Emotional infancy defines NFL cut day

August 29, 2013

Over the next few days there are going to be a bunch of awkward semi bro-hugs in NFL locker rooms. And in some cases, no hug at all. In others, maybe a hand-shake. But more often than not, there will be an absolute failure to acknowledge a (former) teammate’s existence.

After weeks spent in the scorching sun on football fields across the country, the last weekend in August is cold. It’s generally impersonal. And it generally sucks, in more ways than one.

There’s no training for NFL roster cutdown day.

It’s like we forget how to interact and engage, how to provide comforting words, or how to take the bond that was supposedly created through months of training together and apply it to an actual moment that would seemingly benefit from genuine connectivity. We become emotional infants.

I’ve been pretty fortunate in that I’ve never been cut before. But as a former college walk-on, I always felt that slight uneasiness that somehow the rug would be pulled out from beneath me. So in a very small way, I guess I could empathize a bit with those who were called upstairs to "see coach."

And in my last two seasons, I honestly felt like Randy Moss’s grand reaper might be coming down to grab me, too. He never did. And so, I carried on with 52 others in all our splendid, emotional infancy.

Picture this scene: All the guys are hanging out in the locker room, the day after the final preseason game. About 10-15 of them probably know they’ll be unemployed later that day. Another 10-15 have legitimate concerns about their place on the roster. Then you have another handful of guys who don’t have a worry in the world, but are in for a big surprise. Everyone goes out of the their way to appear casually unconcerned, confident, and even jovial. Many feel like they’re about to vomit, but of course they refuse to show any outward signs of anxiety. But trust me, the anxiety is palpable.

Then some young guy walks in, probably an intern in the personnel department, who no player has really even seen before. Sometimes we’d give the intern a hard time, as if this isn’t already the most awkward, emotionally troubling thing he’s ever been through.

We’d bust his chops a bit: "How can you look yourself in the mirror? That’s messed up, bro, crushing a dude’s dreams like this." Everyone in the locker room, including the intern, would laugh uncomfortably. Perhaps it would make us feel better if we could somehow make this poor bastard feel worse about himself. Socially inept, I guess?

Then this guy begins his approach. Suddenly the room falls silent and heads drop. I guess the thinking is that if he doesn’t see your face, then he won’t yank you upstairs. If only it could be so easy. Then he taps the player on the shoulder, asks him to grab his playbook, and they begin to exit the locker room. No one else looks up, but guys begin to whisper amongst themselves: "Aww, that’s f---ed up. Damn, they got that guy?"

That guy.

Yes, sometimes it’s that impersonal. Because sometimes, you may not even know that guy’s name.

I remember being a rookie, and a lot of the vets wouldn’t get to know their young teammates. Why? Because they didn’t want to invest any time in developing a relationship with someone who probably wouldn’t actually be their teammate.

And as I got older, I’m embarrassed to say that I probably did the same thing. There’s so much roster turnover year after year that names and faces become sort of a blur. So you take the easy way out — you avoid building new relationships with the guys who probably don’t have a shot. And that probably spares you from having to counsel this young man when someone tells him he’s not good enough. Emotional infancy.

When the player returns to the locker room after his meeting with coach, most everyone acts like they don’t know what just happened. Guys sort of keep their heads down and avoid eye contact. And as the player begins to pack up his things, he might confess to a few of his buddies that he just got cut, as if they weren’t perfectly aware.

Now begins a series of awkward physical exchanges.

Should you go shake the guy’s hand? Does he even want you to shake his hand?

Does he resent you because he thinks he deserves your spot? Or are you just thankful you’re not him right now?

If he approaches you for a good-bye bro-hug, do you go full embrace or just do the tough-guy handshake half-hug thing?

Do you tell him everything is going to be alright? That he’ll surely land with one of the other 31 teams? In a lot of cases, that would be a lie. But do you say it anyway to make them feel better, and make yourself feel less awkward?

Or do you just keep your head down, back half-turned, and avoid the whole thing altogether? More often than not, that’s what happens. And then you never see that guy again.

This is a cold day in the business of football. I’ve seen guys throw chairs at the wall and I’ve heard them sobbing and puking in the bathroom stall. I’ve watched players threaten athletic trainers who they blamed for not getting them healthy fast enough or for forcing them onto the field when they weren’t physically ready. I’ve heard guys motherf--- their coaches for taking food off their family’s table. I’ve seen guys flat-out refuse to leave the building and eventually get escorted off the premises.

And I always hear these tales about the player who handled his release "like a pro"? I don’t even know what that means. Imagine doing something your whole life, trained in nothing else, and then being told this is the end of the road for you. What’s a "pro" response to being told you’re not good enough? I don’t know.

What I do know is this: There’s no warm and fuzzy way to get an NFL roster down to 53 players. It’s a cutthroat business. Maybe there’s no way to make the experience better for the player who’s just been cut.

But now that I’m on the outside looking in, I see the fault in the way I did things. The business of football isn’t going to change, but I think it’s the players who can help soften the blow.

Learn the name of your teammate. Listen to his story. He may not have a chance in hell to make the club, and you probably both know it.

But the common denominator between you and him is your love for the game. If there’s nothing else, let that be your connection point. You were him at some point, too. Your path may have been smoother, but like him, you just wanted to be on the team.

Don’t be an emotional infant, don’t be socially inept, and don’t make it even more awkward by avoiding eye contact. Go full bro-hug.

I wish I would have.