They are the words that every player in NFL training camp fears, “Coach wants to see you. Bring your playbook.” Or nowadays, “Bring your Ipad.” You don’t have to have been a player to understand how dreaded those words are. The outstanding HBO series, “Hard Knocks”, does a great job of depicting how devastating it can be to be cut. For most, it’s the end of a dream. A few catch on with the practice squad, which pays pretty well, $5,700 a week, but it doesn’t guarantee ever getting on an NFL field. For most, it’s a handshake from the coach, a complimentary flight home and the reality of having to make another career choice.
Of course, there are examples of hope to cling to. Some have refused to give up and have gone on to greatness, even Hall of Fame careers. The NFL Network put together a list of the worst cuts in history. Here are the players, followed by the teams who cut them loose:
10. Wes Welker – San Diego
9. James Harrison – Pittsburgh three times, Baltimore once
8. Jake Delhomme – New Orleans three times
7. Jack Kemp – Detroit, Pittsburgh, New York Giants, San Francisco
6. Trent Green – San Diego
5. Bob Kuchenberg – Philadelphia and Atlanta
4. Jim Langer – Chicago
3. Kurt Warner – Green Bay
2. Willie Brown – Houston
1. Johnny Unitas – Pittsburgh
The job of delivering those words, “Coach wants to see you,” usually goes to a low level assistant. It’s a job nobody wants. Former Redskins and Texans general manager Charley Casserly had to do it when he joined the Redskins as an unpaid intern in 1976. He says most players took it well, but once he had to call the police to get a cut quarterback out of the building. And while you might think that the tougher the guy, the better he’s able to take it – not necessarily.
Dwayne Johnson, now better known as “The Rock”, was a defensive lineman on those great University of Miami teams in the 1980′s under Jimmy Johnson. The Rock was a starter until he got hurt and lost his position to future Hall of Famer Warren Sapp. After graduation, he wasn’t ready to give up his NFL dream and tried to make it in Canada with the Calgary Stampeders. But even The Rock turned to jelly when he got those words, saying years later, “You hear the words you never want to hear as a player. Coach wants to see you. Bring your playbook. There was no injury. It’s just, that’s it. You’re not good enough. This was very sobering.”
The bearer of this bad news is generally referred to by the players as, “The Turk.” Nobody knows exactly where that came from, but the Pro Football Hall of Fame has an explanation on their web site. They credit Don Paul, who played linebacker for the Los Angeles Rams from 1948 to 1955. It seems that the Rams coach at the time, Clark Shaughnessy, didn’t like the messiness of his players seeing one of their teammates walk out the door for the last time. He would send an assistant in the middle of the night to wake up the player to be cut. That way he could get him out of camp before breakfast. Paul, it seems, dubbed the night time intruder, “The Turk.”
My favorite story of Turk-avoidance goes back to 1990. New York Giants running back Ottis Anderson was coming off a 1,000-yard season, but he was 33 years old and had played 11 seasons in the league. In fact, four years earlier, the Cardinals thought their former Rookie of the Year was done. He’d been beaten out by Stump Mitchell and was traded to the Giants for a couple of draft picks. And although he’d bounced back in New York, there are just so many years a running back can play.
The Giants had prepared for the inevitable end of Anderson’s career by using their first round pick that year to take Rodney Hampton from Georgia. He too had a power running style and was younger and cheaper than Anderson. Plus the Giants also had a younger change up back in Joe Morris. Coach Bill Parcells was a loyal guy, but he subscribed to the theory that it was better to cut a guy a year too early than a year too late. Many training camp observers (I was one of them) figured Anderson might get a visit from The Turk.
It might have actually happened if Morris didn’t break his foot in the last preseason game and was lost for the year. That settled it for the Giants. Anderson had to stay. He not only became the workhorse in Parcells’ ball control offense, the Giants went on to beat Buffalo in Super Bowl XXV. Anderson was named the game’s MVP.
There’s one visit The Turk is glad he didn’t make. And though the injury ended Morris’ career with the Giants, it turned out to be for the team, a lucky break.