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Published: Wednesday, 5/2/2012

Dream still alive for free agents

Whalen, UT, BG players get a chance

BY RYAN AUTULLO
BLADE SPORTS WRITER
Stephen Williams landed a job in 2010 with the Arizona Cardinals despite not being drafted. Williams was a star receiver for Toledo, but had to go the free agency route to land a job in the NFL. Stephen Williams landed a job in 2010 with the Arizona Cardinals despite not being drafted. Williams was a star receiver for Toledo, but had to go the free agency route to land a job in the NFL.
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The moment is fleeting, disappearing within a few seconds. Its significance reverberates much longer.

Seeing one's own name explode onto a TV screen during NFL draft coverage is an image coveted by every young man with designs of playing in the league.

"That's every kid's dream, just to see your name go across the screen," Arizona Cardinals receiver Stephen Williams said.

It never happened for Williams. Same for fellow University of Toledo products Barry Church, Andrew Hawkins, and Lance Moore. All four of them finished last season on an NFL roster, defying the odds stacked against individuals who go undrafted and are resigned to latching onto a franchise as a rookie free agent. Their unlikely ascent, along with similar feats turned by former City League standouts Nate Washington (Scott) and Dane Sanzenbacher (Central Catholic), provide hope and a blueprint for the latest crop of rookies that endured three agonizing days last weekend that culminated in the ultimate dismay when their names were not called among 253 drafted players.

Four former UT players -- Houston's Desmond Marrow, Tampa Bay's Mike VanDerMeulen, Atlanta's Phil Manley, and Denver's Eric Page, a Springfield product -- will try to navigate one obstacle after another to secure a spot on an opening day roster next season. They, along with Stanford's Griff Whalen, a Southview product heading to Indianapolis, and Bowling Green State University's Ben Bojicic (Cincinnati) and Kamar Jorden (Minnesota), have a smaller margin for error than those individuals whom organizations invested one of their picks.

Their best chance to stick around is to be productive immediately and to avoid an injury. Chances increase if a veteran above them on the depth chart is neither productive nor healthy. According to Washington, there's another nonnegotiable for making the transition: Don't feel sorry for yourself.

"I was just as excited as if I got drafted in the first round," he said. "All I needed was a chance in camp."

Washington, a star at Tiffin University, has played in every game the last six years and posted his first 1,000-yard season in 2011 as a member of the Tennessee Titans. He signed a six-year contract in 2009 for $27 million, giving him the financial security he lacked in 2005 when he pocketed only $3,500 in signing bonus from the Pittsburgh Steelers.

If there's any advantage of a player going undrafted, it's that he's granted the option of choosing the best situation for him. Ohio State's Sanzenbacher was drawn to Chicago, where he is entering his second season, because of its spread offense under former offensive coordinator Mike Martz.

Washington picked Pittsburgh among a half dozen suitors because the team was thin at receiver beyond veterans Hines Ward, Antwaan Randle El, and Cedrick Wilson. Those three were locks to make the team, so Washington needed to distinguish himself among the crowd of wannabes.

Those initial weeks and months were the most difficult, he said, with his anxiety reaching a fever pitch when the organization was set to make roster cuts.

"You definitely get to a point where you're counting numbers in the room and telling yourself who's definitely going to stay and who you have a chance to beat out," he said. "Every coach tells you to not count numbers, but that's easier said than done."

Similar advice made its way to Whalen, who will reunite with his college roommate Andrew Luck -- the first overall pick -- in Indianapolis.

Whalen's coach at Stanford, offensive assistant Aaron Moorehead, went undrafted in 2003 out of Illinois before catching 31 passes in an NFL career that lasted until 2007. His advice for Whalen: "Don't check the depth chart every five minutes."

"The best thing to do," Whalen said, "is to do what I know how to do and that's go play football. The rest will take care of itself."

Whalen, who will attend a rookie minicamp with his new teammates this weekend, received a signing bonus of $1,500. Marrow, a former UT defensive back, will pocket $5,000 from the Houston Texans. Teams are capped at $40,000 for a signing bonus they can distribute to an undrafted rookie.

Undrafted rookies will pull in $375,000 next season, but that's only if they manage to make the 53-man active roster. Those relegated to the practice squad will collect $5,700 per week, which multiplies to $96,900 over a 17-week regular season.

"I'm grateful for anything," Marrow said. "I just want to live comfortably and play football."

How long he'll be able to do that is unknown. Mostly everything in the life of an undrafted rookie is unknown.

"It's like digging from the ground up," Williams said.

Contact Ryan Autullo at: rautullo@theblade.com, 419-724-6160 or on Twitter @RyanAutullo.



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