‘I just wasn’t going back home’: How past undrafted Jayhawks approached making it in the NFL

photo by: AP Photo/Stew Milne

Arizona Cardinals running back Anthony Sherman (35) blocks New England Patriots linebacker Mike Rivera (59) during the second quarter at Gillette Stadium, Sunday, September 16, 2012 in Foxborough, Mass.

Sean McDermott remembers a piece of advice that Joe Marciano, his special teams coach with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, gave him and his fellow undrafted free agents back in 2001.

The battle for an NFL roster, he recalled Marciano saying, is like a boxing match. A tie, in terms of on-field performance, will go to an incumbent veteran over an upstart rookie.

“He’s got real tape. He’s got a proven commodity,” Marciano added. “You guys got to knock them out.”

McDermott took this advice and plenty more he got from Marciano — “Be the very first person out on that field, be the very last person to leave that field” — and used it to help him build an NFL career.

The man who a year earlier had been working as a bartender and a bouncer in Lawrence after going undrafted out of Kansas, and had to physically drive to South Florida to draw the Buccaneers’ attention, ended up as their starting long snapper. By the end of his NFL career, he had played for four teams and was part of the New England Patriots squad that won the 2003 Super Bowl.

McDermott is just one of a host of former Jayhawks who turned the unfavorable circumstance of undrafted free agency into the jumping-off point for their NFL careers. With a slew of fresh KU alumni released into the NFL pool following the conclusion of the draft on Saturday, the Journal-World spoke with four of their predecessors to learn what insight they might have to offer to their fellow undrafted Jayhawks.

“Stick in there and continue to learn,” said Mike Rivera, a linebacker who spent time with five teams between 2009 and 2013. “Show the coaches that you’re all about this game, and doing the extra after practice, and requesting that time to truly learn the playbook and not be afraid to say ‘Hey, I’ve got a question on these things.'”

photo by: AP Photo/David Zalubowski

Denver Broncos rookie linebacker Steven Johnson looks on during the team’s mini camp at Broncos headquarters in Englewood, Colo., on Monday, May 21, 2012.

A foot in the door

Not all undrafted free agents debut in the league under the same circumstances. Some slide out of the draft entirely after entering it with high expectations. Linebacker Steven Johnson Jr., who played six years in the NFL with four teams, thought he would start his career by going somewhere between the fifth and seventh rounds.

“That was the exciting part of it,” he said. Something was amiss, though. “But I do remember being at my house, being around all my family, I had some of my favorite food there, and for some reason I just couldn’t eat it.”

The unsettled feeling was validated when he saw one player he had trained with after another go off the board, and then he ultimately went unselected, but as he put it, “I don’t even think I had a moment of time to be discouraged because I had so many teams calling me, asking what I was about to do.”

There were six teams, but there were third parties, too. Former Jayhawk Chris Harris Jr. (himself a onetime UDFA) was campaigning for his KU teammate to come to Denver. Johnson’s friend Jahri Evans, an All-Pro guard for New Orleans, was advocating for the Saints.

In the end, the Broncos’ recent acquisition of Peyton Manning served as a tiebreaker. Johnson went to Denver and got a five-figure signing bonus as the team’s highest-priority undrafted free agent.

Rivera, for his part, knew he was going to go undrafted after injuries during his senior season.

“So a lot of my conversations with my agent were just going through which teams that were interested and deciphering which team was the best fit,” he said.

He was a “traditional Big 12 linebacker” from a 4-3 scheme and chose his NFL destination accordingly.

Rivera said it’s substantially easier to make these sorts of team decisions now than it was in 2009, due to social media and expanded information at players’ fingertips.

“At my time, when I was looking at these opportunities, I didn’t know anybody in the NFL,” he said. “I didn’t know a soul. Nobody in my family did, (nor) the people I was in and around on the KU team.”

In the past, other UDFAs have taken tracking down the best fit to great lengths.

McDermott, after finishing his college career in 1999, had spent an entire year out of football, watching the NFL and thinking “I’m obviously as good as these people,” before a conversation with former teammate Tony Blevins (who had been in the league) helped spur him to pursue a chance at the pros more seriously.

He got an agent and a highlight tape and worked out at a local combine, drawing some cursory interest from the Baltimore Ravens. Nothing happened.

He remembered watching the movie “Men of Honor,” about a diver who overcomes racism in the U.S. Navy, and thinking, “This guy had way tougher odds.” As he came to realize, “The only way this is really going to happen at this point is if I can go down and get in front of these people.”

He determined that the Buccaneers and Tennessee Titans had the greatest need at his position. So he drove to Tampa — only to find that Marciano, whom he needed to see, was out of town. When they finally met, though, McDermott impressed enough to earn a minicamp invite, where he in turn did well enough to get on the roster.

“I treated every single play, every single practice like the Super Bowl,” he said.

Harry Sydney III, a fullback, used an ambitious strategy of his own to get back into the NFL following an absence.

Sydney had been released from the Seattle Seahawks as a rookie in 1981 and from the Cincinnati Bengals in 1982. In Cincinnati, he had been the last man off the roster, as the team had another player take on both running back and fullback roles.

“I got cut for different reasons,” he said, “but I really got cut because I didn’t know how to play professional football. I didn’t know how to study, how to work, how to do those things.”

After working as a cook and a dishwasher, he ended up going to the Denver Gold of the upstart United States Football League. As it turned out, the Bengals called him back and wanted to sign him a week later, but he had already agreed to join the USFL. As he relayed to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel in 2009, he played in Denver and Memphis, as he saw the league’s quality improve each year — until it folded — and went to Canada to play for the Montreal Alouettes — until they folded — before hitting a dead end.

Sydney returned to his home state of North Carolina and remembered reading an article in the paper about him, “and everybody thought I was a hero, but in my head I was a failure, because I’m right back to where it all started from.”

He was working the graveyard shift as a forklift driver when a man told him he was no longer “Harry Sydney the football player,” but now “Harry Sydney the forklift driver.”

“Sometimes in life you’re presented with nothing but truth,” he said. “So what do you do about that truth?”

In his case, it spurred him to action. He mailed his resume to every team in the league.

“Everybody said I was too old … except for Bill Walsh and the San Francisco 49ers,” he said.

Sydney restarted his NFL career, six years removed from the NFL Draft, and went on to eight more seasons in the league and won a pair of Super Bowls.

To hear Sydney tell it, the reason why he caught on with the 49ers was his versatility.

He was “doing the job of five or six or seven people,” serving as a goal-line back, a third-down option, a special-teams captain and so much more. He was able to catch on as a nominal fullback even though San Francisco had another existing option at the position in Tom Rathman. (That’s a stark contrast to modern NFL roster construction, in which, as he puts it, the fullback is an “extinct creature.”)

Young players, in general, can carve out opportunities on special teams. Many haven’t had the chance to play on these units because they’ve spent their whole careers as star players, as Sydney pointed out. McDermott asked for opportunities on special teams his senior year at KU because he wanted to have the chance to play in the pros.

“If you can be not just a position player, but can also play special teams, then you’re a tremendous asset to the rest of the team, because now you’re wearing more than one hat,” Rivera said.

He added that a player “could help with a fake pass on the punt, or they could be a gunner down as they’re covering punts. There’s all these other attributes that — every team is wildly competitive — they need to find their edge. As a special teams player, it’s up to 25, 30 snaps a game if you’re playing all those special teams.”

On the other hand, it may be harder to stand out in certain areas of special teams than it was for any past UDFAs. Sydney pointed to the NFL’s new kickoff rule, which has players stand in a stationary line directly across from each other until a returner touches the ball — “How are you going to show yourself?”

McDermott was able to do the reverse, in terms of establishing a place on offense even though his primary responsibility was on special teams. Besides long snapper he also played tight end, which he described as his “true passion,” and was able to eke out the No. 3 role at that position too, saving his team a roster spot.

More broadly, as Johnson put it as well, he knew he had to stand out however possible.

“Being at KU and being a former walk-on kind of paved that way for me, kind of helped build that mindset of ‘I have to be different in order to make it,'” he said.

Added Sydney: “The free agent has to understand that … (at) the first opportunity, he has to make the coach pay attention to him. The next opportunity, he has to make the coach say ‘Hmm,’ and now he’s validating what he already knows.”

Rivera said he would advise young players to seek out extra time with their coaches to demonstrate their enthusiasm and desire to learn.

“What I would like to tell my younger self would just be, don’t be afraid to ask for additional time with those coaches and assistant coaches to say, ‘I know you explained this in a meeting but let’s go through this again,'” he said.

He also emphasized the importance of finding mentors, citing players who aided him like Matthew Slater on the Patriots and Donnie Nickey on the Tennessee Titans.

“It’s finding those people that are willing to help you,” he said, “because the information is power.”

Orlando Apollos quarterback Garrett Gilbert (3) is stopped by Arizona Hotshots linebacker Steven Johnson (59) after scrambling for yardage during the second half of an AAF football game Saturday, March 16, 2019, in Orlando, Fla.

Second chances

Spring football leagues have been fleeting and inconsistent, but right now there exists a United Football League, formed by a merger between the USFL’s second iteration and the XFL’s third.

Sydney said that participating in these leagues gives young players a chance to accumulate film and develop into real professionals, and also, “It kept hope alive.”

“In Denver (in the old USFL) you had a hell of a crowd, you were still playing football,” he said. “That prepared me if I ever got another opportunity, because all of a sudden at the Denver Gold I was starting … All of a sudden, for me, you learn how to be a professional athlete. Because before that I was a college athlete. There’s film, there’s studying, there’s people watching you.”

In 2019, following the conclusion of his NFL career, Johnson played in the Alliance of American Football, and in 2020 he made it to the XFL, where he was one of the league’s top defensive players before it shut down due to COVID-19.

“I think the opportunity that it poses for a lot of young athletes is huge,” Johnson said. “But at the same time, I don’t think they should get comfortable with that. We all grow up and work hard to get to the NFL, not the UFL.”

Fortunately, there are more slots available on an NFL team’s payroll than ever before, even for those who don’t make 53-man rosters. McDermott pointed out that NFL practice squads have more than tripled in size and also expanded to allow for more experienced players since his time in the league: “There’s a huge avenue for these guys.”

When Johnson hit a teammate, Joe Mays, in a linebacker drill for the first time, and got hit back, he realized he could make it in the league. When he made the Broncos’ roster at the end of his first training camp, he felt he could “achieve the world.”

To do what he did, he said, he “had to be a different type of character.”

“The mindset that I had was to go out there and to provide for me and my family, and I just wasn’t going back home,” Johnson said. “You got to go in with the mindset of ‘I’m not going home.’ Because if you go home, you got nothing to go to.”


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