Patrick Lewis screens his calls Monday and Tuesday afternoons, about the time the NFL waiver wire comes out. If the area code is suspicious, he doesn’t answer.
“I got one call in Cleveland on a Monday, and I thought it was the Browns calling to cut me, so I let it go to voicemail,” the Seattle Seahawks’ backup center recalled last Wednesday.
Lewis knew the drill, having been with NFL teams six times in two seasons (Seattle and Cleveland twice, and once each with Green Bay and Jacksonville).
So he fully understood that every call could have a life-changing impact: It could mean an immediate uprooting or, worse, the end of the career.
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But on that specific day when he refused to answer? “It was Foot Locker. … I had ordered some shoes and they wanted to tell me I could come in and pick them up.”
Lewis is one of the many in the NFL who tightrope the roster fringe, trying to earn a foothold with a team.
“It can be a day-to-day thing, but it comes with the territory,” said Lewis, who was Johnny Manziel’s center at Texas A&M but went undrafted. “It’s part of the life that people don’t see. It’s part of the NFL dream they don’t tell you about when you’re a kid.”
Because of injuries at center last week, Lewis got his first NFL start against Oakland on Sunday.
Many aren’t so lucky. Last season, defensive tackle Michael Brooks was listed as having 17 roster transactions, three times being cut and resigned to the practice squad in a one-day span. He ended up playing in one game last season, against Atlanta, and making one tackle for all his efforts.
The insecurity of practice-squad players and those on the lower rungs of the active depth charts often has little to do with the way they’re playing, but is more a function of injuries at other positions that force management to add manpower elsewhere.
“It sucks, but I realize it’s part of the business upstairs, (something) that they have to do to field a full team,” said receiver Bryan Walters, who was cut for the Oakland game despite having been a returner on special teams as well as part of the receiver rotation.
“We were really banged up; they make the decision in hopes they can get me back and it’s worked every time,” Walters said, recognizing the possibility that going on the waiver wire could mean being claimed by another team.
Walters watched the Oakland game from home with a friend. He was part of six transactions himself last season, and had been cut and resigned once already this season.
“This one was tough because I’d been playing,” Walters said. “You’re playing, you’re playing, you’re playing, and then all of a sudden … no.”
Yes, it can be unsettling, and it heightens the pressure to perform when the chance arises.
“You try your best to block that out … it’s not a fun way to play if you’re uncertain and not knowing,” Walters said. “You use all your mind tricks to block that out; you play and have fun while you’re there, but yeah, at some point, it creeps into your head.”
The goal, naturally, is to “get past that stage and play every day.”
Lewis said it’s important not to take it personally but to use the anxiety as fuel.
“You have to tell yourself every day, I’m going to fight, no matter what,” Lewis said. “Every day, I have got to do something to make them want to keep me. You keep that in your mind and you feed off that.”
Neither Lewis nor Walters have had to take a “real” job since college because even being on the practice squad carries a good wage while sustaining the dream.
“You make a good living, around $6,300 a week, and that’s more than my friends coming out of college make,” said Lewis, who has his degree and would consider college coaching if it came to it.
And sometimes the ringing phone carries good news.
“Around Christmas last year, I was put on practice squad by Cleveland, and I was Christmas tree shopping, walking to my car with a Christmas tree and decorations,” Lewis said. “I got a call that I was being claimed by Jacksonville. It was a great opportunity. I got the call at 5 and I had to be on the plane by 7 o’clock.”
His fiancee returned the tree, and Lewis engaged in an activity at which he said he’s become accomplished: packing.