April 30, 2008
NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell walks out to the center of the stage and announces, “The Detroit Lions are on the clock.” I flip my ringer on and wait for destiny to call.
The first three rounds took place yesterday. As everyone does, I watched the first couple picks, mostly to see who goes No. 1 overall. These days, first- and second-round picks are instant millionaires. A ring of the telephone signals the transition of unpaid collegiate player to wealthy professional. Back in 2008, as a tight end coming out of Washington State on Day Two of the draft, just getting that phone call was all I could think about.
Today, I am projected to be one of the lucky few who get an invitation to continue living a dream. I prepare my typical breakfast of champions: hard boiled eggs, cereal and a protein shake. I never really imagined being a professional athlete growing up, but as I spoon my eggs from the boiling water, I allow my mind to wander.
Where will I be headed when this day is done: San Diego? Kansas City? What about the Dallas Cowboys? I remember exactly when this fantasy truly became a dream.
"Hey son, what floor are the football offices on?" an older gentlemen next to me in the elevator asked.
“Third floor. I was heading up there myself. Who can I help ya find?”
"Well Jed, I am here to talk to Coach Doba and verify what we have been seeing on film."
Who is this guy and how does he know me? Even Cougar fans don’t usually recognize me.
"I am a scout with the Chargers and we have had an eye on you."
After a solid senior season, the Chargers were one of the teams made the trip to Pullman to watch my film. But it was my first year as a starter. My biggest hurdle is about how I will fit at the next level. My collegiate career began as a linebacker, then a season at ‘fullback’ (in a spread offense, the fullback doesn’t get much work) and finally as a tight end.
This is a problem when it comes to the NFL. I was 6-1 and about 240 pounds. NFL tight ends like Jeremy Shockey are 6-5, and guys like Ben Watson ran a 4.5 in the 40. There is little chance in me becoming an every down TE in the NFL. My love for the game is pure but I don’t know if I could walk onto the field and claim to be the baddest dude on it. I am an undersized TE, or and inexperienced FB -- a tweener whom everyone begins to call an ‘H-Back’, the spot created to fill a void from the dinosaur fullback.
In the days and weeks leading up to the draft, four teams have made the most contact:
- The New York Giants called to bring me in for a workout, but it was the same weekend I was going to visit Seattle and they never offered another time. Somehow, I feel like that door has closed.
- The Seattle Seahawks made it an amazing visit. I went with a fellow Cougar teammate Michael Bumpus and together we got to peak into the NFL world. Looking back, I failed my interview a bit. In the running back meeting I was asked a simple question: ‘What's your favorite play?’ Still with my receiving tight end mindset I answered - “It's a boot off our zone scheme. All game I come from the wing spot back and cut off the backside end, then on the boot play I get to juke him and flood out into the flat.” Honest answer, but the message is I like getting the ball. Not what they want to hear from their hard-nosed fullback.
- The San Diego Chargers have called several times and when he says, ‘We like you in our system’ it is music to my ears. The catch comes when he explains they like me, but not enough to draft me. A trade from last year has left them with limited picks and they will not be addressing the ‘need’ for TE or FB in this draft.
- The Cleveland Browns flew out to see me in person at WSU's Pro Day. Their TE coach and I went to the indoor facility on a cold Wednesday morning for me to prove to him I was worth his trip. He is an ex-player and still a sizable man, so when he told me to hit the bag I let him know I had some pop. We ran routes but with him not being an ex-quarterback limited this drill, he said we were practicing for ‘bad balls’ and with only one drop I feel like I passed this test. The major test was to see when I would quit -- every drill had some unnecessary sprint or tackle to see if I would quit. This tells him more about me than any drill.
These four teams are who I have investigated online: Who is their coach, what is the offensive system, what does the depth look like? Every time they are on the clock, it could also be my time. A call from my agent to start the day reminds me: "Any team can take you today, and try to enjoy the process."
The Seahawks just took a ‘true’ fullback. This really unsettles me since the Chargers took a RB/FB tweener in the fourth round. I am the No. 5 ranked fullback according to the experts and these players were rated above me but still, it's a gut punch -- two of the teams interested are now certainly out of the running. I quickly begin running down last year’s rosters to see who else carries a fullback. There are 17 teams, and the reality is all of these jobs are technically filled.
Knowing how I must have read into the last pick, my agent sends me a text. ‘The draft's all about timing. Guys getting taken will make others with a need start to move.' Suddenly, Cleveland trades up in to a fifth-round pick. This is it, I think -- they came and worked me out, they have a need, and even their coach said he sees me fitting into their system.
“With the 132nd pick of the 2008 NFL Draft, the Cleveland browns select linebacker ...” and all I hear after that is a large buzz, like in a football video game when your player is concussed. Wait! What? That was my spot, my moment, my dream. What went wrong?
Those gathered with me try to cheer me up but they don’t understand -- there are maybe 100 picks left but I only have so many chances with teams who want a ‘tweener’. The Chargers and Seahawks are out, the Giants lost interest, and the Browns just traded away their sixth round pick to take someone else. A pit forms in my stomach as the names continue to come off the board.
It is the beginning of the seventh and final round. Ring, Ring! ‘Hey, is this Jed?’ This is Brian Adams, a scout with the Atlanta Falcons.' I check my list and know they use a fullback.
‘I am doing a preliminary call to make sure this number was accurate. We are discussing taking a fullback with our next pick and wanted to be ready.'
What the hell?! He was calling to verify if I would pick up? Where would I be?
I silently channel a message to every NFL team: You have my complete and undivided attention, but feel free to draft me even if I don’t pick up the phone. No, really.
Atlanta doesn't pick me. The voice inside my head asks a question: ‘Maybe you aren’t good enough?’
Ring, Ring! 'Hey Jed this is Coach Henderson with the Kansas City Chiefs. I am in charge of the running back group and wanted to connect because we have a need at fullback. Jed, I have seen your toughness and love for the game on film, that is the type of guy we need.’
My spirits soar and I begin to dream about how wonderful it would be to be a Chief. As Coach Henderson is telling me about the attitude he needs from his fullback, a voice breaks in.
“Joe, we can get him after."
Wait. Who was that?! Was that one of the other Chief coaches, and did he actually just say that?! Surely, that is the type of message whispered in the ear away from the speaker, not something spoken loudly enough so as to kill my dream. Quickly, Coach Henderson rebounds.
‘Jed, I think you have a chance to fit in our system, be ready.’ Click!
Quickly the draft comes down to only five picks left. Kansas City holds the rights to the final pick, the so-called Mr. Irrelevant. But call me anything you want, I just want to hear my name called. I escape the whole ordeal the only way I know how, writing. In documenting the moment, I hear, “With the last pick of the 2008 NFL draft the Kansa City Chiefs select” (you never realize how long of an introduction that is until you are holding your breath). But my phone hasn’t rung and whoever is about to be named, it won’t be me.
It is over, I wasn’t drafted. Humility is a tough pill to swallow and the thought brings me back to me as an insecure freshman, wondering, 'Can I play at this level?'
That can’t be it, my dream can’t be over. I am not ready to wake up. A lifetime spent working for today, months entirely focused on a 4-plus second dash and a phone call. Failing so publically is a knock I have never experienced. I'm confused, and given the buildup and interest from NFL teams, it doesn’t make sense to me. Seemingly everyone told me hearing my name called was ’guaranteed.' Going in the fourth round may have been overly optimistic, but surely in Round 6 or Round 7, no?
I did everything I was asked. I am a little slow by comparison, but watch me play. Sure, I got hurt, but that was my ‘work hard’ nature backfiring. Sure, I am a tweener, but that only speaks to the fact I can do a lot. There is no time to sulk, as my phone comes back to life.
Ring, Ring! It’s my agent, Derrick Fox. ‘I know where you are at right now but there are teams interested in bringing you in as a priority free agent. And he explains that this can actually be better than a late round pick because now I get to pick where I go, I get to choose the system that works best for my skills set.
And I am caught up on the term “priority.' I begin to see my situation in a different light. It stings knowing I was not drafted, but my dream is still alive!
Veteran Experience Tip (VET): if your phone is buzzing the week before the draft, you are much less likely to have it buzz on draft day. By draft week teams have made their draft decisions.
My options for signing a 'priority' undrafted free agent contract come down to three: San Diego, Kansas City, Philadelphia.
1) San Diego has been calling the past few weeks. They were very clear they do not see me as draft caliber. They are the first to dial once the draft is over. “Jed I am sorry today didn’t work the way you had expected but we have a role for a guy like you. You would be a great fit in our system,” says their offensive coordinator. I'm grateful for the call but it still hurts that these guys never saw me as a draft pick. Plus they took a RB/FB in the third round. How would I make the team competing against whoever they had last season plus a draft pick?
(Veteran perspective: To this day I wonder if they really thought I fit a position. After bouncing around the NFL I did see a role in their system that I thought was perfect for me. But I burned a bridge and that is the one thing you can’t do in business.)
2) Kansas City uses a fullback and having a premier running back, it's a role they appreciate. They have moved on from their guy last year and they are very up front about bringing in four fullbacks to compete. The offer is $10,000 to come to minicamp where my agent tells me only three of us will continue. I am not sure I could make it as a 'thumper.' I don’t mind hitting, even enjoy letting out my aggression at times. But to have my job criteria be as simple as: hammer meet nail. I believe I can do more.
(Veteran perspective: I didn’t research enough. First, the primary job requirement of every NFL fullback is to thump! Second the offensive coordinator in KC came from college, and that college is graduating their fullback. Last, the staff was on the hot seat, and being a bubble guy is not something you want to start back at square one every year.
3) Ring, Ring! “Jed, how would you like to come be a Philadelphia Eagle?” I can almost hear the man on the other end of the phone smiling. I begin chatting with Coach Johnson, the Eagles RB coach and it’s like I am sitting at a family reunion. "I think you could contribute on teams and be our starting fullback." The Eagles and 49ers were my two favorite teams growing up. They will be returning a third-year practice squad player and the competition will be between him and me. He's just a practice squad player, didn’t make the roster last year and I won’t let him make it this year. To sweeten the deal they offer $21,000. Double the money with half the competition. Fly Eagles Fly! I sign with Philly.
(Veteran perspective: I would come to despise my own words 'just a practice squad player.' I did not understand how little difference there is, or the lengthy line to get onto the practice squad. Philly would also wake me up to two lessons: 1) Seeing the pieces in the system: the Eagles brought in a Jed Collins-type of player every year, would use him for a look, grind him in camp, and send him packing. Their system did not require a traditional fullback, the prime example being the guy I would compete with. 2) Your place on a team is also significantly dictated by many concerns away from the field: draft, money, veteran, and more).
Today was a failure, but also a beginning. The sting will come again having to explain over and over. ‘Oh hey, Zilla! You get drafted?’ But another thought endures.
You are only defeated if you accept it.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Jed Collins spent seven seasons in the NFL with eight teams, working his way from undrafted free agent and practice squad player to starting fullback for the New Orleans Saints and Detroit Lions. He retired after the 2015 season. From 2004-07 he was an all-everything standout at Washington State, where he played linebacker, fullback and tight end. “Jedzilla,” as Cougar fans affectionately dubbed him, earned second-team All-Pac-10 honors as a senior in 2007 after catching 52 Alex Brink passes for 512 yards. Today he is an advisor with the Seattle-based (and Cougar-owned) wealth management firm Brighton Jones and serves as a regular columnist for Cougfan.com during football season.