From the Far Hash: Cut-Down Day Emotions Run Deep
This article was greatly inspired by personal conversations with my sister, and fellow Pocket Doppler writer, Kelly, as well as listening to her in Out of the Pocket podcasts. So, as far as we all are concerned, consider her a coauthor and/or muse.
Post-publishing edit: Wow, it’s amazing how two siblings can be on such similar wavelengths. Last night, between 8:30-9:30 p.m. EST, we had a phone conversation, and this very topic came up. Without knowing what each other was going to write about in the near future, we came up with similar articles. She published hers here. Be sure to check out her piece. Our conversation was clearly the inspiration for my piece, and I give all the credit to it for planting these ideas in my head. The following piece would not exist if it weren’t for my big sis.
The Packers recently went through their first roster cut-down, going from 90 players to 75 players. In a few days time, they will once again have to release 22 more players as they reduce the roster to 53 players. While there is certainly a business side to this, which many of us take for granted and as the nature of the game, there is a much more personal side to it. It’s a side that not many other people get to see, and it’s actually quite emotional.
My sister and I both worked training camp at St. Norbert College, but we never crossed paths there because we were born five years apart. While names, faces, camp employees, players, and coaches all change through the years, the stories are all the same year-to-year. Training camp is timeless and universal. Impressions last forever.
While working training camp, our main responsibilities were to feed the Packers in the St. Nobert cafeteria. We pushed breakfast, lunch, dinner, and a late night snack. The meals were mandatory, so we got to see all the players at least three times every day. We got to know them. We sometimes formed bonds with the players and got to see sides of them the rest of the fan universe never saw.
Even if you didn’t know one name, or the relevance of it, you could always tell the status of each player by how they acted while in the dining room. I’ll use a few players, and their actions as I recall them, to describe what I mean.
Reggie White was the consummate professional. He was all business. He never acknowledged our existence and rarely muttered the words, “Please” or “thank you.” I’m not saying he was mean to us, but he wasn’t exactly nice, either. He knew the drill and the nature of training camp. He was being paid to play football and we were being paid to put food on his plate. It was a business relationship. He’d been in many training camps, and expected to be in many more. It was his equivalent of our morning commute to work; do we thank the road crew for making the roads?
Tony Mandarich exemplified the player who management was growing tired of. He had some legitimate talent, was probably going to make the team, but a really poor showing on the training camp practice field could result in being released from the team. His behavior in the dining room was also this sort of bipolar nature. For example, if it was baby back rib night, he expected one of the camp employees, who was probably a college or high school kid, to automatically remember to have a takeout box with nothing but bones ready for his dogs. If the box was ready, he was super nice, gracious, complimentary, and jovial. If we were lucky enough, he might have even sung Guns ‘N Roses for us. But, if the box was forgotten, the entitled attitude came out.
Desmond Howard, in 1996, was an example of a player given his last chance. He was a Heisman Trophy winner who had washed out with two previous teams. When he arrived in Green Bay as a wide receiver and kick returner candidate, he wasn’t even given a wide receiver’s number. He wore #22 during training camp. That goes to show just how much faith Ron Wolf had in him making the team. Desmond was always polite and gracious. During the early portions of camp, he was very solitary and quiet. He kept to himself most of the time. He knew that this was his last chance. However, once he realized that camp was going well and that he had a legitimate chance of making the team, his real personality came out. The always-smiling and happy Desmond we see on ESPN College Game Day was the same Desmond we saw every day. He was happy to be there. He was thankful for the opportunity and thankful for the service being provided to him. I have nothing but great things to say about Desmond.
Shazzon Bradley was a low-round draft pick selected as an undersized defensive tackle prospect. He was considered as an extreme long shot to make the team. He was extremely polite and shy. You could tell that he wasn’t accustomed to the professional game during his first training camp. He represented the actions of many undrafted, or lowly-drafted, rookies trying their hardest to make the team. They were of similar age to the camp staff kids, so they related to us because their heads hadn’t swelled yet. They were always gracious for having every meal provided for them. They were often seen stuffing extra fruit, biscuits, or bottles of Snapple into their pockets, as if that was the last time they would have access to the cornucopia. They knew that this was their one shot in the sun. This was their one shot at making it in the show. This was their one shot to be waited on as celebrities, and they didn’t miss that point. They weren’t going to miss out on anything, and they were going to be gracious citizens for everything. Sadly, Shazzon was released and never played another down of professional football.
Cut-down day was a very emotional day in the dining room. While most fans just see little snippet press releases or a one-second blurb on TV about who was just cut, we saw the real pain in the dining room. While fans at home may have been indifferent, or may even had the “sayonara” approach, cut-down day hurt many people in the dining room, players and the staff alike.
If a seasoned veteran was cut, we never saw him again. By the time the word of their release made it through the dining room, those players were already on planes for their next tryout. It was a business, and they went on to their next interview. Par for the course.
However, if the undrafted, or lowly-drafted, rookie got cut, things were different. Since they were about the same age as the kids working camp, they made bonds with us. They often took the time to come up to the dining room, which was nowhere near the airport, to say good-bye to us. You could see the pain in their eyes. But, they were truly grateful for the opportunity and the efforts we put forth as lowly servers. We formed brief friendships, and we were both touched by that. Some of the released players were lucky enough to catch on elsewhere, but unfortunately, for many of them, that was the last time they ever put on a helmet and shoulder pads again.
Think about the finality of that. The last time they would ever put on a helmet and shoulder pads. They had spent the majority of their lives training for this moment. They had come that close to achieving their dream, but fell short, and were never given another opportunity. This is worse than that moment of realization when a pre-med student learns he or she won’t be getting into med school. Training camp is the equivalent of med school, and making the team is becoming a doctor. The players got into med school but never graduated.
Cut-down day shattered dreams. It is very emotional for all those involved, and is much more than a simple business transaction or press release. And to think, at the moment when one’s dreams were shattered, they still had the courage and humanity to come say good-bye to us. That meant a lot. We appreciated that and shared in their pain together.
Cut-down day is emotional. Please refrain from the “sayonara” attitude. People’s lives, emotions, and dreams are all involved. At camp, every last person dreaded cut-down day. And that’s the way it should be. It shows us that we are in fact alive with our emotions intact. Football may be a business, but it’s also a people business.