‘A prayer and a hope’: Life on the NFL’s tryout circuit

Sterling Moore had his routine as he sat in the doctor’s office. His iPad loaded with too many episodes of “Martin” and the “Jamie Foxx Show” to count, the cornerback bided his time waiting for the medical staff.

He’d find himself in an NFL team’s facility — sometimes he knew players there, sometimes not — waiting some more. He stretched out with a foam roller and mentally went through his steps. Then he’d start watching again.

Whenever they were ready, Moore took the field with either a scouting assistant or a position coach for whatever team decided to fly him in and showed what he still can do. Sometimes that would be less than a half-hour, sometimes more. All for a chance at a new job.

This is life on the workout circuit for NFL free agents: A lot of travel, a lot of work and a lot of waiting for one sliver of a shot.

“It’s honestly a lot of waiting around,” Moore said. “I mean, you’re either waiting at the hotel or at the facility waiting. Coaches and everybody has their meetings so you’re kind of waiting around for them having a break in their day to go through the workouts. Then a lot of car rides to hospitals and doctors and things like that.

“More waiting for them to see their patients and then squeeze us in. It’s a fluid situation a lot of the times.”

The 28-year-old Moore, who has played for the Cowboys, Saints, Patriots and Bucs, has been one of those players whose name scrolls through Twitter in bunches almost every Monday and Tuesday during the NFL season. They are often clustered together, part of the endless transactional reporting of the league. These moves are different, though.

These are job interviews publicized, workouts known for the world as rookies and veterans try to latch back into the NFL. They may seem faceless from the transaction wire, but each one is a human story. Every name listed, from known former stars like Dez Bryant to unknown, undrafted rookies like Deontez Alexander are in search of the same thing: Employment.

“It’s nothing guaranteed, so it’s almost like you’re working out off of a prayer and a hope,” said Jeremy Kerley, a veteran wide receiver who has been a free agent this season after being released by the Buffalo Bills in September. “And hopefully this workout is something serious and that they want you.”

Waiting for an opportunity

The process itself can be somewhat stressful. Not because of the workout — for most players, that’s the part they know. Everything else they do not. Each workout is different, although it usually combines some level of positional drills and, depending on the team, combine testing.

For instance, Kerley and Moore said they’ve been asked to (and don’t always agree to) run the 40-yard dash, something they haven’t done since they were rookies. Alexander, a rookie receiver from Franklin College, said half the teams he worked out for before signing with the Detroit Lions’ practice squad last month asked him to run the 40.

Some workouts, depending on the team, are 45 minutes. Moore had one — he declined to divulge the team — lasting six drills for 12 minutes.

The workouts, more than anything else, create a ready list for teams unless there’s an immediate positional need. Most visits are used to acquire updated medical information and to test physical fitness in drills that then offer comparisons to other free agents and players on the roster.

“It’s really a necessity to complete and have a thorough ready list ready to go,” said Randy Mueller, a former general manager with the Saints and Dolphins who is now the GM of the Salt Lake Stallions of the Alliance of American Football. “No pun intended.”

Strategies differ in how teams bring in free agents. Some want masses of guys each week. Others are more selective based on potential needs being forecast. Toward the end of a season, workouts could be potential offseason future deal signings.

Meanwhile, all the players can do is wait. The four who ESPN spoke with all said they pay attention to, if not watch, games on Sundays. Between their families, friends and own viewing habits, they often receive information on which teams might have a need at their positions almost as soon as a player goes down. They never root for injury. But often the unfortunate leads to opportunity.

Some workouts are scheduled in advance — Moore and Alexander said they learned days before a game that teams wanted them in the following week. Often calls come quick, at random and are immediate.

“What’s going to happen is guys who overthink stuff are guys who are going to drive themselves crazy. You literally can’t control it. What’s going to happen is going to happen. All you can control is what you do.”
Kelvin Sheppard

By the time a workout request is made, a front office has a general idea of the player they are getting off film or older workouts. They could look at the free-agent landscape early in the year and become proactive.

“That might dictate the timing of getting guys in at specific positions,” Mueller said. “For example, you might know out of training camp and after the final cuts are made that there’s three linebackers that are out on the street and after that there’s gonna be nothing. Let’s get those guys in, let’s size them up and find a way to get one before it’s too late.”

While the team often initiates the workout call, agents can do behind-the-scenes work beforehand, campaigning for their clients. If a player lands a job on a 53-man roster, that’s possibly life-changing money for a client — at minimum $28,235 per week of the season.

“I’m calling obvious situations. I’m calling not-so-obvious situations. I’m basically going to do everything I can,” said longtime sports agent Chris Gittings. “That said, there’s times where a team will call me out of the blue and when that happens, great. There’s times where teams surprise me, I wouldn’t think they are interested and all of a sudden they are because they are contemplating something that I didn’t think of.

“So I don’t wait around.”

Teams are usually aware of who is available. Still, agents need to do their diligence. Maybe a team wasn’t thinking of their player or that they weren’t completely aware of a free agent’s health status due to a prior injury.

The calls, when they do come, can alter plans. In late September, Moore planned to travel from his Dallas home to northern California for his dad’s birthday. His agent, David Canter, got a call from the New York Jets. They wanted to work him out. Moore visited the Jets instead of his dad.

“It definitely makes it difficult to plan stuff,” Moore said.

For one workout this year, Kerley, 30, received the call while on his way to pick up his three kids from the Montessori Academy they attend. He had to ask the team if he could take a later flight because he had to arrange things before he left town.

It’s a tricky balance. With some players — usually younger, single ones — it’s easier to be ready at a moment’s notice. Teams understand there are lives involved beyond just training for a workout that may or may not lead to a full-time — or even a one-week — gig.

“They are considerate to the fact that you’re not sitting around just working out 24 hours a day just waiting on a phone call and now I’m ready to go on a flight like I got my bags packed,” Kerley said. “Nah, they’re considerate to a point that, ‘Hey, I got to push the flight back a little bit because I’m doing this, I’m doing that.’ ‘Fine, we’ll handle it.'”

They also have to be flexible because there are times one team might want a player to visit while another team is working him out. That happened to Moore twice. In New York, the Cleveland Browns called. Canter spoke to the Jets and a scouting assistant drove him from the doctor’s office to the airport so he could make a flight to Cleveland for another workout.

While in Chicago, Moore got a call from his old team, the New Orleans Saints and flew directly there, a scheduling whirlwind.

Kerley and Moore experienced landing around midnight, reaching the hotel around 1 a.m. only to depart the hotel at 5:45 a.m. for the start of the day because most teams schedule workouts in the morning. All expenses, of course, paid for by the team bringing them in.

“You don’t hear about the quick turnaround for flights and medical and then the waiting around,” Moore said. “So it’s been a learning process for that.”

Pondering their futures

While waiting can be hard, there are also days and weeks when no calls come. The four players who have been on the circuit who spoke with ESPN all said they trained during the week to stay in shape, each with different strategies.

Veterans Moore and Kerley know how they want to take care of their bodies and their training regimens. Money isn’t as big of a factor because of their time in the league already. Kerley has played in 99 NFL games over eight seasons and made over $11.6 million, according to Spotrac. Moore, undrafted out of SMU, has earned about $5.1 million over seven NFL seasons.

Alexander, the undrafted rookie who has yet to appear in an NFL game, spent every weekend in Indianapolis in an apartment he rented near his family.

Then on Monday — or Tuesday or Wednesday, depending if he had tryouts — Alexander drove to Louisville to work with his trainers at Corey Taylor Sports Performance. Instead of commuting daily on Interstate 65, Alexander stayed rent-free in the basement of one of his best friends’ grandmother’s homes. It was a way for him to save time and money while also being as little of a burden as possible.

Alexander was signed to the Lions’ practice squad on Nov. 30. He lasted a little over two weeks, getting released on Dec. 14. Earning a job, for him, meant a paycheck of at least $7,600 per week while he was on the practice squad.

Kerley spent most of his time with his family working to set up his post-football career. Over the past three years, even though he played, he thought about his future.

He used his free-agent time to launch DYM Denim, a jeans company. Always enamored with fashion, he worked on the project for three years and his time away from football gave him the chance to focus on it. The product launched in Arlington, Texas, earlier this month since he wasn’t on a roster.

While he’d like to play, he’s comfortable with whatever happens.

“It’s bittersweet,” Kerley said. “It’s unfortunate, but at the same time, it’s my future. You know, it gives me a chance to try and handle that and get that off the ground like I want to.”

Kelvin Sheppard, who signed a veteran minimum deal with the Lions on Oct. 31, spent parts of the past two seasons as a free agent. Between training and working his investments, he coached defense for the Cooper City Colts, his 9-year-old son’s football team. Like Kerley and Moore, he could afford to be smart with his decision, as he made over $7 million in his career before signing with Detroit. In a bit of fortuitous timing, he signed with the Lions the week after his son’s season ended. Returning to the league earned him a salary of $57,187.50 per week.

Between training, coaching and future planning, it gave guys options to keep their minds busy instead of worrying about finding an NFL gig all the time.

“What’s going to happen is guys who overthink stuff are guys who are going to drive themselves crazy,” Sheppard said. “You literally can’t control it. What’s going to happen is going to happen. All you can control is what you do.”

Sometimes that leads to jobs. Sometimes it doesn’t.

Moore, who Canter said has been on six or seven workouts, has yet to land a job. Sometimes, knowing he’s on a workout, friends would text him simply, “Update?” or ask if he was OK. He knew they meant well.

“When people are like, are you OK, I’m like, ‘Yeah, I didn’t get in a car accident. I didn’t get shot. I’m just fine,'” Moore said. “I hate people asking ‘Am I OK?’ Like I’ve gone missing or something. That’s probably the worst, like, ‘Are you OK?’

“I’m just fine, thanks.”

No matter what happens down the road, he knows what he accomplished. He started 31 games in the NFL. But he gets the process. All he can do is sit, wait, keep busy and hope — like players all over the country — for the next opportunity.

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