Amid never-ending talk of contentious contract negotiations, a coming NFL work stoppage and a certain disgruntled $100 million man unable to run a few wind sprints, there are several inspiring stories and players worth rooting for in NFL training camps.
There are the undrafted rookie free agents, defying the odds and doing all they can to avoid that dreaded knock from the “Turk” and a one-way plane ticket back home. There are the aging veterans, battling like they’re rookies to simply secure roster spots and another season in the league. And then there are the comeback tales — the players overcoming adversity and career-threatening injuries as they work themselves back into NFL shape.
There are stories like these in every NFL camp this month. Here are 10 guys to root for:
The YouTube Legend: Joel Reinders, offensive tackle, Cleveland Browns
Like the “Evolution of Dance” guy or the new lead singer of Journey, Joel Reinders owes his professional football career to YouTube. That is, of course, if he makes the Browns and actually has a professional football career.
After playing just eight games at the University of Waterloo in Oakville, Ontario, the 6-foot-7, 320-pound tackle received little interest from NFL scouts leading up to the draft. With no real buzz around Reinders and few requests for his game tapes, his agent put together a pretty cheesy promotional highlight tape and posted it on YouTube.
Slowly but surely, the Reinders reel made the Internet rounds. Eventually the clip made its way to Browns senior scout Jake Hallum and Cleveland’s director of college scouting, Pat Roberts. What they saw was a mountain of a man who was both quick on his feet in pass protection and powerful as a run-blocking road paver. Once offensive line coach George Warhop and head coach Eric Mangini watched the footage, Reinders was on a flight to Cleveland.
Mangini said of Reinders’ unlikely tale: ”They sent out this YouTube video. There’s one picture, his wingspan, he can touch either side of the building. When you see his arms, it’s amazing.”
Signed to a free-agent contract in May, the YouTube mystery is a relative long shot to make the 53-man roster this month, but should make the practice squad. From there, who knows? If we’ve learned anything from his story thus far, it’s that anything’s possible.
The Little Guy: Trindon Holliday, kick returner, Houston Texans
Darren Sproles, the NFL’s shortest man for the past four seasons, towers over Texans rookie Trindon Holliday. At just 5-foot-5, Holliday doesn’t look like an NFL player at all. Next to 6-7 teammate Eric Winston, the two look like that classic picture of Muggsy Bogues and Manute Bol as teammates on the Washington Bullets in the 1980s.
Though short in stature, Holliday is big on game-breaking ability. Think Devin Hester or Josh Cribbs in the open field — but faster. The LSU star won the 2009 NCAA 100-meter championship with a 10-second clocking. In front of 4,000 fans Saturday, Holliday returned two punts in punt coverage drills for what would have been touchdowns.
There’s genuine buzz in Houston over the addition of the pint-size Holliday.
Special teams coach Joe Marciano said this weekend: "If you can’t touch him, you can’t tackle him. So he made yards virtually without any blocking. If you can give him some blocking, hey, maybe he can make a run. They tried to not let him turn the edge, and he got around them. He put on a speed move, showed some quickness. I just thought he was a speed guy, but he showed he can put his foot in the ground and make some cuts at full speed."
The Big-Time Bust: Mike Williams, wide receiver, Seattle Seahawks
Back in 2003, there was no more explosive talent in all of college football than USC wide receiver Mike Williams. After being selected 10th overall by the Detroit Lions in 2005, Williams suffered through one obstacle after another until he found himself 270 pounds and out of the league.
Three years since he last took the field in an NFL uniform, his old college coach, Pete Carroll, has given him a new chance, and Williams is making the most of it in Seahawks camp.
Last November, Williams showed up on the USC campus looking to work out with his old team and get back into playing shape. Carroll noticed his onetime star still had something left in the tank and something to prove. When the coach took the Seattle job in January, wide receiver was one of the team’s biggest weaknesses. Sure enough, on April 15, Williams signed a one-year contract with the Seahawks.
A few days into training camp, Williams is excelling. Forget just making the team; there’s a chance he’ll start on opening day as the No. 2 wideout.
"I’ve changed a lot of bad habits,” Williams told reporters. “There’s an infatuation with the results. You just kind of want to keep at it and keep at it. As I told Coach Carroll, I want to see how far I can take it."
The sky’s the limit.
The Harsh Reality: Kurt Coleman, safety, Philadelphia Eagles
A seventh-round draft pick out of Ohio State, Kurt Coleman lives with the harsh realities of this sport every morning he wakes up, every time he puts on his helmet.
During a Buckeyes spring practice in 2006, Coleman collided awkwardly with walk-on receiver Tyson Gentry. Gentry didn’t get up from the hit. Hours later, Coleman received news that his teammate had a broken vertebra in his neck and was paralyzed.
Coleman played out the rest of his Ohio State career and kept in frequent contact with Gentry throughout. Forever changed after the incident, Coleman said he broke down in tears when Gentry told him being paralyzed had made him a better person.
"He said, ‘It’s not your fault. It could have happened to anybody,’" Coleman recalled. "He’s changed a lot of people’s lives through his story and testimonies, and I think I’ve been able to share my story. It’s been able to bring a lot of hope to people in the same situation."
Coleman has a shot at making the Eagles’ 53-man roster this month. His old teammate Tyson Gentry certainly is rooting him on.
The Pioneer: Ed Wang, offensive tackle, Buffalo Bills
Buffalo Bills fifth-round pick Ed Wang is not exactly a wallflower. With arguably the league’s longest and most creative hairstyle, the former Virginia Tech star rarely goes unnoticed on the field. He also happens to be the first full-blooded Chinese-American drafted by an NFL team.
Wang’s parents were track and field athletes for China in the 1984 Olympics. While he was at Virginia Tech, Wang played tight end as a freshman before starting his final 27 games at tackle.
He’s not interested in merely being a footnote in sports history. Wang wants to make a difference for the Bills in his first season, similar to how 2009 rookies Andy Levitre and Eric Wood got on the field right away last year. With the youth and uncertainty on Buffalo’s offensive line, it’s certainly possible.
The Career Change: Kassim Osgood, wide receiver, Jacksonville Jaguars
So, you’re an accountant at an advertising agency and a damn good number cruncher, the best CPA at the company. But you grew up wanting to be a Don Draper in the advertising world, a creative force who came up with all the big ideas and got all the acclaim. Now you can take a chance to follow that dream by going to a less successful advertising firm for a job in its creative department. You’d have to work from the bottom; do you make the jump to try something new?
This is the decision Kassim Osgood had to make this offseason, when the longtime special teams ace of the San Diego Chargers was offered a chance to join the Jacksonville Jaguars to play wide receiver. Osgood, an eight-year veteran with just 33 career receptions, joins the Jaguars as a 30-year-old looking to start his career anew as a wideout first, special teams contributor second.
The three-time special teams Pro Bowler is battling young studs Mike Thomas and Jarrett Dillard for the No. 2 wideout role this month. It’s been his dream to play wide receiver. Now he’ll get his shot.
The No-Name: Dan Skuta, linebacker, Cincinnati Bengals
In a locker room that has more reality TV stars than a Kardashian-Jenner Thanksgiving dinner and more ex-criminals than an episode of "Celebrity Rehab," it’s easy for a guy like Dan Skuta to fall by the media wayside.
Lost in a sea of Chad Ochocinco, Terrell Owens, Cedric Benson, Dhani Jones, Adam “Pac Man” Jones and Matt Jones headlines this month is the inspiring story of Dan Skuta. An undrafted unknown from Division II Grand Valley State, Skuta worked his way onto the Bengals’ 53-man roster out of training camp last summer and played in half the team’s games during the Bengals’ AFC North-winning run. He did not record any statistics on defense in 2009, but registered a solid tackle total on special teams, ranking fifth on the team with 10 takedowns in just eight games.
On one of the top linebacker units in the league, Skuta is a backup who can play all three spots, as well as any and all positions on special teams. He’s the soft-spoken utility man on a team full of big personalities. An undrafted rookie free agent, a practice squad player and a special teams contributor, Skuta is looking to become a bona-fide NFL linebacker this month.
The Mentor: Mark Brunell, quarterback, New York Jets
All eyes will be on Mark Sanchez as the second-year quarterback is expected to take the New York Jets deep into the playoffs, if not all the way to the Super Bowl. In recently signed Mark Brunell, he’ll have a 40-year-old Super Bowl champion backup and mentor in his ear and on the sideline, ensuring he gets the job done.
A three-time Pro Bowl selection in Jacksonville, Brunell has played the caddie role for bigger quarterbacks than Sanchez over his 15-year career. Brunell was Brett Favre’s backup in Green Bay in the ’90s and Drew Brees’ backup the past two seasons with the Saints. Though his game has been on the decline since his last good year with Washington in 2005, Brunell offers more value because of his experience and comfort with the backup role.
It’s not all roses in Brunell’s world, though. On June 25, Brunell filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy, stating assets of $5.5 million and liabilities of $24.7 million. Most of Brunell’s debts are personal guarantees he made on loans on behalf of his businesses, including JWB Ventures and Champion LLC. Champion, named most often in the filing, is a failed real estate and development partnership between Brunell and former Jaguars teammates Joel Smeenge and Todd Fordham.
“They bought some land and they got killed, like a lot of people did,” Robert Wilcox, the attorney who filed the bankruptcy for Brunell, said in June. The past few years have been incredibly tough economic times for families across the United States — including the Brunells.
Off the field, Brunell will look to get back on top. On it, the savvy southpaw will look to win his second Super Bowl ring in as many years.
The Comeback Kid: Stewart Bradley, linebacker, Philadelphia Eagles
Following Stewart Bradley’s breakout 2008 campaign, Sports Illustrated’s Peter King named Bradley as the middle linebacker on his All-Pro team. Suddenly held in the same regard as Ray Lewis, Patrick Willis and Brian Urlacher, Bradley was expected to lead the Eagles to a Super Bowl last year. But Bradley tore his ACL during the first week of training camp and was lost for the season.
The past 12 months have been trying for the ultra-competitive Bradley. Back on the field and hungry to make an impact, the four-year veteran is expected to be the leader of the young Eagles defense.
"It’s kind of natural for my personality as well as the nature of being in my position,” he said. “As middle linebacker, you’re verbal and you’re doing most of the communications, so it’s a good fit for me."
This isn’t the first time Bradley has returned from a torn ACL. He bounced back from the same injury to his other knee while he was at Nebraska. With all eyes on Kevin Kolb’s arm this season, Stewart Bradley’s knee may end up being of even greater importance.
The Father: Travis Johnson, defensive tackle, San Diego Chargers
Travis Johnson went through an NFL offseason unlike any other player’s. In late January, Johnson’s 4-year-old daughter, Zoe, was admitted to the hospital with what was thought to be a case of pneumonia. Soon after being admitted, Zoe suffered a seizure, followed by a stroke that caused paralysis in the left side of her body. When doctors worked to clean an infection on her lung wall, Zoe’s lung collapsed and she suffered a second stroke.
What Johnson found in San Diego was more than just a concerned and loving organization. He found a community that made Zoe’s personal battle with illness a battle of its own. On the fan forums at Chargers.com, the prayers and personal stories flowed by the hundreds every day. Johnson felt the love and support of NFL fans across the country.
“I’m still so new to this Charger family, but the love that has come out of the Charger family for this child, for me and for my family has been wonderful,” Johnson told reporters in February. “I’m so grateful for everybody’s prayers and all the nice things people have said. I just want her to wake up and talk to me. I know rehab is going to be a long road, but she’s going to be ready for it because she’s so tough. The Lord is going to heal her and bring her out of this, but it’s just so tough right now.”
Johnson has been a standout in camp so far and should be a lock to make the roster as a defensive lineman. Zoe, meanwhile, is out of the hospital and recovering. For any parent out there, it’s impossible not to root for Johnson after what he has been through the past few months.