In NFL terms, when a player isn't a starter, they live by the mantra "Next Man Up!" In layman terms, that simply means if the starter gets injured or is playing so poorly that he needs to be replaced, the understudy steps into the lead role.
For many players, the next man up never comes. A generation of backup quarterbacks watched from the sidelines as guys like Brett Favre, Peyton Manning and other acclaimed NFL ironmen went about their job and the next man up never got the chance to step up and show what he could do.
Vikings safety Andrew Sendejo has been the definition of "Next Man Up." After working his way through the UFL, he got a shot with the Dallas Cowboys in 2010. Signed by the Vikings in 2011, he spent his first two seasons as a special teams ace. Last season, he got a chance to see some action on the defense and was a backup safety behind Harrison Smith and Jamarca Sanford.
This season, Sendejo has had to replace both Smith and Sanford due to injuries and has finally got the call as the Next Man Up. Sendejo has prepared for his opportunity to be a full-time player and has waited for this chance to The Man instead of the Next Man.
"I've prepared pretty much the same way because I've been the next guy up all season," Sendejo said. "Preparation is the same for safety and special teams. The biggest difference is that I'm a backup on some of our special teams group, but I'm the next man up on that, too. You never know what's going to happen during the course of a ballgame, so you have to be pretty much ready for anything."
One of the key elements to getting his schooling at NMU, Sendejo has had to learn the elements of both the free safety and strong safety position. While the Vikings coaching staff has contended for years that the safeties in their version of the Tampa-2 defense are effectively interchangeable. Sendejo has had to replace both Sanford and Smith this season and said the contrasts to the position are much more than meets the eye.
"You have different responsibilities depending on the defensive call, but as a safety if we're, let's say, running a nude blitz, you don't just learn your side," Sendejo said. "If you're at free safety, you don't just learn the free, you learn the strong too. You never know what will happen during the course of a ballgame, so you could end up on the other side and you have to be ready. Every safety learns both. In that respect, they are interchangeable, but there are different responsibilities between the two."
The timing of Sendejo's chance to step from the relative shadows into the spotlight couldn't come at a better time. A native Texan, Sendejo will have plenty of family members in the crowd Sunday at AT&T Stadium. It would be similar to booking tickets in advance for a Broadway show in which your son/brother/cousin is the understudy and finding out he is replacing a lead actor in the play. But Sendejo is keeping it all in perspective and not letting the moment get to him like it is for his family that will be at the game Sunday.
"You try not to make it more than what it is," Sendejo said. "If you get distracted by that, it's going to affect your play. I'm going to be excited to see my family after the game, but, until then, I've got a job to do trying to help us win a football game. It will be fun to play in front of them, but I've got all offseason to hang out with them."
With Smith sidelined for an extended period of time, Sendejo is going to be able to put a lot of field time "on film" for all 32 teams to get a dossier of his strengths and weaknesses. For a player who began his professional career as a semi-professional in the UFL, it would be logical to assume that such a player would be viewing his current opportunity as his personal Golden Ticket.
Instead, Sendejo is proving he's the type of team player that got the Vikings interested in him in the first place. On Sunday, the former Cowboy comes home to Texas. But this time, he's wearing purple and he's starting. But Sendejo doesn't view his push into the spotlight as being as big an achievement as others do. He didn't earn his starting spot. He inherited it. In his mind, there's a difference.
"You never want to look at it as being your opportunity because one of your teammates got hurt – your friend gets hurt," Sendejo said. "I guess I don't really look at it like this is my chance. I look at is that I have to step in and help execute this defense. Some people could look at it as an opportunity, but I feel an opportunity is when you're actually promoted and they tell you that you'll be starting this week. I feel like that's a real opportunity. I look at this as stepping up, replacing Harrison, making plays and help us win."
John Holler has been writing about the Vikings for more than a decade for Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this story on our subscriber message board.
Sendejo filling the role of ‘Next Man Up'
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