Cast off by Ravens, these guys are cut above

September 06, 2005|By Rick Maese

IF YOU STAND back far enough, they're all overpaid, they're spoiled, and they take their roles for granted.

That's one of the reasons I don't like standing back too far. So I stood in the Ravens' practice facility last week, where a small corridor of locker stalls connects the locker room to the showers.

On one end of the corridor was a 25-year-old tight end named Trent Smith. There's no sense of entitlement there. He grew up in Clinton, Okla. His dream in life was to be an Oklahoma Sooner.

"Realistically, I came into this preseason just wanting to prove to myself that I could play again," he said. "What happened during my first season, I wouldn't wish that on my worst enemy."

In his first preseason game two years ago, Smith pulled down a 39-yard reception. A safety crashed into his leg, breaking it in eight places. His recovery was slowed by a stress fracture and torn ligaments in his leg. While he was mentally coping with the prospects of never playing again, his mother died.

Entering Ravens camp this summer, he finally felt healthy and determined.

At the other end of the corridor was a young defensive back named Jamaine Winborne. He lifted the bottom of his shorts to show me two scars on his left leg where a bullet came and went. It was a .40-caliber wound received at a party in the spring of 2004, right after his senior season at the University of Virginia. He was punished for trying to calm emotions in a brewing quarrel.

He lasted less than two months with the New York Giants last fall before catching on with the Ravens' practice squad. This year, he was intent on making the 53-man roster.

"I don't know what happens if I don't make it," he said. "I know how life is for a free agent in the NFL. That's all I can think about sometimes."

Each man could see the ax hanging above his neck. It's the brutal nature of football; only so many athletes can put on the pads. After chatting with Smith and Winborne, I pushed objectivity aside. I was rooting for both.

Smith had been living here for two years. Winborne had been here for nearly a year. They struck me as earnest, good-natured and eager, qualities that are becoming tougher to find on league rosters.

They each had only a couple of days to make a final impression on the decision-makers. Last Thursday, the Ravens played host to the Washington Redskins in the final preseason game. The game meant little for most of the starters. But a handful of players on both squads were forced to approach the game like none other.

Their lives didn't depend on it. But their livelihoods did.

With 14 defensive backs vying for eight spots, Winborne knew he needed to show some flash on special teams. He was in there, but the big play was elusive.

Smith had also become familiar with the numbers. He was one of six hopefuls playing for four tight end spots.

In the fourth quarter, second-string quarterback Anthony Wright led the team down the field. From the 1-yard line, Wright zipped a pass to Smith in the end zone. It was a game-changing touchdown, Smith's first in an NFL uniform.

He finished the game with four catches for 25 yards. I wondered if it was enough to spare him the pink slip. Smith and Winborne had two days to dwell on the same thing.

Winborne was called in on Friday afternoon. So was Smith.

Sorry, it's a numbers thing, they were both told. You're talented enough, but there isn't room on the roster right now.

You want to say, "But my mama died! But I'm healthy! But I just got married! But I spent the past month grinding and sweating and killing my body!"

It doesn't matter. Smith and Winborne began talking to their respective agents and packing boxes. Some team will need them, they figure. Hopefully on a 53-man roster. At the least, on a practice squad. And at the very least, in one of the Arena leagues.

It probably would have been easier to stand back far enough where people like Smith and Winborne were just names. We could assume they were spoiled and overpaid. But I don't like standing back because it obscures reality.

"There's so much time invested here," Winborne said. "I don't want to say it was for nothing, but you've got to start over from scratch somewhere else."

The Ravens cut a total of 17 players on Saturday. The league as a whole left more than 400 men unemployed in one swift pink-slipping swoop this weekend.

"I'm not really looking forward to moving 2 1/2 years of my life," Smith said before his name hit the waiver wire. "But there isn't nothing you can do about it. You've got to go where the opportunity is."

Smith was a lucky one. On Sunday, the San Francisco 49ers claimed him off waivers. Another opportunity.

There's no time for transition. He's already agreed to sell his house to rookie quarterback Derek Anderson. Yesterday, Smith flew to Santa Clara, Calif., and is expected to be at 49ers practice today and on the sideline Sunday.

Winborne is still waiting for his next shot.

The NFL loves parity and competition. And you might love it, too.

Me? I hate it at times like this. I hate competition that makes good people question their dreams.

It's the nature of the beast, but that doesn't make it any easier to swallow.

Contact Rick Maese at rick.maese@baltsun.com.

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