Local undrafted free agents finally get a chance

Players with area ties find work in the NFL, but earning a full-time job will be more difficult than ever

July 29, 2011|By Kevin Van Valkenburg, The Baltimore Sun

On the days when it seemed like the NFL lockout might never end, former Maryland wide receiver LaQuan Williams would stand at the register of Sherman Williams, where he was holding down a part-time job, and try to block out his frustrations.

His family tried to keep his spirits up. But he still felt like his dream of ever playing professional football was quietly slipping away. When he wasn't selected in the NFL Draft in April, the Poly graduate fell in to football limbo. He couldn't sign a free agent contract with a team until the lockout ended, and he didn't even know if teams would still want him when it did.

Williams wasn't alone, even though he felt at times like he was. In fact, all around the country, there were hundreds of players in similar situations. Although it became convenient to frame the NFL lockout as a squabble between millionaire athletes and billionaire owners, college athletes like Williams who went undrafted but weren't ready to give up on football felt just as vested in the outcome. But all they could do was wait until it was resolved, and pray there was still a place for them.

"I got to a point where I wasn't sure if I was ever going to get an opportunity," said Williams, a highly-rated recruit out of high school who was plagued by injuries at Maryland. "It was pretty stressful."

An alternate path

The NFL has a rich history of teams discovering talent in the massive pool of undrafted players that exists each year. In recent years, players such as Kurt Warner, Tony Romo, Priest Holmes, Bart Scott, Wes Welker and Arian Foster developed into Pro Bowl selections despite the fact that they weren't selected coming out of college.

But for every future star, there are literally hundreds of players who spend little more than a few weeks filling out an NFL roster during training camps, a reality that's hard to ignore. Making a team as an undrafted rookie will be even more difficult this season, because players will have a very small window to convince a coaching staff they're worthy of being kept over experienced veterans and players who were drafted. Instead of an entire off-season, undrafted players have only a few weeks to make their case before initial cuts occur. They also missed out on a summer of working with coaches, which gives them the chance to show the intangibles that often set less physically gifted players apart.

And under the new collective bargaining agreement, teams have a total of $75,000 to split among their entire undrafted free agent class. That means an undrafted player might pocket as little as $3,000 before he's told it's time to pack up his locker. The Ravens signed a total of 26 undrafted free agents this week.

Those long odds, however, rarely deter young men who have dreamed their entire lives of playing in the NFL. Walter Sanders, who grew up in West Baltimore and graduated from Mervo, is one of those long shots. Doubts don't bother him, because they've been a regular part of his life for as long as he can remember.

"It's been pretty tough, but my whole life has been pretty tough," said Sanders, who played college football at St. Augustine's College, a Division II school in North Carolina. "All my life I've been in struggling situations. My mom raised five kids by herself, and I'm the oldest. I had to be the man of the house and help raise my brothers and sisters. They looked up to me as a father, a mentor and a friend. My mom didn't have a college education, so one day I knew I had to make a difference in our lives."

Sanders, too, struggled to make ends meet while waiting for the lockout to be resolved. When he wasn't lifting weights, studying film or running, he was cutting grass, cleaning houses, washing cars and doing anything he could to pay his bills. It was humbling work for someone who had been a star at St. Augustine's, where he rushed for 1,377 yards and 15 touchdowns as a senior while earning his degree in business, but it was necessary.

"I didn't want to pursue a career just yet," Sanders said. "I've been training twice a day and saying my prayers every night, knowing that at some point I would get a phone call from a team that was interested in me."

Finally, a call

Maryland linebacker Adrian Moten believed similar things about his future, that someone would eventually give him a chance, but it wasn't always easy to maintain focus. He applied for jobs at Radio Shack and at various shoe stores, hoping to land a part-time position that would still give him time to lift and run in the mornings so that he would be ready when NFL teams could finally sign undrafted free agents, but most employers weren't interested in a part-time summer employee. Money was getting tight, and Moten was getting anxious.

"I wanted to work," Moten said. "I just couldn't find anything. I figured if I could get a part-time job that would put a little money in my pocket, I wouldn't have worry about asking my mom for stuff. But it didn't work out. I didn't know what was going to happen next."

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