Waiting for a call: Ex-Badgers DE Alec James’ unconventional rookie NFL season

Every journey to the NFL is different and isn’t necessarily glamorous. Just ask Alec James.

A little over a year after beginning his training in hopes of landing a job in the NFL, the former Wisconsin defensive end is right back at square one — waiting, and hoping, to make a roster. Well, almost square one. But more on that in a bit.

It all started for James right after the Badgers’ Orange Bowl win over Miami. There was the East-West Shrine Game, preparing and participating in Pro Day and working out, all to ready himself to be in training camp with an NFL team.

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When it came time for the draft, James said he went into it with no expectations.

“I didn’t want to be one of those guys who, you know, I’m telling myself every day I’m going to get drafted and I’m sitting there watching the draft each day and not getting picked,” James said. “So I had the mindset that no matter what happens I’m going to be confident in whatever preparation that I’ve had at Wisconsin and no matter what I’ll be all right. I’ll put the work in no matter what happens, if I get drafted, if I go undrafted.”

As the draft went on, James’ name wasn’t announced. But teams were interested in signing him as an undrafted free agent. The first call came from the Cleveland Browns late in the sixth round and James talked to more teams as the seventh round progressed.

James was ready to sign with the Los Angeles Chargers, even telling his agent to get all the paperwork figured out. But a minute after that conversation, Arizona head coach Steve Wilks called — James would later find out having the head coach call an undrafted player was rare — and after listening, James changed course and decided that the Cardinals “sounded like the perfect fit for me.”

James said he thought performed well in rookie camp, OTAs and training camp. In the preseason he had three tackles and a sack. But what he thought and what the coaches might be thinking, he realized, could be two different things.

“It’s really hard to read the mind of an NFL coach. A lot of guys would try to read into things, or this coach doesn’t like him, or this coach loves him, when really they’re just doing their jobs,” James said. “I really tried to just hone in on myself and focus on doing the right things and whatever happens happens.”

When it time for cuts, James said it was just like you see on “Hard Knocks.” Players on the cusp of the roster meandering about, phones in hand hoping it doesn’t ring. James, though, got the call.

Alec James bears down on Saints quarterback J.T. Barrett during a preseason game. Photo: Chuck Cook-USA TODAY Sports

While James was told he was being released, the team also said it wanted to re-sign him to the practice squad. He first had to wait the waiver period; if another team claimed him he’d be put on its 53-man roster. Either way, James knew he would be with an NFL team.

“It was a sigh of relief,” he said.

Being on the practice squad is no different than being on the 53-man roster James said, other than not playing and traveling to road games. He’s get a lot of repetitions in practice, providing scout team looks at defensive end and, when needed, he’d be an extra tight end, a position James guessed he hadn’t played since middle school, for the offense.

James would also attend all the meetings with those on the 53-man roster, plus meetings designed for rookies. He said no one treated him any differently just because he was on the practice squad, plus he got to learn from veteran players such as Larry Fitzgerald and Patrick Peterson.

And then out of nowhere, he got cut.

The Cardinals lost their first three games and started making changes. In a span of seven days, from Sept 18-24, Arizona cut one player, signed another and claimed yet another off waivers, which resulted in another players being cut, while also swapping out practice-squad linebackers, losing a practice squad running back to another team and signing another to fill his spot.

On Sept, 25, James had just finished his usual Tuesday lifting when he was told he needed to head upstairs. He had seen all the recent changes in the locker room and knew it might be his turn to be released. Or, perhaps he was being promoted and signed to the active roster. Unfortunately, it was the former. He was being replaced on the practice squad by another defensive end, Ufomba Kamalu, who would be cut a month later and eventually land with New England.

“It was kind of out of nowhere,” James said of his release.

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There wasn’t much James could do next other than return home, continue working out hoping for another chance and think.

“It was definitely a time for reflection, would be the best word to use,” James said. “The biggest thing my agent told me was to stay ready, stay on top of my conditioning, stay on top of my strength, my flexibility, all that kind of stuff, because you never know when you’re going to get a call, and that’s true. It’s kind of a week-by-week thing.

“So the whole time I was working out every day and just thinking about life, thinking about how long I want to play football. If I do get an opportunity, what I need to do to change from when I was in Arizona. … Then like I said you can get a call at any time. When I got a call, I knew I was ready every single time.”

After working out on his own, James returned to NX Level in Waukesha, where earlier in the year he trained in preparation for Wisconsin’s Pro Day. James worked out with former teammate Conor Sheehy, who had been cut by Green Bay before the season and also was hoping for another shot, and gym owner Brad Arnett pushed the pair hard to keep them NFL ready.

Miami called in mid-October, bringing James in for a workout, along with seven other players. Unsigned, James continued to focus on working out. Weeks turned to months before the phone rang again. In early December, James was summoned by both Jacksonville and Detroit for workouts.

Going in for a workout might be among the least glamorous experience for an NFL hopeful. The call would come in on Monday morning and a flight arranged for later in the day.

“It’s weird, you have to pack as if you’re staying there the rest of the season but also know you might come home tomorrow,” James said.

After being put up at a hotel that night, the player is stuffed into a van with the other workout-hopefuls, usually unrecognizable faces, and the group is taken to the team’s facility where they eat breakfast and then undergo a physical. Then it’s time to take the field for the workout, hoping to make enough of an impression that you’re signed to the roster or practice squad. And you have to do it all in 10-15 minutes, because that’s how long the workout lasts.

There are two possible outcomes: Signed on the spot or given a plane ticket and ride to the airport. In each of James’ visits to the Dolphins, Jaguars and Lions he was back in Wisconsin a day after leaving.

Then Tampa Bay called. Instead of the usual routine he’d gone through the previous three times, on this occasion he met former teammate and friend Dare Ogunbowale, who was on the Buccaneers‘ practice squad, for dinner, both catching up and getting a feel for the organization. Maybe that was his good-luck charm.

James was signed to Tampa Bay’s practice squad, where he again got more valuable reps while also reconnecting with former teammates Beau Allen and Jack Cichy, as well as Will Gholston, who was James’ host when he visited Michigan State in high school.

While James spent the final two weeks with the Bucs, when the season ended he was not among the practice-squad members who were signed to a futures contract, meaning he was back to being a free agent.

“It was not the kind of picture-perfect first season,” James said, “but I enjoyed it a lot and learned a lot from it.”

He’s yet to be signed and soon there will be a whole other crop of hungry, young former collegiate players searching and hoping for their shot in the NFL. But James feels he does have one advantage — he’s been through a year’s cycle through the NFL. He knows he’s improved — and what he can improve on.

It was not the kind of picture-perfect first season, but I enjoyed it a lot and learned a lot from it.

Alec James

Although he said he’s cutting back some, James continues to work out (the interview for this story was conducted right after a workout session) but he’s also taking time out to be around his family, who, because of his commitment to football, he hasn’t seen much of over the past 12 months.

James also is taking advantage of his time in the NFL in another way, preparing for an internship through the NFLPA. He has chosen three possibilities, will interview with each and then spend 2-3 weeks with that company.

A personal finance major at Wisconsin, with a minor in leadership, one of the companies James chose is WeWork, which invests in smaller businesses. Another is International Justice Mission (“their whole goal is to stop world slavery,” James said), which probably shouldn’t come too much as a surprise as James is still involved in a lawsuit against the NCAA, which former Badgers basketball player Nigel Hayes got him involved (James was hesitant to speak about the lawsuit, which is ongoing and has been combined with another similar lawsuit).

Finally, there’s NASA. Yup, NASA. James chose that because he’s always like space, plus “I figured when I saw it on the list, man, that’d be real cool.”

But as the Super Bowl approaches, James is still without a job. The website Over The Cap estimates James made $46,000 this past year in his prorated salary and $8,000 signing bonus. Not bad for someone right out of college, but hardly NFL big money and, again, he’s currently without work.

He has friends joining the new Alliance of American Football and there are other leagues scheduled to begin as well, but he’s not focusing on those. It’s NFL or bust for James at this point.

For now, though, it’s back to working out. And waiting for another call.

Dave Heller is the author of Ken Williams: A Slugger in Ruth’s Shadow (a Larry Ritter Book Award nominee), Facing Ted Williams – Players From the Golden Age of Baseball Recall the Greatest Hitter Who Ever Lived and As Good As It Got: The 1944 St. Louis Browns