What it feels like to have your world turned upside down.
I asked new Kansas City tackle Eric Winston, who was unexpectedly cut by Houston and signed a four-year deal with the Chiefs, to write a short piece about what happens when a veteran player gets whacked and has to find a new home. His thoughts:
"The general manager needs to see you" is about the worst thing any professional athlete can hear. Very seldom does any good, at least in the short term, come of it. Around this time of year, as well as the end of August, pro football players hear it too much. When it happened to me the day before free agency began, a few things ran through my mind. They can't be calling to cut me, I thought. But I also doubt that they would call me to the stadium to ask me how my trip overseas to see the troops went.
So I became a statistic. One day before my wife and I were set to leave on an anniversary vacation -- and three days after my return from Afghanistan visiting the troops -- I was called into coach Gary Kubiak's office so he could tell me that they were experiencing problems with the salary cap, had to make some tough decisions, and were therefore releasing me. After that meeting, I got to go see Texans general manager Rick Smith. In all fairness, I appreciate the way the Texans' organization handled it. They didn't tell me over the phone, let me find out through a media release, or hand me off to one of their subordinates to deliver the bad news.
So I was off to free agency for the first time in my career, to Miami and Kansas City. Fortunately for me, I have put together quality tape, and my agent started receiving calls as soon as I was officially available. We immediately started whittling down the list to teams that wanted to bring me in for visits.
These visits for teams are used primarily to give the player a physical and for you to sign off on the team so they can get your medical records and also for you to meet the coaches and see the facility. For obvious financial reasons these teams want to know about every injury and take new X-rays of nearly your entire body just to make sure there isn't anything new to find. After the half-day worth of doc visits, an intern drives you to the facility to follow up with the coaches and to see the facility. It doesn't quite compare to college recruiting; there's not nearly as much hand-holding and kissing up. While all of this is going on, your agent and the GM or team negotiator are talking numbers and seeing about a deal.
Kansas City was aggressive from the start. When a team schedules a visit, you usually receive a call from the general manager, head coach or position coach telling you how excited they are that you are coming in and how interested they are in you. With the Chiefs, I received calls from all three of them. They made it clear that I was a priority and that I needed to make sure that I got on the plane from Miami and make it to Kansas City.
When I met with Chiefs GM Scott Pioli, I got a little surprise. I had mentioned at dinner the previous night that when I came out in the draft in 2006, I didn't think the Patriots (where he was working at the time) liked me when I was entering the draft. Scott started laughing out loud and said, "No way, we liked you a lot.'' So the next day he showed me my Patriots psychological evaluation from 2006. To my surprise, it was very complimentary of me and was actually pretty spot on. I thought it was kind of crazy that someone could talk to me for 30 minutes and in that short time sum up what kind of player, worker and overall teammate I would be. Scott said that this is just one of the reasons why he wanted me. He went on to say that winning wasn't just about getting guys that could play, it was about getting high-character guys who come to work every day and were willing to grind.
Obviously that is always nice to hear, but more importantly for me, it let me know that the Chiefs were going to follow a formula that I believe is the only way to be successful for a long time in the NFL. Draft guys who can do it on the field, but also guys who are fun to be around, work hard and care about things like practice and trying to get better every day. Needless to say, I was sold on the fact that the Chiefs not only had a good chance to be a strong team next year, but for years to come.
But I needed to know where I'd fit in the offense. When I spoke with the coaches I was pleasantly surprised. The head coach, Romeo Crennel, has a great reputation around the league. Knowing that a new offense was being installed had me wondering what kind of offense would be coming in. The offensive coordinator, Brian Daboll, has traditionally run more of a "power or gap" blocking scheme and the line coach, Jack Bicknell Jr., who just came over from the Giants, has done the same. Now, I feel like I could be successful in any scheme, but I really have grown to love running the zone scheme and understand it well. So going in I wasn't expecting to hear that the Chiefs would run a zone-blocking scheme, but that's exactly what I heard. That was like icing on the cake to what had been an already positive visit. I spent one more night in Kansas City and we worked out a contract to make me a Chief for the next four years.
Single guys can make a move like this easily. But having a family, and moving a wife, a 10-year-old daughter with plenty of friends and a 6-month-old son is another matter. To make it easy to understand for my daughter, I told her I had gotten traded to the Chiefs. She said, "Really?" (Which, of course, if you have kids, you know that's not a rhetorical question.)
"Who did you get traded for?'' my daughter asked.
I laughed, then came clean about getting released. She had a better understanding about the NFL than I thought, and certainly better than when I was her age.
In many ways, football's the easy part when it comes to switching teams. The life stuff is more difficult. Do we sell our house in Houston that we spent so much time making our own? Rent or buy in KC? How long will we really be there for? Will my kids adjust to the new part of the country? Will my wife have good friends on the new team? The questions linger.
I'm definitely not asking you to feel sorry for me. We get paid a lot of money to play a great game, but I am just trying to bring you into what is presently going on in my uncertain world right now. Plenty of guys around the league didn't get a four-year contract. Many of them got a one-year deal and will be facing the same visits and the same questions again -- if they're lucky. Each player's career is so fragile. Just look at Peyton Manning, maybe the best ever, is now on a different team after not playing last year when he injured his neck. The roller coaster ride that is the NFL doesn't stop at the end of the season. For most players, it's just begun.