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Shadow Warriors

Oct. 29, 2007
Oct. 29, 2007

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Oct. 29, 2007

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Shadow Warriors

Like their brethren across the league, the Detroit Lions' practice squad players live in a world of blurred lines and constant uncertainty, one step removed from the NFL dream—or from football oblivion

THEY LOOK likeNFL players. They hit like NFL players. They dress with NFL players and watchfilm with them. From Monday through Friday they are a crucial part of every NFLteam. But come Sunday, the only day in the league that really matters, theywear jeans and polo shirts. They are the anti--Allen Iversons. They justpractice. ¬∂ On Sunday, as the Detroit Lions hosted the Tampa Bay Buccaneers atFord Field, Detroit's practice squad players were sitting in leather loungechairs high above the action, munching on quesadillas and chicken tenders,watching their teammates from a luxury suite. It is one of the few luxuries ofthe job. ¬∂ In addition to the 53 players on the active roster, every NFL teamhas an eight- or nine-man practice squad—a unit made up of players who fulfilla critical role but are not full-fledged team members. Practice squad playersare paid a minimum of $4,700 per week, but their salaries are not guaranteedbeyond today. They're eligible neither for long-term benefits nor for an NFLpension. If their team wins the Super Bowl, they're entitled to championshiprings—but not necessarily ones with real diamonds. In a league of bling, thepractice squad is cubic zirconium.

This is an article from the Oct. 29, 2007 issue

The Lions'nine-player practice squad is diverse but not atypical. Ron Bellamy, a formerMichigan standout, has one career NFL reception. Ben Noll, a formerstockbroker, has one career start. Brandon Middleton, a former substituteteacher, has played in one NFL game. Jon Dunn, a former chef, has never gottenonto the field. These are the veterans of the group. None of them is older than26.

While thoseplayers are trying to sustain NFL dreams, the younger ones are just embarkingon theirs. Rudy Sylvan is an undrafted rookie free agent; LaMarcus Hicks, anundrafted second-year free agent; Buster Davis, a third-round pick in the 2007draft; Ramzee Robinson, the last player drafted this year; and Salomon Solano,a free agent from Mexico who is part of the NFL's international developmentprogram.

They are nottackling dummies. The squad includes linemen who weigh in at 300 pounds andreceivers who run a 4.4 40-yard dash. They come from such football powers asFlorida State, Alabama and Virginia Tech. All were legitimate NFL prospects.Many of them still are.

But when they areon the practice squad, their names are listed below the 53-man roster, belowthe injured list, below the inactive list, not even on the depth chart. At thistime a year ago none of the Detroit nine was in the NFL. Six were not playingorganized football. Their career options included the Arena league, Canadianfootball and other fields altogether. "Look how far we've come," saysBellamy, 25. "Now we're just one play away."

One Play Away—itis the mantra of practice squad players everywhere. They are indeed that closeto making the active roster. But they are also one misplay away from losingwhatever shot they had. One blown assignment in practice and they may be gonefor good. Pro Bowlers and first-round draft picks cannot fathom theanxiety.

"It eats atyour guts," says Middleton, 26. "It has to be the hardest job in theNFL."

ON MONDAY thepractice squad players study tape of a game they did not play in. On Tuesdaythey study tape of an opponent they will not play against. On Wednesday,Thursday and Friday, in practice, they pretend to be people they're not. And onSaturday, when the other players go to a hotel, the practice squad players gohome, to one-bedroom apartments with month-to-month leases. They have theweekend off. But they would rather be working.

"I've seen ittake the love away from a lot of guys," says Dunn, 25, a three-year starterat tackle for Virginia Tech (2002--04). "That's the secret to doing this:No matter what happens, you can't ever let it take the love away."

Dunn's devotionwas tested last month. He was watching NFL games on his couch in VirginiaBeach, monitoring injury lists. Practice squad players do not like toacknowledge the obvious: For their chance to arise, someone usually has to gethurt. One Play Away can be a euphemism for One Injury Away.

Dunn was amongthe Cleveland Browns' final cuts in 2006 and the New York Giants' final cutsthis summer. A skilled chef, he thought about opening his own restaurant iffootball didn't work out. But before he could begin devising a menu, the Lionscalled. Two of their offensive linemen had suffered rib injuries against thePhiladelphia Eagles on Sept. 23. Detroit needed another big body.

Dunn is 6'7"and 324 pounds, so wherever he goes people ask him if he plays in the NFL."Yes," he tells them. "I play for the Lions." Then they ask ifthey'll see him on television on Sunday. "Not exactly," he explains."I'm practice squad."

That reallyconfuses them.

Practice squadswere instituted by the NFL in 1989 as a way to give teams a pool of extrabodies to draw from in practice or in the event of injury. At the time thesquads comprised five players per team, but in 2004 they were expanded toeight. The Lions carry a ninth player as one of 11 teams participating in theleague's international program, which is intended to cultivate new talent andgrow the game outside the U.S.

Solano, 22, is anovelty on the practice squad, a player whose job is guaranteed through theseason. He was a defensive tackle at the University of Tamaulipas inMexico—several dozen Mexican colleges play American football—and hopeseventually to play in the NFL. More likely he'll end up as the defensivecoordinator back at Tamaulipas. He has already taught the Lions' scheme at hisalma mater. "The pressure on the other guys in the practice squad is a lotmore," Solano says.

Lions coach RodMarinelli views his squad as a farm system, a kind of football Triple A. Beforetheir Week 3 game against Philly, the Lions called up Sylvan to fill in attight end for the injured Dan Campbell. Then they sent Sylvan back down. Beforethe fourth game, as first-round pick Calvin Johnson nursed a bruised lowerback, they elevated Middleton to the active roster. After the game they senthim down too.

Neither playerhad performed poorly. In fact, Middleton, who set Conference USA records forreceiving yards and touchdown receptions as a senior at Houston in 2004,returned three kicks for a total of 70 yards and forced a fumble on specialteams in a 37--27 win over the Chicago Bears. But when Johnson healed, theLions needed a roster spot for him. Middleton had to go.

For just a momentMiddleton missed Hightower High, outside Houston. At this time last fall he wasa substitute teacher at Hightower. He stopped working out. He played flagfootball on weekends. When he told his students he used to be on the St. LouisRams' practice squad, they didn't believe him. After they Googled his name,they accused him of creating a fake website with his picture and bio. "Ihad to call some former teammates and put them on speaker," says Middleton,26. "After that I could feel a lot more respect in the classroom."

Somethingunexpected happened to Middleton during his time away: He enjoyed it. He knewhis next paycheck was coming. He knew he could see his young daughter, Brielle,after work. And he knew, when the phone rang, it was not a coach calling toinform him of his release. "For the first time in my life I hadstability," he says. "I wasn't waking up in the morning thinking, Isthis it? Is this going to be my last day?"

He was done withfootball, but football wasn't done with him. Last winter NFL Europa called, andMiddleton could not bring himself to hang up the phone. He played well enoughwith the Frankfurt Galaxy for the Lions to invite him to training camp. "Iwanted somebody to just come out and tell me I wasn't talented enough to playin the NFL," Middleton says, "but nobody ever told me that."

When Middleton islosing hope, he need only look across the locker room at another formerteacher. Jon Kitna started his professional career in the classroom, beforejoining the Seattle Seahawks' practice squad in 1996. Now he is the Lions'starting quarterback and an 11-year NFL veteran. "I know a lot of guysthink the practice squad is a waste," Kitna says, "but it's the bestthing I could have gone through."

They've all takenfairly circuitous routes to Detroit. For instance, Lions scouts found Noll atthe football factory known as Northwestern Mutual Financial Network.

An all--IvyLeague offensive lineman at Penn as a senior in 2003, Noll studied business andfinance at the prestigious Wharton School. While his friends moved on tosix-figure jobs as stock traders, he left Penn early to try to make it in theNFL. During the 2004 season he played in four games at guard for the DallasCowboys and started one, opening holes in a game in which Julius Jonesscampered for 149 yards.

After Noll waswaived by the Cowboys and then the Rams, he landed a job as a trader atNorthwestern Mutual. He bought suits and ties. Then last December the Lionsoffered him a spot on their practice squad, and he put the finery back in thecloset. "Nothing in the world compares to playing football," Nollsays.

He is the rareNFL player who studies for forensic anthropology exams in the locker room. Nollis taking Internet courses toward his bachelor's degree from Penn. Last week hehad a midterm. Next week he'll begin writing an essay on the fall of theRomanov dynasty during the Russian revolution. "I'm just like any otherstudent," Noll says.

Except that hiscourse load includes both the Bolsheviks and the Buccaneers. Every week thepractice squad is required to learn everything about the opposing team. Anoffensive player such as Noll has to know the opposing defense in case he'ssuddenly activated. And he has to know the opposing offense in order to mimicit in practice.

THE PRACTICEsquad's primary role is to work on the scout team, giving the starters anaccurate representation of what they'll see from the opposition on Sunday.Coaches call this representation the Look. Marinelli sometimes refers to thescout team as the Look Squads.

During practicelast week Middleton and Buster Davis were supplying two of the most importantlooks. Middleton was pretending to be Joey Galloway, the Bucs' No. 1 receiver.Davis was pretending to be Derrick Brooks, Tampa Bay's Pro Bowl linebacker.Doing this every week can cause an identity crisis.

Davis wants to bethe next Derrick Brooks, not his scout-team doppelgänger. Like Brooks, he was astar linebacker at Florida State. He started 37 consecutive games, earnedsecond-team All-America honors in 2006 and was drafted in the third round, 69thoverall, by the Arizona Cardinals last April.

But duringtraining camp the Cardinals saw a player who was uninspired and overweight.They wanted to send Davis to their practice squad, but he refused theassignment. Arizona released him before the season began, swallowing his$610,000 signing bonus.

Davisnevertheless ended up exactly where he didn't want to be—on an NFL practicesquad. But in Detroit he has come to appreciate the role. "I'm notmad," he says. "It's a teaching tool. Ten or 15 years from now I'll beglad things weren't given to me." He pauses for a moment. "But I'll beup there this season."

Up there is onthe active roster. Rookies make a minimum of $16,700 a week, with benefits. Ifthey play three or more games, they get insurance in the off-season and earn ayear toward their pensions. And they get to play football on Sunday.

RAMZEE ROBINSONhad no reason to think he would be up there this season. As the last playertaken in the draft, No. 255 overall, he was dubbed Mr. Irrelevant—the perfecttitle for a practice squad player. It appeared that the highlight of his yearwould be the trip he took in June to Newport Beach, Calif., where he was theguest of honor at the annual Irrelevant Week and received the traditionalLowsman Trophy.

When Robinson didnot make the Lions' active roster out of training camp, he wondered how hecould support his family in Alabama. So he applied for a second job, flippinghamburgers at a Red Robin. The restaurant manager thought it was a prank—whywould a Lions defensive back want to be a fry cook?—and rejected theapplication. He told Robinson to concentrate on football full time.

The advice paidoff last week. Two Lions cornerbacks went down with injuries, and Robinsonprepared for his call-up. But on the Wednesday before the game, the club signedDovonte Edwards, a corner who'd last played for the Vikings in 2005. Robinsonfumed. "Doing this job," he says, "you're always playing withfire." He could have packed up and left. Just as practice squad players canbe released at any time, they can also sign to join another team's activeroster if they get an offer. But Robinson stayed, and during practices lastweek it became apparent to the coaches that he was ready to play. He knew thesystem. Edwards was still learning it. On Saturday afternoon Lions playerpersonnel director Sheldon White informed Robinson that he was going to makehis NFL debut.

Robinson stayedup late Saturday night studying his playbook. He called family members, butthey didn't have enough time to fly to Detroit. They had to rush just to buythe DirecTV package.

At 1 p.m. onSunday, when the Lions lined up to kick off against the Bucs, Robinson was onthe field. Mark Jones was back deep for Tampa Bay. As the ball was booted,Robinson sprinted down the sideline. Jones brought it out, and Robinson dartedtoward the middle. At the 22-yard line he dived at Jones's legs and spun him tothe turf. First NFL play, first NFL tackle.

Robinson hoppedout of the scrum, pumping his fists and yelling, like a guy who had just beenset free. In fact, he had been set free—from the practice squad. "The way Ireacted right there," he said afterward, "was an illustration ofeverything you go through."

IN THE LUXURY BOXthe guys were rooting for their own. All around, it was a good day for thepractice squad. Not only did Robinson see significant time on special teams,but Sylvan also made the active roster, started and played extensively;Marinelli said afterward that both had performed well. The Lions beat the Bucs,improving their record to 4--2, and the squad played a subtle but significantrole in the victory. Its members clearly had given all the right looks duringthe week.

"Sitting upthere, I root for the Lions like I've been here my whole life," says Dunn,the offensive tackle. "This is my team. They've got me to the end." Butwhat if another team—say, one that needs an extra offensive tackle and has anopen spot on the active roster—calls tomorrow? "Oh," says Dunn."Then I guess I'd have to root for them."

As for Robinson,he found out just how fleeting freedom can be. On Monday the Lions waived him,standard NFL procedure for a player moving off the active roster. Once Robinsoncleared waivers, 24 hours later, the Lions expected to re-sign him, to thepractice squad once more.

"I wanted someone to just tell me I wasn'ttalented enough to play in the NFL," says Middleton. "But nobody evertold me that."
"Years from now, I'll be glad things weren't givento me," Davis says. He pauses a moment. "But I'll be UP THERE thisseason."

10 BRANDON MIDDLETON Wide receiver • 38 RAMZEEROBINSON Cornerback • 19 RON BELLAMY Wide receiver • 77 JON DUNN Tackle • 60BEN NOLL Guard • 58 BUSTER DAVIS Linebacker • 46 RUDY SYLVAN Tight end • 35LAMARCUS HICKS Cornerback • 63 SALOMON SOLANO Defensive tackle

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PHOTOPhotograph by Michael J. LeBrecht II/1Deuce3 PhotographyPHOTOPhotograph by Michael J. LeBrecht II/1Deuce3 PhotographyWHO ARE YOU? Marinelli's Look Squad—(from left) Robinson, Dunn (being blocked), Sylvan, Davis, Middleton and Bellamy, Hicks, Noll and Solano—helped the Lions prepare for Tampa last week.SEVEN PHOTOSPhotographs by Michael J. LeBrecht II/1Deuce3 Photography[See caption above]PHOTOPhotograph by Michael J. LeBrecht II/1Deuce3 PhotographySUPER SUNDAY Their squadmates cheered on Sylvan (46) and Robinson (38) as they got in against the Bucs.PHOTOPhotograph by Michael J. LeBrecht II/1Deuce3 Photography[See caption above]