RENTON — A little more than a year ago, Roy Lewis was running with the Seattle Seahawks’ first-team defense in its nickel package. The former University of Washington Husky was a former Seahawks special teams captain, had been awarded the team’s prestigious Steve Largent Award and appeared to be on his way to a breakout season.
Then Lewis suffered a knee injury that required surgery, and on August 26, he was one of several players on that day’s transaction report, listed as waived/injured, meaning the Seahawks paid him an injury settlement in order to terminate his contract.
A year later, just five miles from Seahawks headquarters, Lewis and his younger brothers Royce and Mike are in a Renton strip mall, renovating a business in what is one of the first jobs for Lewis’ new, still unnamed construction company.
Lewis is 10 minutes and a world away from the glamorous world of the NFL. His is honest work to be sure, but Lewis’ story is a reminder of just how fast an NFL career can end. And it shows there is a very human toll to the numerous transactions made in the league this weekend.
Today is cut day in the NFL, and around the league hundreds of players will lose their jobs. Some will find work again right away, some end up on practice squads or catch on with teams later in the season. For many, however, today is the end of their NFL careers, even if they don’t know it yet.
Lewis, like so many other players whose careers ended abruptly, has no regrets. Sure he’d listen if a team came calling with a serious job offer this season, but he’s done bouncing from city to city for tryouts.
If this is the end, Lewis is more than happy with what he got out of the league — five seasons, a Super Bowl ring, a pension, countless relationships — and he’s excited about what lies ahead. In addition to being a small business owner, Lewis tends bar on weekends at a SoDo club called Aston Manor. He’s also preparing for the Seattle Fire Department’s exams in October, which he passed once after his senior year at Washington before the Pittsburgh Steelers offered the undrafted rookie a contract.
In middle school, a teacher once told Lewis he was going to be a renaissance man. He didn’t know what that meant at the time, but at 28, Lewis is making Mrs. Ryono at Dodson Middle School look like genius.
“For the most part, I just like challenging myself and getting as good as I can at whatever that I’m focused on doing,” Lewis said. “… In life the more you can do — that’s a mantra guys take on in the sports ranks — but it applies to life, too. Why not try to be as good as you can at anything you put your hands on?”
The still-muscular frame under a crisp white T-shirt indicates Lewis could make another run at an NFL job if the right situation came up. The LAFD stocking cap on his head tells you he’s ready to move on to a childhood dream that predates his love for football by a number of years.
“I’ve always felt like I have more to offer this world that just banging my head into another guy,” said Lewis, who won a Super Bowl with the Steelers as a rookie. “So it doesn’t bother me, because I’ve always wanted to be a firefighter. Football was just something I was blessed to play, so I told my agent if something serious comes along, I’ll go to work, but I’m not going to do the Kansas City Shuffle and go from town to town trying to make a team.
“I’ve already done that. I’ve already lived my dream. I made it to the NFL, I played, was a captain, won a Super Bowl, met the President, won the Steve Largent award. I appreciate all the things the NFL has blessed me with, but even more so, I’m more appreciative of the fact that I used the NFL as a vehicle to meet people who can continue to help me through my life journey. That’s the beauty of it.”
Lewis knew when he elected to have his meniscus repaired it would cost him much of the 2012 season, and that there were no guarantees he’d get another job. But after playing through a different knee injury in 2010, then coming back from offseason microfracture in 2011, Lewis put his long-term health ahead of his playing career.
“I was like, you know what, I’ve played injured before, I’m not playing injured anymore, he said. “That was a choice I made. I know I can play hurt, I’ve done it. Played off of microfracture after missing six games, but for me it was, at the end of the day when I do decide to have a family, I want to be able to walk, I want to be able to play with children. I’ve always felt like I had other options. I’ve never been defined by the game of football. I was completely content understanding and knowing, ‘Hey, this is what I choose to do.’”
This isn’t a story about Roy Lewis as much as it is about the vast majority of NFL players who come and go, then must figure out what to do with the rest of their lives because football went away, whether they were ready for it to be over or not. And they rarely are.
Happy birthday, Allen
Like most people, Allen Bradford’s phone rang on his birthday. Unlike most, Bradford found out he was out of work. The Seahawks cut Bradford on his birthday last season, although he did end up on their practice squad and earn a late-season call up to the active roster. As luck would have it, cut day again falls on Bradford’s birthday.
“Last year I got cut on my birthday, and this year I might get cut on my birthday again,” the backup linebacker said. “I’m just waiting for the call, but I’m going to enjoy my birthday either way.”
Bradford, who has traveled a strange path from USC running back to NFL back to Seahawks linebacker, knows nothing is guaranteed today. He’s like so many roster hopefuls around the country, just a guy chasing his dream, hoping the past month of work was enough to impress a coaching staff and front office.
“I don’t know if I did enough or not enough,” he said. “I always feel like I’m cut … I always feel like I’m not on the team until I know for sure than I am.”
“I’m really not nervous. As far as being released, I’ve felt it before. If I can stay here and they choose to keep me on their 53-man roster, it would be a pleasure, but if the numbers get a certain way and they’ve got to release me, then I’ve got to go on somewhere else. That’s what I’ve learned in this business — the logos change on your helmet, but the last name remains the same.”
Life on the fringe
Former Seahawks defensive tackle Craig Terrill was in his car around this time four years ago when his phone rang. His heart sank. When you spend most of your career as a backup and special teams standout, the last week of August is always nerve-wracking, even if you’ve managed to carve out a long career with one franchise. So, when Terrill saw a familiar number, he thought it was bad news.
Rarely is anyone been so happy to be wrong.
“Jim Mora called me on cut day and was calling to let me know I was going to be a part of the team,” he said. “That never happens. I was driving down the highway and I saw ‘Seahawks’ pop up on my phone, and I’m like, ‘Ah crap, it’s going down right now.’ It was relief, but my heart was pumping for a while.”
That cut call did come a year later, though Terrill ended up back with the 2010 Seahawks when injuries created a need four weeks into the season. Terrill went unsigned after the 2011 lockout, though he stayed in shape waiting for an opportunity that never came. He never felt comfortable that year knowing his job prospects hinged on the misfortune of others.
“It’s really one of worst situations because you’re watching football to look for injuries,” he said. “Somebody’s lying on the field and you’re like, ‘Is that a 90 numbers down on the ground.’ But that’s how you get called. It’s not a healthy time when you’re trying to stay in the game. You’re not hoping for someone’s demise, but you understand that it’s gong to take somebody getting hurt to get back into the game again.
“And you don’t plan anything because you have to be available every Monday to fly somewhere to do a workout if something comes up. You’re in that holding pattern, then after a year it’s long enough to realize that you’re ready to be retired.”
One year of that was enough, and now Terrill is more than content being an involved father, fronting his own band, teaching a public teaching class at Northwest University where his wife, Rachel works, and being a part of the Seahawks pregame radio show.
A coach who can relate
Any NFL coach will tell you how tough this time of year is. They don’t want sympathy, but they also want it known they take no pleasure in ending young players’ dreams.
They have little choice — league rules require 53-man rosters be established today — but that doesn’t make it any easier to call a player and tell him he’s not good enough, or he’s too expensive, or he doesn’t fit the team’s scheme.
For Seahawks head coach Pete Carroll, this day is especially difficult because he sees himself in so many of the players whose hearts he has to break. An undersized safety out of University of the Pacific, Carroll rushed out to get a paper the day after the draft to see if any team had selected him in what was then a 17-round NFL draft.
When no NFL team drafted him, Carroll got a tryout with the Honolulu Hawaiians of the World Football League. That didn’t work out either, which explains how Carroll got into coaching at a young age, but also why he tries to handle a rather cutthroat process with as much grace as possible.
“This is a very difficult time,” he said. “There’s a bunch of guys who have worked really hard to make this team, and not everybody gets to stay.”