NFL's harsh reality is part of the game

Each preseason ends with phone calls to players who haven't made the final cut. The players understand the NFL is a business and a numbers game, but the reality is heartbreaking.

Chandler Harnish had yet to undress from taking a beating.

The Indianapolis Colts’ third-string quarterback was upbeat although he admitted he took some shots playing the entire preseason finale Thursday night at Cincinnati.

That’s football. It’s what he signed up for when he put on the NFL uniform.

“It’s a physical game,” Harnish said of his first NFL start, although the 35-7 loss doesn’t count in the standings nor the record books. “I expect nothing less. I kind of like getting roughed up a bit. It gets you into the feel of the game.”

When the Colts make their final roster cuts, Harnish is expected to be cut. That’s another harsh NFL reality, perhaps the harshest for those on the bubble chasing the dream.

Thank you for getting this far, kid. We’ll take you in and coach you. You will grow. You’re a part of what we’re building here, Building The Monster as coach Chuck Pagano likes to say, ColtsStrong, and you buy into that.

Then, in one August phone call, it’s time to turn in your playbook.

That seems beyond harsh, especially for a good guy like Harnish, who has toiled much of the first two seasons of his pro career on the practice squad. There’s a strong chance, if he’s cut and clears waivers, the Colts will sign him again to the practice squad. He can make $6,300 per week, $107,100 for a 17-week season, and still be part of the team.

It’s not big bucks for guys strapping on the shoulder pads, but the dream is still alive. And you just never know what could happen in the future.

“I really don’t know,” Harnish said of what will happen next. “What I’ve done is just continue about my schedule. I go into the facility, watch some film, lift and work out, continue to develop. Keep your phone with you. If it happens, it happens. If not, OK. Nothing ever happens in this league where it’s personal. That’s one thing I’ve realized.”

But the bonds of brotherhood are personal. Dressing next to Harnish is Matt Hasselbeck, the Colts’ backup who signed with the team to help mature Andrew Luck and hopefully get that elusive Super Bowl ring. Hasselbeck is entering his 16th NFL season. He knows the drill. And then some.

“Matt is like a father figure to me,” Harnish said, looking at his friend.

“A grandfather figure,” Hasselbeck said with a smile.

Harnish gave up his No. 8 jersey to Hasselbeck after the veteran signed in 2013. And it was a creative exchange. About a month after he joined the Colts, Hasselbeck challenged Harnish to get his old No. 8 jersey back. If Harnish could make a half-court basketball shot, Hasselbeck would pay $8,000 to charity for the number.

Harnish hit the shot. The video can still be found on the Internet.

Hasselbeck said letting Harnish play the entire game was “a gift.” It’s the same gift Brett Favre once gave Hasselbeck in Green Bay. Standing on the field during warm-ups for a preseason game, Favre lifted his Packers jersey to show he wasn’t wearing any rib pads. Have at it, kid. This one is all yours.

Hasselbeck remembers when he was the fourth guy in Green Bay his first season in 1998. He ended up on the practice squad, this quarterback who would develop and eventually lead Seattle to a Super Bowl, albeit a loss to Pittsburgh in 2006.

“Even if you’re counting numbers on your roster, you’re competing with everybody they can find in the world to do your job,” Hasselbeck said of game film being studied by every NFL team. “There’s a lot of good stuff in Chan.

“We’re all friends and family here. We’re going to lose friends and family here. It’s a tough situation. The protection mechanism for us is to kind of like not deal with the reality. A lot of times, you wake up and guys in your locker room are gone and you don’t get a chance to say bye. No goodbye. No shake your hand. No good luck. You come to work and their locker is empty. And that’s it.”

The Colts must cut 22 players from the roster to get down to Saturday’s mandated 53-player limit. That’s a lot of phone calls. If you’re a player, and that phone rings, and you see the caller ID is the Colts, your heart sinks.

“It’s hard because in high school and college, it’s a game. The consequences just aren’t nearly as great,” Harnish said. “Now it’s your career, you’ve got bills to play, you start thinking of those things the more years you’re in the league, those things kind of add up. I feel more and more a part of the team each and every single day. Yeah, it’s a harsh reality. Hopefully I don’t have to witness that any time soon.”

He was dubbed Mr. Irrelevant for being selected with the 253rd and final pick of the 2012 NFL Draft. But he is relevant, to Hasselbeck and Luck, to the other guys he’s sweated with these past two years. And hopefully he’s relevant for another year, even if it’s on the practice squad.

“I’d be working with a great quarterback room, a great coach and a great staff,” Harnish said. “But hey, you just never know. I’m an Indianapolis Colt. That’s all I think about. You can’t afford to get stressed out about the little things. I guess they’re not that little, but that’s above my pay grade.”

He’s of course not the only guy on the bubble, thinking about the reality of this situation. Linebacker Andy Studebaker is an excellent special-teams player. But he’s listed third string on the team’s unofficial depth chart. He knows he could get The Call, too.

“You look at the last six months you’ve put in, from the time you started training to the end of preseason, which is tonight. The question is, can you look in the mirror and like what you see?” said Studebacker, who joined the Colts last season and has been the league for six seasons. “From then, you can’t control it. That’s the attitude that you have to have, that I did what I could do.

“Circumstances, some things are out of your control, some things are in your control. You do the best with what’s in your control, then you have to have some peace about it. You work as hard as you can, for the time that they give you and the reps that they give you, to make yourself necessary.”

Studebaker played much of the game Thursday. That’s typically not a good sign. The starters rest. Everybody else plays. Only a few of those guys playing most of this preseason finale eventually make the team.

“It does take an element of mental toughness,” he said. “The reality is 22 guys are going to be released. Some of that is going to be the end of some people’s dreams. Some of that is going to be a transition into another team, maybe practice squad.

“Ultimately, like I said, you don’t have complete control of that. Looking backward over the last four weeks, are there plays I wish I could have done better? Of course. There’s plays that you wanted to make and you didn’t. And there are plays that you did make and you think, ‘That’s great.’ At the end of the day, I find peace in the fact that I gave it everything I had and I hopefully will be here on Sunday when we go to practice and next week when we go to Denver.”

The NFL goes on, with or without so many.

“That’s the hardest part of the job,” Hasselbeck said. “You’re just glad that you’re not the guy who has to make that decision. It’s hard. Very hard.”

Phillip B. Wilson can be found on Twitter (@pwilson24), Facebook and Google+.

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