(Andy Kenutis/Minnesota Vikings for Sports Illustrated)
Zach Line didn’t pack up his room at the extended-stay hotel in Eden Prairie, Minn., Thursday night after the Vikings’ final preseason game. He left his belongings—one pair of shoes, and all the clothes that would fit in one rollaboard suitcase and a duffel bag—right where they had been for the past two weeks.
“If I got cut, I’d come back and pack it,” Line says. “I just wasn’t very prepared to be cut. I didn’t want to be cut, so I wasn’t going to get ready to have to do that.”
You know what else Line did? He made other plans for cut-down weekend besides being cut. At 6 a.m. Friday, he took a flight to Dallas, where his alma mater, Southern Methodist—and his younger brother, Prescott Line, a redshirt freshman running back—opened its season against Texas Tech later that night.
Vikings players were off all weekend (Line triple-checked the players’ schedule with Jeff Howard, the assistant to head coach Leslie Frazier), and Line planned on being a Vikings player through the weekend. But in any case, the rookie fullback could stare at his phone, willing it not to ring from a Minnesota area code, from anywhere. Within 36 hours after his plane left the Minneapolis-St. Paul Airport, Line would know if he was among the 702 players around the NFL who had lost their jobs.
Line’s pass-catching impressed GM Spielman—and in fact both of his preseason touchdowns were on receptions. (Michael Zagaris/Getty Images)
He understood it was possible he’d have a voicemail when he landed in Dallas. Nope. He took an early-afternoon nap. He didn’t have a ticket to SMU’s game, but the school welcomed back the record-setting running back with a pass for the sideline. The Mustangs lost, 41-23, but Prescott scored his first collegiate touchdown, on a 2-yard carry in the fourth quarter.
The next day, Saturday, Line sat by the pool at his brother’s off-campus apartment. A little before 6 p.m., at Sfuzzi’s restaurant in uptown Dallas, Line ordered a half-pepperoni, half-chicken pizza.
Still no word from the Vikings.
* * *
The MMQB has been following Line since July, through the five-week gauntlet of training-camp practices and preseason games that leads to the moment of truth—for all NFL hopefuls, but especially for undrafted rookies like Line. NFL rosters had to be reduced to 53 players by 6 p.m. Saturday, a cut that eliminates about 40 percent of the players who reported to training camp. Line’s vow has been not to give the Vikings a reason to cut him.
His audition began months earlier, at the May rookie minicamp, where there were the nine draft picks and everybody else. Line was in the “everybody else” group. But Vikings general manager Rick Spielman had very much wanted Line on his roster. If the team hadn’t re-signed Pro Bowl fullback Jerome Felton this offseason, Spielman said, it may have drafted Line with a late-round pick; even with Felton back, Spielman felt strongly about bringing in Line to learn the fullback position, and he gave him the largest signing bonus of the team’s undrafted rookies.
Players on the edge of the roster are under constant evaluation, their spot on the team day-to-day. From their first day of work, Spielman needs to know the answers to important questions about these bubble players: How hard do they work in the weight room? Are they on time to meetings? Does the training staff find them to be durable? Are they respectful to the equipment staff? Those marks come in addition to their performance on the practice field, which during training camp is discussed in nightly meetings between Spielman and Frazier’s coaching staff.
For Line, it was a long and uncertain road from the February combine to a spot on the Vikings’ roster. (Joe Robbins/Getty Images)
Line stood out to Spielman in the rookie minicamp for his athleticism and pass-catching abilities. Once the team completed its first week of padded practices in training camp, even though Line still needed much work on his technique, Spielman recognized the “want to” mentality that’s necessary to succeed as a lead blocker.
“Those kind of guys find a way of making NFL rosters,” Spielman said.
Making a roster as an undrafted rookie often comes down to humdrum factors such as showing steady improvement over the course of training camp, or executing the correct assignments on special-teams units. But Line had a few moments in the spotlight, too, namely his 61-yard touchdown on his first NFL touch in the preseason opener. Spielman was thrilled, and not only for his scouting staff, who had brought Line’s name up in personnel meetings as early as last December. “You root for guys like that, just because you know what they stand for,” he said.
Spielman, who took over as the GM in 2012, and Frazier, the team’s head coach since 2011, want to build a home-grown base of young players brought up through their system (19 of their 53 players are entering in their first or second NFL season). Line was the kind of player they were looking for—but would the numbers pan out?
The Rookie Journey
Jenny Vrentas is following Zach Line’s story for the entire 2013 season. Read the previous installments here.
By 10 p.m. Thursday night, his audition was over. No more practices, no more games to prove himself. Line ran off the field in his purple No. 48 jersey not expecting this to be his last time playing in the Metrodome—but not knowing that, either. His position coach, James Saxon, gave the only appropriate answer at that point in time: “He’s hanging on,” Saxon said in the tunnel.
The Vikings had personnel meetings all day Friday. Mike Priefer, the special-teams coordinator, said he would give positive feedback on Line. “I can trust him,” Priefer said Thursday night. Spielman didn’t share the specifics of the internal conversations, but he did say, “there were a lot of positive comments on Zach.”
By the end of the day Friday, Spielman had presented three or four different roster scenarios for the staff to sleep on. The Vikings’ 53-man roster—the first version, anyway—was set by 11 a.m. Saturday.
* * *
Line’s moment of truth was anti-climactic. He was sitting at Sfuzzi’s with a high school buddy when the 6 p.m. deadline came and went. “I never got the phone call,” Line said, “so…”
So, yes, Zach Line, the undrafted free-agent running back-turned-fullback, had just made the Vikings’ 53-man roster.
Line had been confident. And his agent, Mike McCartney, had texted him a few hours earlier, telling him things looked good. But after Line’s experience in April, when he went undrafted despite a handful of teams calling him as early as the fifth round to tell him he’d be their next pick, he made no assumptions until 6 p.m.
His fiancée, McKenzie Redman, sent him the screen-shot of the Vikings’ 53-man roster as soon as it posted to the team’s app. She wanted him to check it before she looked, so he could make sure his own name was listed. When Line called Redman, who was in Anaheim, Calif., with her mom and brother, their shared relief initially trumped their excitement. “OK, so this is it,” he said. “OK, we’re good,” she replied.
At their table at Sfuzzi’s, Line’s friend Nick Tombrella tried to reinforce the magnitude of Line’s achievement by calculating the odds he just beat. Tombrella, who was Line’s quarterback at Oxford High School, used some fuzzy math to declare that Line’s chances of making an NFL roster had been .002 percent. Here’s another statistic Line can be proud of: Out of about 500 undrafted rookies who entered the NFL this spring, he was among approximately 70 who earned a spot on a 53-man roster, and the only one on the Vikings.
“It’s not where you start, it’s where you finish,” Line said. “I guess it hasn’t sunk in yet. I’m sure it will.”
There isn’t much time for reflection. The Vikings returned to practice today, the regular-season opener just six days away. Felton is suspended for the first three weeks, so Line could be lead-blocking for league MVP Adrian Peterson next Sunday at Ford Field. And he thought the stakes were high in the preseason. “You’re not really a rookie anymore,” Line said, “because they’re counting on you to be a player.”
The reality of the NFL is that rosters can change by the day. Even after Saturday’s deadline, more cuts came Sunday afternoon, after waiver claims from the previous day bumped another group of players from rosters. Another checkpoint for Line will come after Week 3, when Felton’s suspension is lifted and a roster spot will have to be cleared for the veteran. “You don’t have to make those decisions right now,” Spielman said.
Right now, Line is preparing for Week 1—a game that will be played less than an hour from his hometown of Oxford, Mich. The meeting room is one-third smaller than it was a week ago, and the Vikings’ paid accommodations at an extended-stay hotel run out today. But these are simply signs that Line cleared one of the hardest hurdles in all of athletics; that his dream is still alive.
Spielman will find Line, and each of the other rookies, at the team facility today to congratulate them in person. If anyone understands their achievement, it’s Spielman. He was once an undrafted linebacker out of Southern Illinois who was cut by the Chargers and the Lions; now, as a general manager, the weekend when calls more than 20 players into his office at Winter Park and tells them they’ve lost their job is one of the worst of the year.