In the Shadow of Dak Prescott: Welcome to the NFL&x27s League of Last Chances | News, Scores, Highlights, Stats, and Rumors | Bleacher Report

    It was around 9 p.m. m. when josh robinson decided to go for a run at the mississippi state track last summer. He had been training there, and the afternoon air offered him a reprieve from Starkville’s sweltering August heat.

    Two years earlier, Robinson was training at the same facility, at the height of his breakout season as a running back at MSU. But every team has a star, and in 2014, MSU’s was quarterback Dak Prescott. Fans called the two youngsters “Dakman and Robinson” when they led the Bulldogs to a 10-3 record.

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    “I was never the star in the state of mississippi, ever,” says robinson, who is petite (5’9″) but barrel-shaped. his other nickname was bowling ball. “dak is the man. this is my dog. but he looks, I know that if he had received the ball more in certain situations … “

    robinson had the third-most rushing yards in the second division in 2014, on substantially fewer carries than most of his peers.

    Frustrated by what he perceived to be a lack of opportunities, Robinson graduated early and declared for the 2015 draft, while Prescott stayed at MSU for his senior year. Robinson was drafted by the Indianapolis Colts in the sixth round and cut midway through the 2015 season after a herniated disc in his neck during preseason hampered his production.

    On the track that day in August 2016, he was trying to get back on the NFL radar in the only place he knew how to do it: his school. A few minutes after he started running, a member of the MSU athletics staff called campus police when they spotted Robinson’s BMW X6 on the track. robinson was cited for trespassing before being escorted off the premises.

    “They knew who I was,” says Robinson, who initially alleged on social media that it was head coach Dan Mullen who called campus police, which school officials quickly denied.

    Four days later, Prescott made his first NFL start, in a preseason game.

    a boy inexplicably wearing a batman costume runs down the hall of the greenbrier sports performance center, the west virginia resort’s athletics wing just two years younger than the united states itself . Normally home to NFL training camps for teams like the New Orleans Saints and Houston Texans, for three weeks in April the Greenbrier played host to the Spring League, a new developmental program where Robinson, among others Called “nfl castoffs,” he was trying to find his way back onto a (paid) roster.

    robinson picks up the boy and playfully spins him around. “are you batman? are you batman?!” he asks as the boy, nodding his head, dissolves into giggles. “Well, I’m Robin,” he replies, a reply that belies the fact that, like everyone else in the spring league, he hopes to ultimately be much more than a teammate.

    The spring league is not the first developmental program in the nfl, and many hope it will be the next in a long line of now-defunct companies. the 1980s united states soccer league (which counted president donald trump among its owners), the massively hyped xfl, and more recently the united soccer league and experimental fall soccer league (fxfl) They are your predecessors. Smaller leagues like the Gridiron Development Soccer League and rival Pro Soccer League seem to have more staying power. But as with stadium football and futsal leagues, to its players, the NFL often seems further away than ever.

    Before coming to mississippi state, robinson was a long way from realizing his nfl dreams. he had gotten used to fend for himself. The Bogalusa, Louisiana, native says he never had a relationship with his father and that he couldn’t trust his mother, who spent time in prison while he was growing up. “Not everyone loves you, not even your parents,” he says now. When Robinson was 11, the grandmother who raised him died of a heart attack while they were getting ready to go to church.

    After that, I would jump between family and friends; some nights in high school, she slept in her car behind the bleachers. football and baseball were his only constants. “My mom has come to one of my football games, the high school championship,” she says. “But who doesn’t come to the championship?”

    so the sacrifices required of players trying to earn their return to the nfl haven’t been that daunting for robinson. That, however, was not the case for some of the other aspiring NFL players at the Greenbrier.

    “It was humbling, really,” says 24-year-old, 345-pound guard Mitchell Bell, who came into the spring league straight from a six-week stint with the ifl iowa barnstormers . he spent the past two seasons with the oakland raiders, moving from the practice squad to the bench after being selected as an undrafted rookie in the 2015 draft. at the ifl, he says, “you get paid like $200 a game, my shoes cost like $400! I’m big, I can’t go to Zara’s.”

    “There needs to be a league that guys can go to and get videos, just to stay fresh and get in front of people, because there really isn’t one right now,” says 28-year-old Devon Torrence. Cornerback who moved to Ohio and has spent the last few years chasing opportunities in baseball and football. “In some ways, it’s harder to get into the CFL than the NFL because they have to have a lot of Canadian guys. You have arena [soccer], but it’s a different type of game and they don’t pay as much.”

    Like the other spring league players, bell and torrence have put their nfl aspirations in the hands of brian woods, the league’s executive director. Woods, who began his football career as a high school quarterback, became an ole miss rookie and served a short-term appointment as a salary-cap analyst in the Jets’ front office, is now determined. to fill the position. gap the size of a league d in the football market. fxfl was his first try, and now he’s using what he learned from his failure to make the spring league stick. Although he faces a lot of well-deserved skepticism (given the precedent), Woods is convinced that he has created the most efficient platform possible for fringe NFL-caliber players to get into the league with minimal investment. p>

    “The fxfl model wasn’t as sustainable as it needed to be,” says Woods. the league involved partnering with minor league baseball clubs to use their stadiums and pay players. “If the NFL has conceptualized any kind of developmental league, it’s focused on getting everyone in one place, in a shorter period of time.”

    Spring League players are not paid, but receive room and board for the three weeks of the program. the promise? consideration from nfl and cfl scouts, and enough video of games and practices to continue their signing campaigns.

    players give all sorts of reasons why they’re not in the nfl, but just one to explain why they’ve come to west virginia (an hour and a half from the nearest regional airport): “for us day laborers It’s a great opportunity,” says Torrence. “It’s nice to see that someone really cares about guys like us, compared to the first or second round who will always have a chance.”

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    “I’m happy to play football again and this is an opportunity to do so,” said 29-year-old Anthony “Boobie” Dixon, who spent four seasons with the 49ers and two with the Bills. “There’s no place I’d rather be except, of course, on an NFL roster.”

    Pierre Warren, a 24-year-old cornerback who last played for the Saints, put it bluntly: “Everyone wants the last shot. Empty the barrel, man, empty the barrel.”

    (click here to get b/r mag on the go in the new b/r app for more worthwhile sports stories, wherever you are).

    The soccer fields are nestled among rolling hills with trees that have not yet fully blossomed. The sun is out and, for a moment, it seems that even without common ground (a school or a team), the players’ shared motivation to sign could translate into teamwork.

    Within the greenbrier, the film studio is a reality check. Coach Terry Shea, who has worked for the Chiefs, Bears, Dolphins and Rams, is trying to convince quarterbacks to focus on short completions, the only real option when you have two weeks to put together a functional offense.

    “If it’s three and out in an NFL preseason game, your offense is on the bench and you’re on a bus home,” he tells them, all hunching nonchalantly over their powerades.

    During a play, a successful pass is stopped because the running back is going in the wrong direction, ignoring a huge hole created for him by the offensive line. all perspectives qb groan.

    “is that josh?” She asks. it is.

    “He’s probably been watching his own highlights too much,” says one of the quarterbacks quietly.

    shea insists it’s just “nervous vision”.

    Robinson, like everyone in the spring league, is unequivocal when it comes to his belief that he deserves to be in the NFL, which begs the question: why did they cut him? Sure, he had an injury, but players come back from injury.

    if you ask him, he’ll cite a parable: “it’s like when peter walked on water,” he says after practice, while eating mac and cheese at applebee’s. “As soon as he looked down, he said, ‘Wow, I’m in the water!’ and I fell right into that. You just can’t lose focus, and I feel like I did when I got into the league. I lost focus a little bit.”

    “josh was making some of the rookie mistakes you expect, fumbles and stuff,” says ahmad bradshaw, who played for the colts when josh was a rookie; the spring league was something of a reunion for the two running backs. Bradshaw explains that after 11 surgeries in nine years, he is only looking for a one-year contract to reach the maximum NFL pension (which players receive after 10 years in the league). “I tried to tell him: As a rookie, you just have to absorb everything and play the part, which is hard when you come from being the big man on campus. You’re not going to have those big, flashy careers.” . you just have to keep your head down and do what they ask you to do.”

    Spring league stories are mostly trial and error, something the NFL doesn’t have much room for, especially once the players reach a certain age. At 24 years old, Robinson remains a viable option for an NFL team. however, they are much older and the players are pretty much at the back of the line.

    “Our lead player is 23-26, a younger developing guy who’s already been in training camp or on a practice squad,” Woods says. “Because we wanted to get recognition as a league in our first year, we brought in some players who were a little older, who some might argue are past their prime.”

    Another consideration for teams is that if players have already been in the league, they are automatically in a higher salary bracket. “It’s not personal, it’s business,” says wide receivers coach Robert Gordon. “If one is 27 or 28, and the other is 22, you’ll pick the 22.”

    Nfl teams may not see much value in age or the wisdom that comes with it, but there are certainly some lessons younger players can benefit from.

    “You may have all the physique and stats, but if you listen, pay attention: you’ll get paid,” says Quentin Saulsberry, a 28-year-old center who spent time in Viking and Bronco practice. squads, but ended up being eliminated after a four-week suspension and a dui.

    after touring the afl and cfl, saulsberry, who is married with two children and another on the way, returned to starkville (also an msu student) to work, first in a factory and then as a security guard. prison.

    “You really start to see how people act when you confine them within four walls…it’s dark,” he says.

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    Last year, he became a police officer. “you have high suicide rates in police officers, you have high suicide rates in life after football, so it’s like, what the heck: six of one, half a dozen of the other, you know what I mean ?”

    the day anthony dixon (another bulldog) called to tell him about spring league, saulsberry had just come off a shift caring for a dead body.

    “He did something to me because the boy was very young, 19 years old. I realized: man, life is too short,” he said. “If you don’t take advantage of the opportunities you have, those ‘should have’s’ will end you six feet under.”

    so he came to west virginia for spring league, even though the last time he played football was in 2014.

    “This is an audition in every sense of the word,” Woods tells the players the morning of the first game.

    “make it look like a real, organized football match,” shea adds, which would be a challenge even if they were playing on a field with two goals or if they had gotten their rosters and jerseys more than 24 hours before the match. . but eventually the lists are sorted out and lots of pep talk ensues.

    “don’t count your reps, make every rep count,” shea tells her team, even though they’re only in the spring league to get reps, not win, that the reps they’ll get (and a their movie) are probably their last chance to make a career out of what they’ve spent their entire lives working for.

    The pressure to perform, with so few opportunities, is intense and not unwarranted. “If I have to watch the tape for a long time to see what’s good, then it’s not worth it,” says a scout during the second game. “I’m looking for people whose talent is obvious, and I’ve seen some here.”

    for other players, the spring league has already ended. within the first quarter of the first game, two offensive linemen were placed: one on the sidelines on ice and one taken off the field. the league has supplemental insurance and partnerships with clinics that offer free treatment, but players were still instructed to bring their insurance cards to treat more serious injuries. One attendee, who wanted to remain anonymous, says his agent had five or six people who didn’t attend because they didn’t have their own insurance.

    The chance of getting injured is also increased because many players haven’t trained to a professional soccer level in a long time, sometimes years. “You can’t get in game shape just by running at home,” Gordon says. “A lot of these guys were on practice squads or benched in the nfl, so their last complete games were actually in college.”

    During the second game, cornerback James Caine jumps out of bounds with one foot.

    “It’s broken, man, it’s broken,” he says as the trainers look at him. at 27, caine has two practices with the eagles under his belt and a few years in the ifl. now, halfway through the league, they’re taking him off the field.

    “I knew I shouldn’t have come,” he says, his face contorted with pain before burying it in his hands, crying. His ankle is broken and, in all likelihood, any small hope that she had of getting a chance in the NFL is completely gone.

    “we would like to get somewhere in the ballpark of 20% of players re-signing with nfl or cfl clubs, preferably nfl, and then increase that figure in the future,” says Woods. of his ultimate goal for the league. Eighteen players from the 105-person spring league roster have already been invited to NFL minicamps, including Bell, who was invited to work out with the Panthers. The league also just announced a week-long program in July that will give players who weren’t drafted in this year’s draft a spring league-like opportunity to showcase their skills in front of scouts (and hopefully a few more fans since it’s scheduled to take place in san francisco).

    getting nfl recognition, as many thought had already happened when the league was first announced, is the next step. “I think by sending clubs their scouts here, [the NFL] is already showing me that they believe in this and that ultimately we have enough talent to officially align with the NFL,” adds Woods. According to Roger Goodell, an official developmental league is something the NFL is “actively considering,” a position the league office reiterated (along with its non-affiliation with the spring league) when the bleacher report requested this story.

    Josh Robinson insists he’ll never need to find a job off the field, that if football doesn’t work out, he’ll inevitably make it in baseball, which he hasn’t played since high school. He has a one-year-old daughter named Si, who he wants to be there for, but right now, she’s still on the go, from staying with relatives in Louisiana to the gym where she trains outside of Houston. after all, he’s used to calling nowhere home.

    dak still reigns supreme, as much as robinson hates to admit it: “dak deserves what he got! i just have to work to get where he is,” he says. “I’ll see him back in the nfl! He’ll know when he’s there, and I’ll be talking to him the whole game. ‘Hey, do you see me?’ They’re going to turn me around. Shit, I have dreams about it.” then he apologizes for swearing in front of me.

    “bet against me, I’ll take all your money.”

    natalie weiner is a staff writer for b/r magazine.

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