Some of the greats that ever played in the NFL have never won a Super Bowl ring. Cris Carter didn’t. Randy Moss didn’t. The Purple People Eaters never did.
Justin Trattou has.
Trattou, a defensive end and special teams player with the Vikings, has only played in 13 career NFL games – 11 with the Giants, one with the Vikings last year and last week against the New York Jets. But he has the elusive finger bling that all NFL players covet.
As an undrafted rookie with the Giants in 2011, Trattou played in six games and, while inactive in the postseason, he was on the 53-man roster that won Super Bowl XLVI. It was a career highlight for him, but his journey through the NFL has been anything but glamorous.
Sidelined with an ankle injury during the preseason of 2012 that landed him on injured reserve, he became a numbers casualty in 2013 after playing five games that season with the Giants. He was picked up by the Vikings and has spent most of the last two years on the team’s practice squad, getting elevated to the 53-man roster for one game last year and brought up again last week prior to the Jets game.
For a lot of players, winning a Super Bowl ring is the culmination of a career. For Trattou, it was just the beginning of his attempt to make an NFL roster and be an impact player. After having a strong training camp this summer, he was one of the final cuts the team made. It wasn’t the first time he’s got that call; he hopes it will be the last. But nothing in the NFL is guaranteed and there is no job security for those on the roster bubble.
It’s a difficult existence never knowing what the future holds, but Trattou has become somewhat philosophical about the future, saying he can’t waste valuable time wondering what the team’s plans are for him because whether he stays or goes isn’t his call. All he can do is give the coaching staff confidence that he belongs.
“For me personally, those kinds of questions are out of my hands,” Trattou said of being cut and re-signed. “What I did was, for three months, busted my butt every day in practice, the weight room and the meeting room, watched a lot of tape and kept learning. Being my fourth year in the league, I know you’re time can come so you have to be prepared. Fortunately for me, I got a chance to play last week and be part of a great team win.”
The best part of his callup was that being on the 53-man roster is about five times what he gets paid on the practice squad – “It’s a nice Christmas bonus,” he said – but it showed that the team has faith in his ability to contribute and that he is valued by the organization.
Throughout his four-year career, he’s always dealt with the specter of being a potential roster casualty. He has learned to not stress out too much over it. He’s been cut several times in four years and re-signed just as often. He’s learned that for a lot of NFL players, their professional life is tenuous at best and all they can do is keep fighting and hope to make an impression on those who hold their professional fate in their hands.
“Unless you’re a high first-rounder or a big-money guy, all of those decisions are out of your hands,” Trattou said. “You can just control the controlables – what you do on the field, what you do in the weight room, what you eat when you go home, etc. You can’t think about what someone else is going to do to you because you can’t control what they do. It’s all about controlling the things you can control.”
One of the unique aspects of being on the practice squad is that teams routinely snipe other team’s practice squads when they have a need. Trattou hasn’t been faced with that decision, whether to accept the offer from another team that may merely be wanting to get a test-drive for a couple of games at the end of a season or remain with his current team that may have more long-term plans for him.
In Trattou’s case, such a decision has been hypothetical, but it has crossed his mind what might happen if the call from another team had come with an opportunity to make the jump to the 53-man roster with them instead of the Vikings.
“It’s never happened to me, so I can’t really speak to those who’ve made that decision,” Trattou said. “You’ve always got to do what’s best for your personal situation. If your situation is better off long-term here, maybe you stay. But if you think you may have a better opportunity somewhere else, you have to jump at that opportunity. You have to see where the best opportunity to showcase your skills are and make that decision.”
Trattou has earned the trust of the two coaches he works with the most – defensive line coach Andre Patterson and special teams coordinator Mike Priefer and he credits them with his professional growth as a player. Both of them handle their jobs with a tough love for their players, but in Trattou’s case he has taken it to heart.
“My two coaches – Coach Priefer and Coach ‘Dre – are the best in the business,” Trattou said. “They don’t pull any punches, but they’re teachers. They’re not going to yell at you for no reason. When they teach you, you learn. I’ve learned more this year than I have in the last 10 to be honest with you. They’ve helped me a lot.”
The coaches have seen the improvement in Trattou over the last year-plus and he has seen all the pieces come together for him as a pro over that span. As he looks back to when he entered the league as a Florida Gator with NFL dreams, he marvels at how different a player he is now as to when he first stepped on the practice field with the Giants in 2011. He was confident in his ability coming in, but that has increased 10-fold as he has come to have a much deeper understanding of the nuances of the NFL game.
“When it comes to special teams from my rookie year to now, it’s night and day,” he said. “I never played a down of special teams in high school or college. It was all new to me. Now I feel a lot more comfortable out there. As far as the D-line, this year under Coach Patterson has been great. I’ve learned a ton about technique and can go out there and use my athleticism. I have a legitimate plan with my technique and I credit that to Coach P.”
It has paid off. One day after being elevated to the 53-man roster when the Vikings placed Jerick McKinnon on injured reserve, Trattou was made a game-day active player or Scott Critchton, whom the Vikings invested in with a third-round pick.
“Justin’s been doing a good job and probably gives us a little more pass rush (than Crichton),” head coach Mike Zimmer said. “And he’s probably better on special teams.”
For most young players, a Super Bowl ring would be something they flash constantly, as a reminder to themselves and others that they reached the NFL mountaintop. Most of Trattou’s teammates have never seen it because he doesn’t flaunt it in front of them. But, if he wins one with the Vikings? That’s another story.
“I don’t wear it very often, especially not around (Winter Park),” Trattou said. “My goal is to win another one and then I’ll wear it all the time.”
DE Trattou has come a long way
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