RENTON, WA - When the NFL preseason comes to a close in late August, more than 800 players soon find themselves without a team as rosters must be trimmed down to the 53-man limit prior to Week 1.
Though it's the nature of the business, it's still a stressful time for anyone who receives a pink slip approaching the regular season. Only a handful of those players will latch on with another active roster and a small portion will sign with a practice squad. Most will never play another down in the league.
But in the case of former Army linebacker Jon Rhattigan, the stakes were much higher than for the majority of the players who hit the waiver wire on August 31. As a graduate of West Point, once his NFL career concludes, whether a week from now or 15 years down the road, he would be required to serve five years of active duty in the military or partake in five years of civilian service.
Signed by the Seahawks as an undrafted free agent back in May, Rhattigan enjoyed a strong offseason program, drawing unprompted praise from coach Pete Carroll. But all of that momentum was lost when he suffered a hamstring injury early in training camp and missed the next three weeks sidelined. Though he managed to return for the preseason finale and played well with five tackles, he wasn't sure what the future held in store for him.
“That was an interesting 24 hours," Rhattigan said on Wednesday. "I’ve seen it in Hard Knocks, and just talking to different people about how the NFL works. That’s kind of how things go at the end of training camp. That’s why I was frustrated during training camp is that I wasn’t really able to showcase everything I had. I was out with an injury, so I wasn’t able to do as much as I had wanted. When it came time to waive, the end of the roster, you kind of realize I’m in that boat. I don’t really know how things will go, especially being on waivers and other teams having the possibility to claim you."
Luckily for Rhattigan, unlike many other players who were cut last month, the Naperville, Illinois native's NFL dreams haven't been dashed yet. In fact, things seem to be trending upward for the upstart rookie in the Pacific Northwest.
Once Rhattigan cleared waivers, Seattle quickly re-signed him to its 16-player practice squad and with the team dealing with depth concerns at linebacker, he was elevated as a game day promotion and made his debut in a 28-16 win over Indianapolis last Sunday. With family in attendance making the drive down from Illinois and Michigan to support him, he registered his first tackle on the kick coverage team.
Then on Monday, to cap off a whirlwind of a weekend, Rhattigan learned from his agent that he was being signed to the Seahawks 53-man roster.
"It’s all I could ask for, truly, to be given the opportunity to be out here," Rhattigan said. "To throw on the Seahawks uniform at Lucas Oil Stadium for the season opener was truly unbelievable. It was such a great team win. Truly thrilled to be a part of it."
As Rhattigan accurately coined it, his journey to earning a spot on Seattle's active roster has been a "wild ride." Only two years ago, as a junior for the Black Knights, he wasn't even close to being on the radar for NFL teams as a prospect. While he had dreamed of making it to the league since his childhood, he produced six tackles in 13 games as a reserve.
In his first two seasons on campus, with several older players in front of him on the depth chart serving as obstacles to seeing the field, Rhattigan didn't record any statistics and played in one game.
But when Rhattigan's turn to start at linebacker finally came as a senior in 2020, he "put his best foot forward" and capitalized on his opportunity. Enjoying a breakout campaign, he amassed 78 tackles, nine tackles for loss, two interceptions, and a defensive touchdown in 11 games. Rewarded for his efforts, he garnered All-American honors from USA Today and Pro Football Focus.
When asked what clicked for him as a late bloomer at Army, aside from finally having a chance to prove himself, Rhattigan attributed his ascent to numerous factors, including the arrival of defensive coordinator Nate Woody, who installed a new scheme that better fit his skill set and strengths. He also credited linebacker coach Shiel Wood, who arrived with Woody as a newcomer on the staff last season, for helping him take his game to another level.
"They’re both just great coaches," Rhattigan said of Woody and Wood. "I learned so much about preparing for the game and taking my game to the next level because of them. I still carry that with me while I’m here today, and I’m going to continue to carry that the rest of my career. This past year I definitely elevated my game and became a better player. You’ve just got to find things that help you do that. That’s going to keep me having success and moving forward in the right direction.”
Suddenly, out of nowhere, Rhattigan's NFL aspirations were within reach. After barely sniffing the field during his first two collegiate seasons, he had developed into a legitimate NFL prospect.
Although he didn't hear his name called on draft weekend as he hoped, Rhattigan was thrilled for the opportunity to compete with the Seahawks, who had expressed interest in him throughout the draft process.
“As the season progressed, I realized the success that I was having got noticed, and the NFL was definitely a possibility," Rhattigan remarked. "I worked really hard to do everything I could leading up to the draft to get drafted. That didn’t happen, fell to the eighth round. I’m thankful there was a lot of mutual interest between myself and the Seattle Seahawks and now I’m standing up here on the podium and feel very honored.”
Now living his dream, Rhattigan is grateful to simply have the opportunity to play in the NFL. In the past, players such as former Seahawks receiver Keenan Reynolds who entered the league coming from service academies were still required to fulfill military obligations during the offseason. There have been previous examples where players coming from Army, Navy, and Air Force were denied the ability to defer service to pursue a career in professional football.
But due to recent policy changes, while each instance of service deferment is reviewed independently, that's no longer the case. As a result, Rhattigan will able to fully immerse himself in the sport he loves and make the most of his chances with the Seahawks.
“I’ll be able to - there’s a lot of flexibility, which is great with both parties," Rhattigan elaborated. "I’ll do everything I can to represent to military, to represent the Seahawks, and really make it a good reason to have military graduates playing a professional sport because there’s so much of an impact. There’s especially a connection with the military and football, leadership, just so many things I can name."
Moving forward, Rhattigan hopes success stories like the one he's currently in the process of writing in Seattle open the door for more players from service academies to thrive in professional sports. As more players such as himself find their way to the league, he expects recruiting to improve for those academies as well.
With many of his former Army teammates now transitioning into military careers while he continues to play football, Rhattigan also isn't going to forget where he came from and the countless others he inspires and represents in the military community. At some point later this season, he's eager to visit Fort Lewis in Tacoma, where he will be able to pay it forward catching up with old friends and meeting with the soldiers stationed there.
"It’s so special... Just to know that the guys that I do know, former Army football brothers who are at Fort Lewis, they’re very excited for me. They talk to their soldiers about me. Just to know that I have that impact and that there’s a military presence out here, it’s very cool. I’m very thankful to be able to represent a lot more than just myself.”