The Guys Behind the Guys

In this sneak peek from the upcoming issue of Bear Report magazine, Beth Gorr looks at what it means to be a member of Chicago's practice squad.

The call can come at just about any time during the day or night. Most players say that when it arrives, it's usually unexpected. It can make or break a career, dash a player's dreams, or build up new and even bigger ones. For rookie Winston Venable, who had made the Chicago Bears' 53-man roster coming out of training camp this season, a ringing cell phone was not music to his ears.

"What are you going to do?" Venable said. "Is it best not to answer? If you don't, you know that they'll be calling you again very soon. It would be like the guys who are cut during training camp and are hiding from the coach who comes to take the playbook back. You know that he is going to find you. It's just a matter of time. Waiting and wondering just wasn't worth the stress it would cause, so I answered on the first ring."

The news Venable got wasn't what he wanted to hear. The safety out of Boise State would be moving down from the regular roster to the practice squad.

"I'd been in a few games by then and I thought I was coming along relatively well, learning what I was supposed to be picking up," said Venable. "Evidently the coaches didn't agree with that assessment."

At the time of the roster move, Venable had played in five games and had two tackles. The most difficult aftermath of the initial call from the Bears was the seemingly endless wait between being cut from the regular roster and being placed on the practice squad.

"I didn't know if another team was going to get me, if I would stay here, or if I'd be packing my stuff and heading home. I was about ready to pick up the phone and call my parents to tell them I'd be returning home for a while but then I heard back from the Bears. I was still part of things in Chicago, just playing on a different part of the team."

Fellow rookie safety Anthony Walters, an undrafted free agent out of Delaware, got a call on that same day but it was the exact opposite of Venable's.

"Suddenly I was on the regular roster," Walters said. "I was astounded. I'm usually up with things that are going on but that call caught me completely by surprise. The coaches must have seen something from me in practice in recent weeks, a skill that would be a good fit for the team right now. I don't really care what, exactly, it was that they saw. I'm just delighted that they chose me."

Walters spent the first five weeks of the regular season playing in relative obscurity, at least as far as the sports media was concerned.

"I was astounded to see a reporter standing by my locker today," Walters said the day after the Bears announced the roster moves. "Now I've got to live up to what the Bears tell me I'm supposed to do, so whatever is printed about me is good."

The same day Venable and Walters heard about their shifting roles on the team, receiver Max Komar, a second-year player from Idaho, and rookie free agent Jake Laptad, a defensive end from Kansas, also got calls from the Bears. Each was signed to the practice squad.

Komar played eight games with the Arizona Cardinals last year, catching 12 passes for 117 yards.

"I've been in the league a little while so I might not have been as excited as some of the rookies," Komar said. "But getting the call that you are still viable is definitely a big deal for any player. I see this as a chance to grow and develop as a player."

For Laptad, who spent the summer with the Bears and played in all four preseason games before being cut near the end of training camp, the opportunity came just in time.

"I'd been working out daily in Lawrence at the University of Kansas since I was cut," Laptad said. "I was trying to get back to my normal routine to stay in shape. I had hopes that somebody would notice me and give me a chance. As the weeks wore on, however, a horrible prospect came to mind: I might have to get a regular job. I was about to call my parents in Tulsa to discuss that possibility when I heard from Chicago. It's impossible to describe the overwhelming relief I felt."

The practice squad, also known as the scout team or taxi squad, consists of eight players. Every team in the NFL must have a scout team and the function of this group is a crucial one.

"We're role players," said tight end Andre Smith, an undrafted rookie from Virginia Tech. "Players from the team we are going to play each week are scouted by our coaches. Each of us is assigned a role, if you will, to play as if we were that particular player. In every practice session I mimic the moves that player would make. That helps our first team prepare for what each player they will be facing on the weekend will do. That's what we're here for."

Yet in terms of a player's development, mimicking another player every day in practice can often lead to bad habits.

"That's why it's so important to spend additional time working on our own skills," said the Bears' Ricky Henry, a rookie guard from Nebraska. "Often times we're not going to get the lengthy one-on-one coaching that our contemporaries on the regular roster receive. We often end up coaching ourselves and working with each other. Our responsibility is to play well however we are able to achieve that. It's an effective system."

Most practice squad players are rookies and young veterans who are still establishing their playing styles and strengths. A player can practice with the members of the regular roster during the week but cannot participate in regular season games. NFL rules state that players are not allowed to remain on the practice squad for longer than three seasons. Those with one or more years of NFL experience are not eligible, unless they were declared active for fewer than nine regular season contests. If a player is released from the practice squad, any other team can sign him without compensation to his original club.

If a team signs a player from the practice squad of its next opponent, the signing must take place at least six days before the game. Generally, practice squad players earn in the range of $5,700 per week, considerably less than the NFL minimum of $420,000 per year – 2014 sums mandated under the new NFL collective bargaining agreement.

For Anthony Walters, just about anything the Bears offered to pay him would have been fine.

"The lockout this past year just about killed all of us rookies," Walters said. "That was because of the uncertainty of it all. We had no idea how long it would go on so there really wasn't a plan in place for most of us to go on with our lives. I think we wanted to hold on to our NFL dream as long as we possibly could."

To Walters, holding on meant swallowing his pride and moving back home for a while.

"It was at the point where financially I couldn't keep going on my own," Walters said. "I was picking up change out of the couch cushions so I could go to McDonald's. There was no way I could keep up with my rent."

In order to stay in shape, Walters found a cheap place to work out: his former high school.

"Sure it felt strange to be going back there but they seemed happy to see me and the price was right. You do what you have to do. Once I got the chance to go with the Bears, I knew that everything would turn out OK. I have to admit, though, that I'm still relatively cautious with my spending. I'm employed now but you can't take anything for granted in this business."

Bears linebacker Patrick Trahan reached the NFL thanks to his mother's care and concern. Trahan is mildly learning disabled due to dysgraphia, a condition that makes it difficult to put thoughts on paper. Although he once scored 130 on an IQ test, Trahan had trouble in classes requiring extensive writing.

He was put on academic probation at Auburn until his mother, Patricia Baranco, intervened. She urged her son to enroll at Northwest Mississippi Community College for a year to receive assistance with his particular learning disability. Trahan then transferred for his junior and senior years to Ole Miss where he was able to succeed academically while excelling in football and drawing the attention of NFL scouts.

Trahan was a member of the Tennessee Titans' practice squad before signing on to Chicago's practice squad in late January of 2011. He was cut by the Bears near the end of training camp, then re-signed to the practice squad on Sept. 4, 2011.

"What a great opportunity to be here, to be back with the Bears," Trahan said. "It's my chance to thank my mother for her efforts in guiding and directing me to this spot. She never gave up on me so I never gave up on myself."

Throughout the entire process, Trahan keeps a long-range plan in mind.

"In a year my goal is to be a part of the regular roster," he said. "I'm working all the time on my technique and on learning as much as I can about this game. The practice squad is the perfect low-pressure environment to push yourself to be your best without game-day stresses. Although I certainly want to play on Sundays, I trust that the coaches will know when I'm ready for that."

The practice squad players spend a lot of time together, "having a blast" as Laptad puts it, which builds a small community within the wider team population. According to its members, being on the practice squad fosters trust and mutual respect.

"I'm learning but I'm having so much fun," said Levi Horn, an undrafted free agent tackle from the University of Montana. "We study game film together and we also go out to theaters as a group for our weekly movie nights. It's a very supportive environment, one where we can develop at our own pace. You need to be patient to be on the practice squad and have a bigger view. We're not on the regular roster right now but that could come at any time. While we're waiting, though, we're also able to enjoy the process."

Andre Smith is one of the more-serious members of the practice squad. He believes the reason he's reached the NFL was his overall goal of honoring his mother, Julida, who passed away in 2005 after battling leukemia for more than 10 years.

"She always told me I could do whatever I wanted to do if I just tried hard enough," Smith said. "That is why I never gave up. I worked hard at Virginia Tech, getting a dual degree in sociology and psychology so I'd always have a backup plan in case the football thing didn't work out. She always told me to aim high, whether the goal would be to reach the NFL or to have a professional career outside of sports."

After his mother's passing, Smith went to live with his best friend's family until graduating from Virginia Tech. Across his back is the tattoo "Mama's Boy" and on his wrist another that reads "One Love".

"No matter whether I stay on the practice squad or progress to the regular roster, I know she'd be proud," he said.

Some of these practice squad players may go on to successful careers with the Bears or another NFL team. Others may play at this level for a few years, then transition to other opportunities. Yet all of them say they have valued their time as one of the taxi guys, in terms of goals reached, friendships formed and lessons learned.

Horn spoke for the group as he summed up their experiences: "I wouldn't have missed this for anything."

Beth Gorr has been covering the Bears for the last 12 years and is the author of Bear Memories: The Chicago-Green Bay Rivalry. She is currently working on a second book about early Bears history.

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