It wasn't a frequent occurrence, but Winfield Garnett knows what it's like to be pinned to the mat. He knows the feeling of lying on his back, looking up at the world with a hollow, helpless intuition, fully aware that the outcome is way beyond his control.
When he was a junior at Thornton High School in Harvey, Ill., it only happened once. In 33 matches, Garnett was beaten on the mat just one time. The other 32 times he walked off as the wrestling victor. But that one time, that isolated day when he was exposed as the inferior wrestler of the match, serves as a reminder to Garnett that there is always someone out there who thinks he's better and, more importantly, willing to prove it.
Garnett was a dominant high school wrestler, 32-1 during his junior year. Football, though, was the sport where he exhibited a universe of talent and a galaxy of potential. Autumn, not winter, was when Garnett took center stage at Thornton High. It was in football where he was named not only an Illinois all-state player, but an All-American high school athlete as well.
Not surprisingly, Garnett kept the folks at the post office busy during his final two years of high school. Rarely did a day or two go by without a shiny, bright envelope with an attractive college logo stamped on it waiting for Garnett in the mailbox.
After the mail was sorted and the recruiting visits taken, Garnett made a decision. His final choice: Play for the Buckeyes and attend OSU. Or, as former Vikings running back Robert Smith or current receiver Cris Carter will remind you: "THE Ohio State University."
Just like at Thornton, Garnett shined at Ohio State, too. He started 25 of the 42 games he played as a Buckeye. In front of a national TV audience, Garnett, a Buckeyes senior co-captain, stole the spotlight when he recorded three tackles for losses against Florida State in the 1998 Sugar Bowl.
Despite a rather illustrious collegiate career, Garnett never heard his name called on NFL draft weekend in April of 1998. Player after player was picked, snatched and selected by team after team. Garnett was frustratingly left sitting on the shelf.
Albeit a humble one, he still received his ticket to the NFL — or at least to an NFL training camp. He managed to sign with the Jacksonville Jaguars as a free agent that summer but never survived the series of cuts that led up to the regular season. A year later Garnett surfaced in Seattle. He even made it through training camp into September, but the Seahawks released him just days before the season opener. Last summer Garnett trained with the New Orleans Saints. He was released in mid-August.
Three years. Three training camps. Three cuts. Good things, Garnett learned, do not always come in threes.
"There were points during training camps when I thought I wasn't going to make it, but I never thought they were better than me," Garnett said of the training camp survivors on the bubble that made the cuts when he didn't. "I was getting to the point where I was thinking that maybe this wasn't meant for me and maybe I needed to pursue something else in life.
"I never doubted my abilities. I think I was lucky that I got that many chances. I've been unlucky to be cut, but every time I got cut the next team would call and tell me something good about myself."
The Minnesota Vikings were one of those teams. After getting released by the Jags, the Seahawks and the Saints in consecutive seasons, Garnett received a call from the Vikings. They liked Garnett's potential as a pass rusher and were willing to offer him an invitation to training camp.
But there was a price.
The Vikings wanted Garnett to hone his skills in the developmental NFL Europe league. Garnett collided with a dilemma. He had already played a season in Europe in between training camp stints with the Jaguars and Seahawks. After belonging to the prestigious program at Ohio State, where he grew accustomed to being treated as royalty, NFL Europe was nothing better than an ugly stepsister.
He had already spent one year playing football overseas. He had been there, done that. With one year of European football under his belt, he didn't want to go there or do that again.
"Coming from a big school like Ohio State, I wasn't used to doing everything myself," Garnett said. "There aren't any facilities. You stay in a little room instead. They also rob you. They don't really pay you. It's highway robbery at best."
Despite the drawbacks, Garnett knew the ends quite possibly would justify the means. "The only advantage of playing in Europe is you can prove yourself as a player," he said. "I didn't want to go back because I played over there before. Being in Europe is fine for a couple of weeks, but a whole season? But at the same time, I wasn't in a position to tell (the Vikings) no."
Garnett returned to NFL Europe. He played for Barcelona in '99 and this time he was a member of the Amsterdam Admirals. His position on defense for the Admirals was wherever he chose to line up. That must have worked. Even though his Admirals were a meager 4-6 last season, Garnett had a banner year with eight sacks and 46 tackles in 10 games. Publicly, he anointed himself the Euro-version of Warren Sapp.
"I had a good year, I definitely had one of the best years people ever had over there," Garnett said. "When I got over there, the coach knew of me and gave me total freedom and it helped me have a great year. It was fun. If anybody got hurt I would be the guy to move to that position. It was probably my best year of football, and that includes college or high school."
Garnett was named to the All-NFL Europe team. He returned to the United States with more confidence, thus creating higher expectations.
Fine with Garnett.
Entering Vikings training camp with elevated expectations only served as yet another motivational factor to help boost his performance. "I felt they expected me to do something," Garnett said. "Because of what I did in Europe, all the coaches and scouts expected me to do something. Instead of ‘Who was this guy?' I was someone who they had expectations of.
"It motivated me. I don't care who you are. If you get cut three times, you kind of have a here-we-go-again feeling. But this time I knew I was going to get a shot. I felt like this time, if I didn't make it, it was my fault."
Initial roster cuts came quickly in Mankato. So did the second wave. And the third.
For the first time in Garnett's playing career, he had a serene feeling when the cuts were announced. "I pretty much felt like I was going to make the team the whole time," he said. "But I did last year, too. I treated it like if it happens, it happens. I've been shot in the heart before and, by now, it's pretty much bullet proof."
Garnett didn't need to test his theory. The Vikings gave him a shot, but it was the opportunity to make a contribution on the revamped defensive line. The 6-foot-6, 320-pound Garnett seized the opportunity. So much that he's a regular contributor during games, not just a spectator from the sidelines.
His statistics are modest. Through the first four games of the season, he had recorded five tackles and had one of the team's paltry three quarterback sacks. His play, much like the entire defensive unit's, has been unstable at best. As his self-evaluation will attest.
"Inconsistent," Garnett said. "I've played well at times and I've played not so well. I haven't played bad. Maybe against New Orleans I was a little tense or a little bit uptight because I wanted to play so well."
Garnett guarantees the best is yet to come. Playing for his fourth NFL team, after traveling overseas twice to save his career, Garnett wants to prove once and for all that his journeyman status is by geographical reference only. The true sign of his success, Garnett figures, is his staying power with the Vikings.
"It's definitely stressful on me as far as everyday life," he said. "I'm happy I made it, but at the same time I don't want this to be the highlight of my story. I want to be a Pro Bowler one day. This is just the first page for me. I'm not here to be glad to get this money. I've worked too hard for this to last just one year." VU