‘Always Earning Your Keep’

An undrafted rookie, Zach Line beat the odds and found a home in Minnesota. These are the lessons he’ll carry with him going forward in the NFL
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Andy Kenutis/Minnesota Vikings for Sports Illustrated/The MMQB

Andy Kenutis/Minnesota Vikings for Sports Illustrated/The MMQB

The MMQB followed Zach Line’s foray into the NFL as an undrafted rookie staring last July, when he was preparing for the Vikings’ training camp by pulling a two-and-a-half ton Dodge Ram truck, through the 2013 season, which ended with him rehabbing knee and shoulder injuries on IR. His rookie journey now in the rearview mirror, we asked Line to share the 10 most important things he learned along the way:

1. This is a crazy business. You start camp with all these rookies, and by the end of it, almost none of them are around. You’re back with just the veterans. And then at the end of the season, you watch the coaches go through the same kind of deal. It seemed like one by one, they were let go. It just reinforces the turnover rate of teams, which is crazy in the NFL.

2. The importance of patience and staying calm. During the last few weeks of training camp, you run through every emotion you can possibly imagine. You have to take on the mindset that if you’ve done all you can on the field and in the meeting rooms, there’s not much more you can do.

Walk the Line

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3. You don’t always have a say over the course of your career.

When I was placed on injured reserve in September, it was just, “We’re doing this, and you’re going to go on IR.” I was upset at first, because I felt like every week I was getting better and better. But you’ve got to be willing to adjust and make it work, or you’re going to freak out and you’re not going to be able to make it.

4. Being cut isn’t the end of the world. Your first year, you look at being cut as, “Oh my gosh, it’s over!” Then you see so many guys get cut, and a day later they’re on another team, and some of them are making playoff runs with those teams or having successful years. I was fortunate to stick with one team all season, but there are so many routes you can go.

5. The grind is a lot easier if you are winning games. I didn’t get to go through the whole season-long grind, but I could see that the 5-10-1 season was a long one for my teammates. You’re trying to win games, and things are not going your way, and then you’ve got Christmas coming up and you can’t go home to see your family. Things were much brighter around the facility after a win.

6. Hearing the mindsets of other running backs is one of the best ways to learn. In college, the way I would pick up new things was by YouTube-ing guys and seeing what they did well. This year, I picked things up from Adrian Peterson, Toby Gerhart, Matt Asiata and Jerome Felton. You listen to them explain the things they’re looking at—their different views on how to run the ball, what they think will work for you. I’ve always said I’ll play wherever they need me to play, but I would love to get some carries as a running back again. That’s definitely where I want to be.

7. Regular-season games are so much cleaner than preseason games. That was the biggest difference I didn’t realize ahead of time. You have the veterans back in, so there are not as many mistakes going on, and the plays are run like they’re supposed to. I wish some of the rookies I was in camp with got the chance to play in that type of environment, too.

Despite his torn shoulder labrum, Line pulled this truck last July. (John DePetro/The MMQB)

Despite his torn shoulder labrum, Line was able to pull this truck last July. (John DePetro/The MMQB)

8. Having shoulder surgery actually relieved some pressure. I was put on IR with a knee injury, but I took the opportunity to have surgery to repair an old labrum tear from college. I was worried about my shoulder going into last year’s training camp, knowing the injury was there. This year, I won’t have to worry.

9. You’re always earning your keep. In high school or college, if you’re not playing well, you’re not going anywhere—you’re just not going to play a lot. If that happens here, you’re going home. Every day, no matter how sore you are or how tired you are, you have to be better than the next guy. And now, with new coaches, you’ve got to show what you’ve got all over again.

10. I can play this game. Some of our coaches from last season, including my running backs coach and a few of the defensive coaches, told me on their way out, “You’re going to have a long career if you stay healthy” and “You’re a good player.” It means a lot hearing that from someone, especially when he’s not in the best situation. I’m just glad I made a good impression.