Today is going to be a great day for a lot of young athletes on all 32 teams across the National Football League. They are going to take their first step forward to realizing their dreams of being an NFL player. Most of them will be rookies. Some of them may have never cracked a roster before after years of trying.
We love the stories of the Matthew Thomas’ of the league, but we also shouldn’t forget about those who see their dreams come to an end—or at least a pregnant pause. By 4PM today, over 1000 athletes are going to lose their jobs. A few hundred of them will land on practice squads, but the vast majority will be looking for another line of work for the fall and winter seasons, many of them retaining their fitness regimens, just in case.
That was Mike Hilton two years ago when he came out of Ole Miss. He went undrafted, signing with the Jacksonville Jaguars, but he didn’t make the team, and they didn’t think enough of him to sign him to their practice squad. He kept working and eventually got a call from the New England Patriots to sign to their practice squad, but that was short-lived.
Then in December, just as he was about to accept a job that he applied for at a local FootLocker, the Pittsburgh Steelers called and asked him if he wanted to sign. He headed right over and has been here since, emerging as a first-year starter in 2017 and showing no signs of slowing down.
That is just one of numerous stories that the dozens of players whom the Steelers release today should keep in mind. Then there is the tale that Alejandro Villanueva has to tell. A man without a true position, he spent his time between tryouts serving active tours of duty and becoming a decorated war hero.
But he kept striving to reach his NFL dream until one day Pittsburgh Head Coach Mike Tomlin took notice of the 6’9” defensive end towering over his peers on the opposite sideline during a preseason game against the Philadelphia Eagles in 2014.
He didn’t make their team. The Steelers signed him and moved him to tackle, where he played for about a season and a half in college, spending the year on the practice squad before making the 53-man roster the following year and entering the starting lineup several games in. One Pro Bowl and an unblemished starting streak later, he is the closest thing to a household name among offensive linemen.
Results such as these are not typical. But then the dream of becoming an NFL player is not a typical one, either, and ambitious goals require ambitious drive, and sometimes a bottomless well of faith in yourself. The stark reality is that the majority of players cut today are never going to play in the NFL. But some who are may one day become among the best to play the game.