Local Players Among Undrafted Free Agents Chasing The Dream

May 2, 2012 By

You probably didn’t even notice the small, back-page item in Monday’s newpapers (assuming you still read newspapers, of course). And you probably never heard of the young men whose names were listed in that item. There’s also a very good chance you’ll never hear of them again.

Young football players like Elvis Akpla of Montana and McKay Jacobson of Brigham Young and Phillip Thomas of Syracuse and Darnell Williams of Louisiana College. They were the stars of their teams all of their lives, from Pop Warner to the NCAA, and now, first the first time, they’re like the kid who’s chosen last for the playground pick-up game.

Every year, the day after the NFL draft teams sign players who weren’t good enough or lucky enough to be one of the 253 players selected in the three-day lottery. Locally, that includes tight end Andrew Szczerba of Salesianum School and Penn State, who signed with the Dallas Cowboys, defensive end Eric Latimore from Middletown and Penn State, who signed with Minnesota, and offensive lineman Desmond Wynn of St. Mark’s and Rutgers, who signed with Tampa Bay.

The Eagles signed 13 rookies-to-be who weren’t drafted and there are a couple of intriguing names there, including wide receiver Damaris Johnson of Tulsa, an electrifying kick returner whose stock dropped because he was suspended for several games at Tulsa — he was charged with embezzlement for paying $14 for $2,600 worth of clothes at a store where his girlfriend worked. He pleaded guilty and got a one-year deferred sentence.

Then there’s running back Chris Polk of Washington, who averaged 101.2 rushing yards a game for his career is second on the career yardage list (4,049 yards) to Napolean Kaufman. He skipped his senior year to enter the draft and most observers were surprised when he wasn’t selected – he reportedly has a degenerative shoulder problem that scared teams away.

The Eagles have a real need for a kick returner and a backup running back for LeSean McCoy, so those two undrafted players have a real shot to make the team.

“We feel like we got some legitimate draft picks out of our undrafted guys,’’ Eagles general manager Howie Roseman said. “We always go into post-draft free agency with that intention, but it’s so hectic that sometimes that doesn’t work out.”

Sometimes? How about rarely? Most of those players were signed for one reason only, and that’s to pad the roster for training camp. That’s just a cruel fact of life in the NFL.

How cruel is it? When Buddy Ryan was coach of the Eagles back in the late 1980s, he was asked by a beat writer about a local kid, a wide receiver, who was signed as an undrafted free agent. The writer asked Ryan what role he saw the kid playing on the team and Buddy, without hesitating, said in that Oklahoma drawl of his “Legs.’’

The meaning was clear – the young player was on the roster so the Eagles would have enough receivers in camp practices to run drills without wearing out the legs of the players who would actually make the team.

Another Buddy story (and we’ve got a million of them) from his very first training camp, when he took over a bad team that had one legitimate star, wide receiver Mike Quick, who wore No. 82. The receivers were running a drill and occasionally a pass pattern would take them into the vicinity of a blocking sled, so a security guard moved next to the sled to warn the receivers if they came too close to it. Buddy strolled over to the guard, twirling his whistle on its rope, and said out of the side of his mouth “Bleep the rest of them – just watch out for 82.”

Again, the meaning was clear – those undrafted free agents were expendable.

Of course, undrafted free agents make NFL rosters every year and for the Eagles there’s a good chance one or two of their 13 will actually have their dreams come true. Just ask Jamaal Jackson of Delaware State. He had a great career in Dover, but didn’t get drafted and signed with the Eagles – led by coach Ray Rhodes at the time – as a free agent center.

An undrafted player from a small school trying to make a veteran roster – the odds were decidedly against Jackson. But he spent time on injured reserve and then paid his dues on the practice squad and eventually he got his big break – as if happens so often in the NFL, because another player, Hank Fraley, got hurt.

Jackson got a chance to play and earned a starting job and eventually earned a contract that has paid him millions of dollars. Jackson lost his starting job last year to rookie Jason Kelce and he was released during the offseason. He still hasn’t found a new job yet, but even if he’s played his last game of football he won’t have to work another day in his life.

Elvis Akpla should be so lucky.

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    Kevin Noonan has covered and commented on the Delaware sports scene for more than 30 years, everything from amateur recreation leagues and high schools to local colleges and the Philadelphia professional teams. He’s been voted Delaware Sportswriter of the Year multiple times and currently covers the Philadelphia Eagles for CBSSports.com and teaches creative writing courses at Wilmington University.

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