Stacked Odds, Big Hopes

The first installment of our season-long series following undrafted Zach Line's pursuit of an NFL dream
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LAKE ORION, Mich. — The bright-red Dodge Ram pickup truck weighs roughly two-and-a-half tons. All Zach Line has to do is move it, about 60 feet, with his bare hands.

“Make sure you take it out of park this time,” jokes an onlooker.

Line is crouched low, his forceful breaths sounding like a whistle, as he pulls at a rope attached to the truck’s hitch. Left, right, left, right. His face is flushed and his muscles are burning, but the truck rolls toward him on a clear, direct path. As long as he keeps pulling, he knows he’ll succeed.

What awaits him today in Mankato, Minn., is much less certain. One of about 500 undrafted rookies trying to make it in the NFL, Line’s job title as a fullback for the Vikings is tenuous, and his hope of earning a spot on the 53-man roster is controlled by an unforgiving numbers game.

Line is the type of NFL player few people ever get to know. He’s a long-shot in jersey number 48 who’s making a minimum salary and yearning for a chance to be a contributor on special teams. But from now until the Super Bowl, The MMQB will follow Line no matter where his journey takes him. If he earns a roster spot in Minnesota ... if he’s consigned to the Vikings practice squad ... if he gets cut and lands in another city ... if he finds himself out of football and working odd jobs until the next tryout comes his way. Whatever happens, we’ll trace an NFL season through the eyes of an undrafted free agent chasing his NFL dream.

A year ago, Line was a star running back at Southern Methodist who chased Eric Dickerson’s school rushing marks. He passed him with 4,784 career all-purpose yards and tied his 47 career touchdowns. Now, “I just want to do the same thing I did in college, be a guy that kids can look up to and see that hard work does pay off,” the 23-year-old says. But he’s already learned that the NFL is a different kind of game.

Line expected to be drafted, and with good reason. An assistant coach from one AFC team called him during the fifth round, telling him he would be their next pick. They selected a lineman instead. The same coach called back in the sixth round, telling him the same thing. Nope, another lineman. In the seventh round, the team passed on Line yet again—this time for a different running back.

On the final day of the draft, Line spent most of his time outside his parents’ house in Oxford, Mich., playing catch with his younger brother in the side yard. His mother, Kathy, kept taking walks around the neighborhood, while his father, Joe, kept glowering at the TV. But as soon as the final pick was made, No. 254, Line had no time to dwell on his “undrafted” status.

Never a day to rest when you're chasing your NFL dream. (John DePetro/SI)

Never a day to rest when you're chasing your NFL dream. (John DePetro/SI)

Within two minutes, he had to choose between six teams offering him a contract: the Vikings, Cowboys, Saints, Steelers, Texans and Titans. The money was comparable at that point, a small fraction of the approximately $200,000 signing bonus that fifth-rounders get. He chose the Vikings, believing general manager Rick Spielman truly wanted him, and then he and his family headed to Buffalo Wild Wings.

Line’s contract is technically for three years, but he’s under no illusion that he has any security. His yellow lab, named Addaline (get the pun?), will live with his parents during training camp. He and his fiancée, McKenzie Redman, stored most of their belongings in the garage of her family’s lakehouse in Clear Lake, Iowa. She recently graduated from SMU with an international studies degree, but it’s futile to look for a job without knowing where Line will be in September. “We’re just roaming right now,” he says. “Making a roster is a big thing. I want some stability in my life, because I haven’t had that since the end of college.”

It’s been a grind. Line hated the “Underwear Olympics,” as he calls the pre-draft prodding process, and needed to take a fast-acting nausea medication that dissolved under his tongue after picking up the stomach flu at the Combine. Perhaps worse, non-contact drills in the offseason aren’t designed to highlight the skill set of a fullback. Line figured his best chance of standing out would be to master the playbook, so he stayed up late each night, drawing up plays on a whiteboard.

The best advice he’s received so far came from a Vikings veteran, safety Andrew Sendejo, who told him he has to make “splash plays.” Line visualizes these: “Being a part of a tackle on kickoff ... picking up the right block ... picking up a block that you weren’t supposed to get, which made a play happen ... something that is above what they expect you to do as a rookie.”

Line spent his last few days before training camp home in the quiet suburbs between Detroit and Flint. Joe, who works in financial securities, and Kathy, who helps special-needs adults find employment, don’t play the numbers game with him. “They tell me all the time, ‘Just be you,’ ” Line says. “They know it’s going to be tough. That’s all you need, a hug and a kiss and good luck.”

How to Make It

Going undrafted makes it difficult to make your way in the NFL. But not impossible. Fifth-year Jaguars linebacker Russell Allen, once undrafted himself, offers the dos and don'ts to making it in the NFL despite long odds.

One day, during an organized team activities session, the offense was practicing quarterback exchanges in warm-ups and Line looked back to see the NFL’s best running back in his rearview mirror.

This is pretty cool

, he thought. He and Adrian Peterson actually have something in common, the whole business of chasing Dickerson’s records, but Line hasn’t brought it up. He just hopes they’ll still be teammates in five weeks, or at least in the same league.

But five weeks from now isn’t his real focus. On July 19, after pulling the truck four times in 90-degree heat, his trainers at the Powerhouse Gym suggested a hard workout a day or two before camp opened “to get your jitters out.”

Line paused at the suggestion, unsure. He’s already trained himself to think one day at a time.