An undrafted tight end out of UCLA, Ryan Neufeld wasn’t supposed to have much of an NFL career. The chances of actually making a final 53-man roster were slim. There were no politics involved that might save him. No high priced contract or wasted draft pick to ensure him a spot. He was scrub, the kind that wears the little red beanie on his helmet during training camp identifying him as such. He was the guy that would make sure the starters were prepared for the season. The odds were against him. Nonetheless, Ryan was determined to play in the NFL.
Ryan spent his rookie year with the Cowboys in 1999. Originally signed to the practice squad after being released during camp, Ryan was activated during the season. He played fullback and special teams that year and found himself on the field with greats like Troy Aikman, Emmitt Smith, and Moose Johnston. He still kicks himself for not getting some memorabilia signed by these guys, but he didn’t want to be the goofy rookie asking the vets for autographs.
During the offseason, he was allocated to NFL Europe where his team, the Rhein Fire. That experience was one of the highlights of Ryan’s professional football career. The camaraderie among the guys was refreshing – they all knew they were fighting for their spots when they got back to the states so there were no superstars, no egos. It’s probably the last time Ryan really had fun playing football. To top of the experience, his team ended up winning the championship game.
While he was in Germany, the Cowboys went through a coaching change. Ryan came back from Europe and had to prove himself to a new group of coaches. He was still playing fullback and backed up Robert Thomas after Moose Johnston suffered a devastating neck injury that forced him into retirement. Ryan had an amazing camp and even started two preseason games after Robert got hurt. We were feeling pretty good about him making the team. If the team kept two fullbacks, Ryan was in.
Well, on cut day the phone rang. Ryan grabbed his playbook and went to the facility to turn it in. The Cowboys decided to keep one fullback on the roster and it wasn’t Ryan. Ryan said Emmitt Smith was upset about him getting cut – Emmitt said Ryan did everything right and still got the boot. This was our first real lesson about the business of the NFL – you could be good, really good, and it still not be good enough.
Ryan waited a couple of days hoping another team would call. I was perusing injury reports back in Davis, CA, where I was attending law school and diligently reporting my findings to Ryan’s agent. Ryan eventually got a call – the Miami Dolphins wanted to sign him to their practice squad. Full of hope and anticipation, Ryan flew from Dallas where all of his belongings remained and went to Miami. He was cut a week later and on his way back to Dallas to pack up his things.
A couple weeks later, the phone rang again – it was the Jacksonville Jaguars. Ryan flew out there and was signed to the practice squad on the spot. YES! Ryan hadn’t been in Jacksonville a week when Tom Coughlin walked by Ryan during warm-ups and told him, “You’ve been here a week Neufeld – you better show me something or you’re outta here.” Luckily, Ryan didn’t freak and lose his cool – he actually said that day was probably one of his best practices ever. Later that season Ryan was activated and he got his second accredited NFL season under his belt.
Training camp 2011 with the Jags – Ryan was doing great but he was competing with a rookie tight end named Ryan Prince the coaches really liked. Then he suffered a calf injury and a broken finger during camp. That’s when my mantra became, “just stay healthy during camp.” Although Ryan was able to rehab and get back on the field to play during the preseason, he got “the call” on the first cut day. The Jags kept Ryan Prince – that year was his one and only NFL season.
Ryan was still in Jacksonville when the unfortunate events of September 11th occurred. He had to drive home in his Suburban packed with all of his belongings while the country was reeling from the terrorist attacks. The tragedy gave Ryan some perspective, but it was a long drive home.
Ryan waited by the phone and continued working out hoping someone would pick him up that season. He had three workouts over the next couple of months but didn’t get signed. That was Ryan’s first season out of the league.
I guess this is a good point for me to try to explain what getting cut feels like. Remember how you felt as a kid on Christmas Eve, full of anticipation because Santa Claus was coming? Now, imagine waking up the next morning and Santa hadn’t come. All your hopes and dreams – shattered. For an undrafted player, that disappointment is likely to happen over and over again throughout a very short NFL career. There was hope and anticipation with every phone call. There was even more disappointment and self-doubt every time Ryan got back on a plane without a contract. There were a lot of emotional ups and downs during that time and I’m sure some days Ryan wanted to give up.
After the season, Ryan was signed by one of the teams he’d worked out with during the season – the Seattle Seahawks. We were so pumped – for the first time since I started law school and Ryan entered the league, we were in the same time zone.
Once training camp started, Ryan was in familiar territory in Seattle – he was once again sporting that red beanie on his helmet. He was a scrub, camp fodder, a camp body. Seattle drafted not one, but two tight ends that year – Jeremy Stevens and Ryan Hannum. There was little hope of Ryan making the team, but that didn’t stop him from trying.
That was the year Seattle opened their new stadium. The Seahawks had a team scrimmage the week before the first preseason game and the stadium was packed. The special teams starters lined up for punt drills. Surprisingly, the first punt was blocked. There was chatter – who had blocked the punt? Well, it was Ryan – that guy on the look team no one was paying attention to. The very next play, after the starters had a chance to regroup, adjust, make some changes, Ryan blocked the punt again. You would think that the special teams coach or even head coach Mike Holmgren would take notice. A scrub on the look team had just blocked two punts. Surely Ryan raised his stock and would be given a real chance of making the team, right?
Well, that didn’t happen. The two drafted tight ends were given most of the reps during the first preseason game. Ryan had two plays at tight end – TWO PLAYS. His action on special teams was limited also. During preseason games, teams usually give all players an opportunity to prove themselves by giving them reps. We knew Ryan had no chance of making the team based on his limited playing time during that game.
The next morning, we were fast asleep in the hotel room when the phone rang. Ryan answered the phone and after a very brief pause he said, “Okay.” He’d gotten the call. If I remember correctly, it was about 7:15 a.m. The very early wake up solidified in our minds what we’d already known – he’d been a camp body and never had a chance of making that team. Ryan got out of bed, threw on his Seahawks’ issued sweats, grabbed his playbook and walked out the door. After a few minutes, I wiped the tears from my cheeks and started packing up our belongings. We drove back to California together, his life packed up once again in his Suburban. Ryan then spent his second season in a row out of the NFL. He’d moved ten times in five years. His career was all but done. Ryan was devastated. He was ready to quit. He didn’t want to go through this again.
Ryan’s NFL career wasn’t over yet though. He got a call from the Buffalo Bills that season – they flew him out for a workout but they didn’t sign him. Again, high hopes followed by disappointment. I didn’t know how much longer Ryan could take this. It was taking a toll on him, on me, on our marriage. But Ryan wasn’t quite ready to hang up his cleats yet and decided to give pro-football one last chance.
That offseason, Ryan signed with the L.A. Avengers of the arena league and was in camp when the team owner pulled him aside and told him Buffalo called and they were going to sign him. Ryan had a choice to make – leave the Avengers where he was pretty much guaranteed a spot and an income (after being out of football for two seasons, any savings we had was gone), or take another chance at his NFL dream, knowing his chances were slim and that there were no guarantees.
Check back soon for Part II to see how the story ends….
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