- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 19, 2003

Whether it’s a team employee known as “The Turk” uttering the dreaded words, “Coach wants to see you. Bring your playbook,” or a note slipped into a dormitory room in the middle of the night or a hotel telephone’s flashing light, the message is the same: Thanks for your time. Don’t let the door hit you on the way out.

NFL teams have been reducing their rosters in piecemeal fashion during the preseason. But next week comes the first big purge — the mass release of undrafted free agents, blown draft picks and the occasional high-mileage veteran. If the news is surprising or the player famous enough, there might be a story. Otherwise, the names will be listed in tiny type under “transactions” and then disappear from the collective consciousness of fans, management, coaches and even teammates, irrelevant to the future.

But in real life (that is, life outside the NFL) these names, these people, do not disappear. They are not irrelevant. They pack their stuff, get in their cars and head elsewhere, ready to begin the next chapter. Maybe it includes football, maybe not. They all are relatively young men, even the vets. This is an eventful time in their lives.

For three young men cut by the Redskins during the 2002 preseason, it has been an eventful year, in one way or another.

Fashionably up-to-date

After lifting weights at Redskin Park one day late last August, Chandler Smith ran into Marvin Lewis, then the team’s defensive coordinator.

“He pulled me to the side,” said Smith, a defensive back from Southern Mississippi. “He said they weren’t going to be able to keep me. He seemed, like, he wasn’t happy about it. But how can you be when you tell someone who has the aspiration of playing the game that they can’t play?

“He said he liked the way I competed, and to keep that up. He thought I was a good athlete and everything. Of course, after all that, I wanted to ask him why I was being let go.”

Smith didn’t ask. He cleaned out his locker, keeping his cleats and the gloves that bear the NFL logo. “When you’re a defensive back,” he said, “you want to look fashionably up-to-date.”

He called his brother back in Vicksburg, Miss., and asked him to meet him at the airport in nearby Jackson. Smith said he didn’t call his mom, “because I knew she’d be more disappointed than I was.”

Then he packed. “I just threw my stuff in a bag,” he said. “Some guys had already started packing just in case. My stuff was everywhere. … If you had asked me a minute before that, I would have told you I was going to look for a place to live.”

After getting cut by Jacksonville in 2001, Smith signed with the Redskins the following spring and played in NFL Europe with the Rhein Fire. (One of his teammates was Scottie Cloman, a receiver trying to make it with the Redskins this year.) From the day he signed, Smith said, he never doubted his ability nor his chances.

“You have to rely on God because it’s so unpredictable and you never know what the coaches are gonna do,” he said.

But Smith said he did not get a good look in preseason games or in practice. “If they really could have seen what I could do,” he said. “I know they would have kept me.”

This is a common lament among the waived.

Not that getting cut is a small thing, but Smith has been through worse. During his senior year at Southern Miss in 1998, he was arrested and kicked out of school for firing a gun into the air. After that, he fell asleep at the wheel of a truck going 75 miles an hour, surviving the crash with a broken collarbone and hand. That, he said, led to a change in his somewhat irresponsible ways. Faith and religion are a big part of his life now.

“I’m a pretty spiritual person,” said Smith, who in 2000 played with a team called the Mississippi Firedogs in something called the National Indoor Football League. “I realize God always has your best interests at hand, no matter what things look like. Situations that people think are bad really aren’t that bad. Life can still be good.”

During the flight home to Mississippi, Smith kept telling himself, “This is a good thing.” He read the Bible. Meanwhile, Smith’s brother broke the news to his dad, who told his mom. Sure enough, “You could tell she was disappointed,” Smith said. “She didn’t know what to say, what to think.”

Smith had his degree in computer science but wanted to keep playing. It was like that after his Jacksonville experience, when his agent called around and Smith himself perused the Internet, looking for opportunities. Eventually, he worked out for Seattle and the Redskins.

Now the process would start again. This time, after hanging out with his old college chums in Hattiesburg, Miss., Smith moved to Houston to work out with an ex-roommate, Henry Wilson, a sprinter preparing for the 2004 Olympics. Smith thought about returning to Europe, but he also had contacted the Canadian Football League’s Ottawa Renegades, who seemed interested. “I was uncertain what to do,” Smith said.

The situation resolved itself when he was not picked in the NFL Europe draft.

“That told me right there I was supposed to play in the CFL,” he said.

Since joining the Renegades, Smith has spent much of the season on the practice roster. He said he expects to be activated for the next game, next Wednesday. Like Europe, he said, it has been an interesting experience. So was the big blackout; Ottawa was among the cities that lost power last week. “I didn’t want the ice cream in my freezer to melt,” Smith said, “so I ate a whole bunch of ice cream.”

That’s one way of dealing with a situation. Another is to remain positive.

“One day when I was running, everything hit me that somehow I knew I’d make it to the NFL,” Smith said.

And if not?

“Nothing that can happen to me can worry me,” he said.

A very small window of opportunity

On the same day Chandler Smith met Marvin Lewis, offensive tackle Wayne Smith (no relation) left his hotel room to get some lunch. When he returned, he saw the telephone message light flashing. It was Scott Campbell, the Redskin’s director of pro personnel. “He said I was being waived and that I needed to bring my stuff to the facility,” Smith said from his home in Pembroke Pines, Fla., near Fort Lauderdale.

The last two summers, HBO aired a series called “Hard Knocks” — close-up looks at the Baltimore Ravens and Dallas Cowboys training camps. The program showed players actually getting the call from the Turk. Sometimes it got emotional.

This, said Smith, wasn’t like that.

“TV made it a lot more dramatic,” he said. “It wasn’t like I was going to break out in tears.”

Still, Smith said, “It was like walking to the executioner.”

Smith met with offensive line coach Kim Helton, who told him if another team called to inquire, he would give a strong recommendation. “He said I worked hard,” Smith said, “but it was unfortunate I got hurt.”

A star at Appalachian State in Boone, N.C., Smith signed with the Redskins as an undrafted free agent. “I think going in, I had a decent shot of making it,” he said. Working with assistant offensive line coach John Hunt every day after practice in Carlisle, Pa., Smith was making progress. But he suffered a hip injury a few days into camp and ended up missing a week and a half. For someone in Smith’s position, this was poison.

“I’d gone back to my old habits,” he said.

Smith alternated with another rookie, Akil Smith, during the second half of the final preseason game against Tampa Bay. He blew one assignment but otherwise felt he did OK. Afterward, he said, he had no clue if he would make the team or not.

“It’s one of those things where you know going in it’s going to be an uphill battle,” he said. “You try to mentally prepare yourself. But you don’t think about it every day. You don’t let yourself dwell on it, but you always have that reality that you’re going to get that knock on the door.”

Or a blinking message light.

Smith grabbed some gear from his locker and drove back to Florida the next day, stopping overnight in Boone. He called his mom, Melva, before he left. “She probably took it a little harder than I did,” he said.

Once he got home, Smith took a few days off before resuming his conditioning. His agent told him Chicago and Denver were interested. He went to Denver and worked out for the Broncos. “They liked what they saw,” he said.

Smith signed with Denver after the season, and was allocated to NFL Europe. But during his physical in March, a doctor told him he had a “significant neck problem” — bone spurs on his vertebrae and stenosis (a narrowing of the spinal column). This was news to Smith, who passed not just his Redskins physical but every physical he had ever taken. He said he never had a problem with his neck in college, save for the occasional stinger.

“I was shocked,” he said.

Even though a second set of X-rays failed to show the bone spurs, Europe was out. But there was always Canada. Smith, who was born there and has dual citizenship, had sent tapes to four CFL teams. Hamilton and Ottawa responded favorably. Then another problem arose. Because of his Canadian citizenship, Smith was considered a “non-import” player (CFL teams are required to carry a set amount of import and non-import players) and had to declare for the draft. However, he learned of his status too late, and missed the draft. He couldn’t play in Canada, either.

Smith now works at a gym, staying in shape and studying to become a certified physical trainer. He said he also is one internship short of getting his criminal justice degree. He plans to pursue that between now and March, when he attends the CFL evaluation camp. Football remains his priority. “There’s just a very small window of opportunity as far as that goes,” he said.

“I took some time off and thought about things. And I still have that desire to play. It’s something I think about every day. The time off made me realize that pursuing football is definitely the right choice.”

Hard labor, and dull

As a running back at Appalachian State, Jimmy Watkins plowed through the holes opened by Wayne Smith. Once in a Division I-AA playoff game, Watkins ran for 216 yards and four touchdowns. Like Smith, Watkins went undrafted and signed with the Redskins during the spring of 2002.

During training camp in Carlisle and afterward, they were roommates, and the message light blinking ominously on the telephone for Smith also blinked for Watkins. There was a second message, again from Scott Campbell.

“I kind of knew it was coming,” Watkins said. “I wasn’t getting into any of the games.”

Watkins talked to running backs coach Hue Jackson and head coach Steve Spurrier (“Both told me I just had to find the right situation”), took some items from his locker and jumped in his car. Unlike Wayne Smith, Watkins didn’t feel like hanging around. Unlike Smith, Watkins was angry. “I feel like I didn’t get a fair shot,” he said.

Well down the depth chart, Watkins had no pretense about carrying the ball much. But he said coaches told him he would get a chance to play on special teams, where he excelled in college, especially as a return man. “I think I did pretty good in practice,” he said. “A lot of players gave me compliments.”

But for some reason, he said, he wasn’t used during games.

Watkins, who is from Elberton, Ga., drove down to Boone and stayed with a former teammate, Jerry Beard. Watkins said his agent told him he was trying to contact other teams. “I got kind of down,” Watkins said. “I was trying to keep my spirits up, hoping somebody would call.”

Watkins hung out with his pals, worked out a little. He talked to his agent nearly every day. Nothing. He watched his old college team play. That was hard, he said. The previous summer, before his senior year, Watkins worked at a saw mill, cutting and smoothing logs used to make cabins. Now, out of football for the first time since seventh grade, he needed something to do and he needed money. Opportunities were few. So it was back to the saw mill. “It was kind of a dangerous job,” said Watkins, who is about 20 hours shy of his communications degree. “Hard labor, and dull.”

Meanwhile, only one team nibbled. Indianapolis, depleted at running back, took a look. “I had a pretty good workout,” Watkins said. “But they said I needed more experience.”

After four months at the mill, Watkins landed a job at a Lowe’s home improvement store. His job title is “loader,” he said, “but I get to help in all departments. It’s one of the better jobs I’ve had.” Watkins said he also is taking some classes.

Watkins believed he was headed for Europe last spring. He filled out the forms, but then, he said, his agent failed to contact anyone over there. Watkins fired his agent. Watkins said his new agent has talked to some NFL teams, but the response is always the same: Get more experience. “They say it’s probably best I try another league and get some film,” he said.

“I still want to play ball,” said Watkins. “I still want to get a chance to try again.”

The good news is that he sees his daughter, who is 10 weeks old, a lot more than he would have if he were playing. She lives with her mom in Winston-Salem, N.C., about a 90-minute drive from Boone.

Watkins harbors another dream besides football. He said he has been cutting hair since he was 13 and eventually would like to own a barbershop.

“I’ll just try to enjoy life,” he said.

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