looking for a new team, you’ve got a good home here still and, hopefully, a long career with the Vikings.”
Line went to the mobile training room for two hours of treatment on Tuesday afternoon. On Wednesday the week’s meetings and film study would begin. His rookie journey continues, now behind the scenes.