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What is life on the practice squad like?

The bottom of the NFL is fraught with uncertainty

Sports in Action Photo by: Gerald Smith/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images

So you got drafted by an NFL team, but for some reason they didn’t need you. You got cut. Cheer up. There is always the practice squad. If you have any type of NFL talent a team is going to want to keep you around. You might need a little technical adjustment or just a little more time to develop. An NFL team needs guys like you who can be called up (just like from the minor leagues in baseball) to fill a role. Best of all, unlike baseball you don’t even have to play the game to get paid. Practice squad players practice but don’t play. Basically you are a agile tackling dummy who gets paid $8,000 a week.

Your friends are so jealous of you during the NFL season because usually Monday and Tuesdays are off days in the NFL. You watch film of the previous week and listen to coaches. You don’t need any of that because you didn’t play that week. Wednesday and Thursday you help out as a scout team guy who emulates a player of the upcoming opponent. Friday is a walk-through. Saturday is a travel day, and Sunday you watch the game while eating pizza.

You can hang out on the practice squad all year and make a cool $136,000 ($8,000 X 17 weeks). It’s easy, and you don’t have to get hit over and over by the guy on the other team. Where do I sign up for this?

The reality is you do all the hard work that players don’t want to do. Ryan Spadola was a UDFA signed by the Jets back in 2013. He bounced around practice squads with the Jets, Dolphins, Falcons, Cardinals and Lions. He described what a practice players’ responsibilities are, “What a practice squad player goes through and what an active roster player goes through are immensely different. I personally think what a practice squad player is put through is a lot more mentally and physically demanding during a week. You’re taking way more reps and you’re getting beat up a heck of a lot more; the only difference is you don’t play for those three hours Sunday.’

Reality is a harsh mistress

The reality of the situation is quite different from the fanciful reflections of people outside the realm of the NFL. They don’t understand that in order to play the game at an NFL level takes dedication and sacrifice to an extreme degree. You don’t just play the game. You live it. It becomes part of you, and your desire to succeed needs to be unquenchable.

Sure there are players with such superior talent (like Deion Sanders) who were almost born to play in the NFL. Yet even Deion Sanders was a fanatical technician at his craft, working hours on end on fundamentals to hone his skills to a razor fine edge. To get beaten at his position was unthinkable for Deion. Even today as he teaches technique to younger kids. He frowns upon the new ideas in coverage. He had a way of doing things, and it took him to the Hall of Fame.

There is only a player like Deion Sanders at a position once in a generation. For the mortals there is uncertainty and hard work to improve as much as possible.

That is not to assume that all players work at the same fevered pitch. Many do the bare minimum and are soon looking for a new line of work. Players who are superior athletic specimens and have a wealth of ability sometimes take that talent for granted.

It is like the high school pitcher in baseball who can throw the ball 100 miles an hour. He doesn’t need a slider or a curve to get batters out on that level. He just blows them away. A change up? Are you serious? There’s no need for that pitch. He then gets drafted by a MLB team and makes his way to AA ball. Suddenly those pitches are becoming home runs for the opponents. Even Nolan Ryan (who has more strikeouts than anyone in MLB history) was a .500 pitcher until he learned a pitch that wasn’t a fastball or curve.

It is like anything in life. If you work hard at something you love doing you have a much better chance at success than a person who just goes through the motions. Every year the NFL is littered with players with superior talent who fail to achieve the success that you would expect from them because of effort not talent.

You make it on a practice squad

Hooray, and good for you. At least you’re making really good money; well kind of. A salary of $8,000 a week would be a godsend to most people, but you are only making it for (at the most) 13 of the year. Of course there are taxes to pay. Your agent gets a cut, and you have probably been living off credit cards until you got paid so there are probably some bills to settle.

If you had made the team you would be making (at minimum) $29,117.64 a week. And as a practice player you can be cut at anytime without any notice. Teams move guys on and off the practice squad as they feel the need, which is often. You have no guaranteed money. When you are cut you are gone onto the street without knowing whether you will ever be picked up by another team.

There were 447 practice squad moves in 2018 by NFL teams. Those moves were after the first week of the season so it doesn’t take into account all the moves before that and the initial signings. That makes an average of about 28 moves a week. This actually seems light when you think there are 32 teams with 10 players on each squad.

When you are signed to the practice squad you are (sort of) on the team. You need to get a place to live, but where do you live? You could be cut next week for all you know, and in order to get an apartment you will need to sign a lease. f you get cut after a week the rent will be more than what you made, and you will be in a city where you cannot work. Some players live in hotels and pay about $5,000 in rent a month which leaves little money left.

If you are lucky enough to get another practice squad gig you will now need to get another living space and even pay moving expenses. Oh, and if you get signed on Tuesday you need to be in your new city by Wednesday, or don’t bother showing up. Plus they are going to hand you a playbook that looks like it is written in another language and expect you to know certain plays right away. Teams pay for a week of housing when you arrive in a city.

Basically you arrive that night. The team picks you up from the airport and hands you a copy of the playbook to start studying. The next morning, you go through a series of physicals, sign your contract, and get on the field.

The team pays for the transportation to and from the team facility for only the first day. After that you are on your own. You are in a city you’ve never been in. You don’t know anybody, and just getting to the team facility is a major hassle. You will be expected to get there at 6 a.m. and you will be there until 6 p.m. Now you have to find a ride home and look for some housing. Most teams are in major cities where housing costs are astronomical.

What if you have a vehicle? Most cities outside of major metropolitan areas like New York and Chicago require a car to get around. How do you move your car to another city when the team just flew you in Do you now need to fly back (on your dime) and drive it to the new city? You don’t have time to do normal things (shopping, laundry, setting up your new living space) because you are now behind everyone (in knowledge) on your new team.

If you ever hope to get an NFL contract with NFL regular season money you will need to get up to speed as quickly as possible. This will take time and an enormous amount of hard work to get you even close to being able to contribute. Teams don’t care where you live or what your situation is. They need you when they need you. Your problems are not their concern. If you become a problem they have a remedy for that. They can send you packing.

What if you are cut again and need to be in another city the next day? The cycle can continue for the entire year. Fans don’t realize this because practice squad transactions are rarely ever shown in the transaction section of the newspaper, not that many people read a newspaper anymore. Players are moved on and off practice squads all year long without a shred of notoriety.

As a player on the practice squad one of your duties is to get the roster players ready to play that week. In Spadola’s case he needs to emulate the receiver from the other team. ‘If we lose that weekend, I would take that on me,’ he said. ‘If the receiver puts up 100 yards on one of our corners, I didn’t work that guy hard enough in practice.’

Yet mimicking a receiver is only half the job. You must take over and run routes like a rostere receiver so the starters don’t get worn down Players need to take breaks during the long season, and the practice squad guys must fill in. They don’t get to rest.

‘You’re doing a lot more on practice squad than an active guy while getting paid a lot less,’ Spadola said. “The title definitely diminishes the overall name-value you have to a team, but I think those guys are almost more important than a lot of active guys on the team.”

What is the emotional toll?

“People think you’re on an NFL team and it’s only what they see on a Sunday, They don’t see behind the scenes guys getting cut and losing jobs every day or the injuries you have to deal with and not tell anyone about for the fear of being cut. The NFL, like everything else, is a money game” Spadola said.

Once a player is cut (from an active roster), there is a 24-hour dead period when he can be claimed by another NFL team’s active roster. If that period passes, he can be signed by the team that cut him or any other team in the league to the practice squad. If he doesn’t receive a phone call, especially from the team that just released him, he is now part of the unemployed with no guarantee any team will ever call him for his services.

You may have been with that team for only a couple of weeks, and now you are jobless in a city where you know no one plus you have a lease to pay. If you are lucky enough to get another call you have no time to pack your things as your new team will fly you in the next day, and you will need to start to work. You are given a playbook to learn, but you will start to practice right away. When practice is over you then have to find a new place to live and pay for that place along with the other place in that other city.

Teams don’t pay relocation fees, and if you have a girlfriend who lives with you; they won’t pay for her to come to the new city either. You do. There is no guarantee you will ever become a player on an NFL roster. It’s just a hope. You are gambling on yourself. While all around you people don’t understand what you are going through, the mental and physical toll it takes, people just think, “Hey he’s in the NFL, lucky son of a gun.”

Life on the fringes of NFL rosters is a dark place at times with no guaranteed money and no security you will even have a job tomorrow. Even rostere players at the bottom of the depth chart can be cut fairly easily. A player was once cut because his team needed his roster spot for another long snapper. Once you start moving around to different practice squads a player can get a stigma. Coaches wonder why you always get cut.

Not only do you have to learn a new playbook. Not only is you entire life up in the air. Many times coaches will ask you to switch positions. If you are a tackle you might be needed to play left guard in practice. Now you have to learn the plays from that position.All the while you are trying to impress the coaches. Say no to a request, and you will find yourself unemployed again.

There is no getting your feet wet period. You are being evaluated from the moment you walk through the door. Make a mistake, and it could cost you your job. You just showed up, and you don’t really know all the plays. Coaches don’t care. They have a job to do, and they will be out of a job if the team doesn’t win so you better be on point every minute.

Some players hang on for years on the bottom of rosters and practice squads. They all seek that one shot to show everyone that they belong. If they ever get that NFL contract with guaranteed money it will be a relief and a vindication of their belief. Sadly this rarely happens. Yet hope springs eternal, and as long as there is a practice squad there will be players who will except the rigors of being on it; living the dream... or the nightmare.