Former Chargers Wideout Nelson Spruce Making Case for NFL Return
Jason B. Hirschhorn
CARSON, Calif. -- Though life in the fledgling XFL might seem far removed from the more glamorous NFL, the experience doesn't differ greatly for the football players on the margins.
Nelson Spruce, the Los Angeles Wildcats' leading wide receiver, exemplifies this dynamic well. The 27-year-old previously spent time with the Los Angeles Chargers and Los Angeles Rams among other NFL squads and even took part in the doomed inaugural season of the Alliance of American Football last year. None of his stops lasted more than two years with most ending in a matter of months.
Still, Spruce remains a part of the game he played since his youth, and the XFL has given him the opportunity to continue pursuing his athletic dreams while staying close to his hometown of Westlake Village, California.
"I think part of that is being a hometown guy and having played for the Rams and Chargers for a little bit," Spruce says. "It's cool to just get that appreciation and still do it playing football."
While the Wildcats have yet to notch a victory, Spruce has begun to establish himself as one of the XFL's breakout stars. In two games, he has amassed 17 receptions for 192 receiving yards and 10 first downs, each the top such mark in the league. And while NFL teams limited Spruce to primarily playing in the slot, Los Angeles offensive coordinator Norm Chow has deployed him in a number of different roles on offense.
"I'm definitely having fun," Spruce says. "I think the good part about leagues like this is they give guys an opportunity to play again, the guys like me that have been bounced around the NFL and not really sticking anywhere. It's like, if you love playing the game, it's the perfect opportunity for guys like me. I've been having fun with it. Obviously, we're going to need some wins to come. But it's been fun the whole time."
That fun has come as a welcome change for Spruce, who has seen the dark underbelly of the NFL first hand. While star players have enough leverage to push for bigger contracts and exert some control over their employers, those at the back of the roster can see their lives blown up without any advance notice.
"That was kind of like the side of the NFL you don't really get to see," Spruce says. "I had been signed by the Chiefs. I was there for a couple of weeks so I shipped my car out there. The day I shipped my car out there I got cut. So, I'm like sitting in Kansas City, I didn't really know anyone on the team. I'd only been there a couple of weeks. I had to load everything in my car and I started driving west."
At that moment, Spruce didn't know whether he would ever step on a football field again. "Anytime you're not on a roster, you know there's a possibility that you might not be playing again," he says.
Spruce eventually received a call from the Chargers on his trip out west, though his tenure with the team lasted less than four months. He hasn't played for an NFL team since.
But that could soon change. Given the NFL's constant search for playmakers, Spruce's star turn could eventually lead to another shot in that league. He has shown more versatility in his time with the Wildcats than at any point previously in his professional career, and that development has revitalized his self-belief.
"A key part is just the confidence," Spruce says. "Bouncing around the NFL, going through some injuries, you kind of just lose that. Coach Chow has been awesome since Day 1, our offensive coordinator and my receivers coach, coach [Mike] Wilson. They've believed in me since Day 1, and it's kind of just been refreshing to have a staff around me that really believes in me and tries to do things to get me the ball. I'm just kind of like reminding myself that I can play at a high level."
With eight more games remaining on the Wildcats' schedule, Spruce still has plenty to prove in order to force his way back into the NFL. He will have to maintain his productivity and stay healthy, both issues that have hamstrung him in the past.
However, while he remains motivated to earn another shot at the NFL, he doesn't want to take his time in the XFL for granted.
"When this process first started out, I would have said definitely that's my goal," Spruce says. "But like we've been talking about, I'm kind of just having fun playing football again. I'm close with this team, close with the coaches. I'm really just enjoying this right now and then seeing whatever happens at the end of it."
-- Jason B. Hirschhorn is an award-winning sports journalist and Pro Football Writers of America member. Follow him on Twitter: @by_JBH