They filter into sleepy little college towns all across the land each summer, their love for the game usually obvious, their relative lack of skill usually even more apparent. Seattle Seahawks wannabes Reggie Hargrove, Ron Smith and Keith Heyward-Johnson are three of the hundreds of undrafted free-agent rookies sweating it out -- in more ways than one -- at NFL training camps.
The odds against such rookies sticking with teams are astronomical. After all, more than 1,800 men played in the NFL last year, and 261 college players were drafted this year. Not one of the NFL's 32 teams considered the aforementioned trio worthy of drafting. Hargrove, Smith and Heyward-Johnson, of course, have every intention of making NFL teams look foolish for bypassing them. They're aware, however, that there's a reason that Baltimore linebacker Ray Lewis just signed a $50 million contract, while their "signing bonus" was free transportation to Cheney.
"I'm keeping the dream alive," says Smith, a defensive tackle from tiny Lane College in Jackson, Tenn. "My motivation is at its peak. I really feel I can play the game at this level."
"I know my situation," says Hargrove, a defensive end from the University of Louisville. "I know I'm the underdog, so I've got to go the extra mile, do the extra things. I can't have any mental mistakes."
Heyward-Johnson, a cornerback from Oregon State, remarks that "I'm doing all right so far, taking my time, learning things. Actually, I'm not taking my time! I'm trying to speed things up and take advantage when I do get reps."
Ah yes -- reps, aka plays in practice. In order to "take advantage," as Heyward-Johnson wants, he needs lots and lots of plays -- the sort of action that helps an athlete get into the flow, make adjustments, rise to the challenge. The cruel irony of life for undrafted free-agent rookies, however, is that, because of their inexperience and need for exposure, they need the most reps; inevitably, they receive the fewest. Naturally, NFL coaches spend most of training camp preparing their best players for battle. If you've got $1 million invested in a first-round draft pick, and $100 invested in a plane ticket for an undrafted rookie, guess who's going to get more first, second and 100th chances to succeed?
And yet hundreds of young men endure months of grueling physical labor every year to prepare themselves for the micron-sized possibility that they will get a shot at the fame and fortune that sometimes accompany an NFL career.
"I feel I'm a late bloomer," says Hargrove, who damn well better be -- he turns 28 on Aug. 28, and this is his first NFL training camp. "I've had a few things happen in my life, but I didn't give up. It made me stronger. It made me hungry."
"There's not a lot of room for mistakes, but I'm highly motivated," says Smith, whose NCAA Division II college had a smaller enrollment (800) than the attendance at some Seahawk workouts.
"I'm only 22; I'm still young," Heyward-Johnson points out. "If I don't make it, hopefully another team will pick me up."
Hopefully. The odds are so very steep -- particularly when you examine the spotty sports resumes of Hargrove, Smith and Heyward-Johnson. Hargrove, a native of Durham, N.C., is almost comically old for an NFL rookie. He hated high school and waited three years before resuming his football career at a Georgia junior college. Last year, he was released by Chicago of the Arena Football League.
Smith also played JC football, then spent a year as a reserve at Baylor University in Waco, Tex. (a Division I school) before finding a home at Lane. "It was like high school all over again, but I enjoyed it," says Smith, whose St. Louis high school had twice as many students as Lane.
Heyward-Johnson played on the powerful Oregon State team of 2000, but the Woodland Hills, Calif., product also was part of the misery that was OSU football in 1997-99, before ex-Seahawk coach Dennis Erickson arrived. Never a great star in the Pac-10, Heyward-Johnson was cut by his Canadian Football League team in Vancouver last year, but played in NFL Europe (as did Hargrove) earlier this year.
So what does a 27-year-old Arena League failure and the pride of Lane College and a CFL reject do if the Seahawks don't keep them? Hargrove, Smith and Heyward-Johnson all say they're determined to keep knocking on NFL doors. Hargrove is a few credits shy of a sociology degree, but says he's uncertain what career he might choose after football. Smith, close to his criminal justice degree, says he might want to be a lawyer someday. Heyward-Johnson, who earned a degree in communications, says he plans to become a sportscaster.
Someday. Not now, or even next year. Not when they're in the prime of their lives -- fit, fast and ferocious, ready and willing to make the sacrifices necessary to suit up on Sundays and hear the roar of the crowd and make the big bucks and write a happy ending to the dream they've pursued for so many years.
In Saturday's opening preseason game against Indianapolis, each of the three hopefuls was involved in three tackles; Hargrove even got credit for half a sack. But none is higher than third on the Hawks' current depth chart -- and, at left cornerback, Heyward-Johnson is fourth.
Still, Hargrove voices the group's optimism: "No matter what happens, I'm glad I did it. I realize a lot of people don't get this opportunity. I'm going to do my best."
Making the cut -- and then some
Undrafted players face long odds when trying to make an NFL roster, but their goal isn't completely out of reach.
Five undrafted players who signed with Seattle out of college wound up playing in the NFL's all-star game, the Pro Bowl: quarterback Dave Kreig of Milton (Wis.) College, place-kicker Norm Johnson of UCLA, defensive lineman Joe Nash of Boston College, linebacker Rufus Porter of Southern (La.) and safety Eugene Robinson of Colgate (N.Y.).
A handful of undrafted players have even made the Pro Football Hall of Fame, including such legends as Dick "Night Train" Lane, Lou "The Toe" Groza and Marion Motley. Significantly, all three of those players were in their prime 40 years ago or more.