The team did that again on Tuesday, placing linebacker Michael Mauti on I.R. after he had arthroscopic knee surgery and picking up offensive tackle Carter Bykowski from the San Francisco practice squad. A seventh-round pick of the 49ers in 2013, Bykowski spent the last two seasons on the San Francisco practice squad. It came as a shock to Bykowski, who went to high school in Eden Prairie before being recruited to play at Iowa State.
When it came to playing for the Vikings, it had been a childhood dream that he thought has passed him by, until he got the call from the Vikings that they were claiming him and putting him on their active roster, allowing the hometown kid to come to a training facility that is just five miles from his childhood home.
“It was out of the blue,” Bykowski said. “It’s pretty sweet to come home. I’m very happy, very excited and happy to get to work here.”
Bykowski and his fellow practice squad players have become a band of brothers of sorts. They’ve scattered around the league, but he keeps in touch with many of them and monitors the movement teams make with players as they get claimed by other teams and get their opportunity to make a roster and stick.
“I look on the (transactions) ticker and I see guys get moved up all the time,” Bykowski said. “You know it’s there. I know guys who have been my buddies the past year-and-a-half that have picked up off the practice squad and gone other places and ended up starting. There’s always a possibility.”
Bykowski hoped he had a future with the 49ers because, as he put it, “O-linemen are often a project.” That was especially true for him. At 6-foot-7, 306 pounds, he looks the part of an offensive lineman but it isn’t his natural position. He never played offensive tackle until his third year at Iowa State. In high school and his first two years at ISU, he was a tight end.
Clearly, the 49ers saw something in him when they drafted him and stashed him on the practice squad. He was convinced if he was going to have an NFL future, it most likely was going to be with the Niners. That’s why the call from the Vikings this week took him aback.
He didn’t see the call coming, because, for all he knew, they didn’t have any interest in him because even during his draft process, he hadn’t met up with many Vikings officials and had never spoken with general manager Rick Spielman.
“There wasn’t much contact at all (with the Vikings),” Bykowski said. “It came out of left field. I was pretty shocked. I was ready to go because not only am I getting an opportunity to be on the 53-man roster, I’m coming home. I never had any contact with Rick Spielman before. The only contact I had was with Scott Studwell, who talked to me at my Pro Day. When I got the word they were signing me, I had no idea it was coming, but I was happy they did.”
Many athletes have the dream of playing professional sports in their home area in front of family and friends, but because players rarely have any say in where their career path takes them – they’re either drafted or sign free-agent deals with the team that makes the best offer. When the opportunity came to come home to Minnesota, Bykowski didn’t have to be asked twice. He jumped at the opportunity and is still pinching himself to make sure that it’s really happening.
“It’s kind of surreal,” he said. “If I could have picked a team, it would have been the Vikings. I have a brother who lives in Chaska, another brother who lives in Minneapolis and my folks live in Eden Prairie. I have a bunch of family in South Dakota. Being out in California, it was tough to get all of them out there. It’s great to come home and be part of the Vikings. It’s always been a dream of mine.”
He knows as well as anyone that life in the NFL for practice squad players is a week-to-week proposition. He’ll be on the active roster for the final three weeks of the regular season, but most likely will be inactive on game days. He understands that his signing isn’t as a stop-gap starter for the stretch run of the 2014 season, it’s a chance for him to get involved in the offseason program and try to cement his place on the roster moving forward to 2015 and beyond.
He has no guarantees, but he has what he wants – a chance to prove himself to the coaching staff that he belongs and deserves to stay long term.
“I got an opportunity here and I have to take advantage of it,” Bykowski said. “I just have to practice and prepare and position myself for the offseason and come in and work my butt off in OTAs and through to camp and build on itself.”