Dunn was among
the Cleveland Browns' final cuts in 2006 and the New York Giants' final cuts
this summer. A skilled chef, he thought about opening his own restaurant if
football didn't work out. But before he could begin devising a menu, the Lions
called. Two of their offensive linemen had suffered rib injuries against the
Philadelphia Eagles on Sept. 23. Detroit needed another big body.
Dunn is 6'7"
and 324 pounds, so wherever he goes people ask him if he plays in the NFL.
"Yes," he tells them. "I play for the Lions." Then they ask if
they'll see him on television on Sunday. "Not exactly," he explains.
"I'm practice squad."
were instituted by the NFL in 1989 as a way to give teams a pool of extra
bodies to draw from in practice or in the event of injury. At the time the
squads comprised five players per team, but in 2004 they were expanded to
eight. The Lions carry a ninth player as one of 11 teams participating in the
league's international program, which is intended to cultivate new talent and
grow the game outside the U.S.
Solano, 22, is a
novelty on the practice squad, a player whose job is guaranteed through the
season. He was a defensive tackle at the University of Tamaulipas in
Mexico—several dozen Mexican colleges play American football—and hopes
eventually to play in the NFL. More likely he'll end up as the defensive
coordinator back at Tamaulipas. He has already taught the Lions' scheme at his
alma mater. "The pressure on the other guys in the practice squad is a lot
more," Solano says.
Lions coach Rod
Marinelli views his squad as a farm system, a kind of football Triple A. Before
their Week 3 game against Philly, the Lions called up Sylvan to fill in at
tight end for the injured Dan Campbell. Then they sent Sylvan back down. Before
the fourth game, as first-round pick Calvin Johnson nursed a bruised lower
back, they elevated Middleton to the active roster. After the game they sent
him down too.
had performed poorly. In fact, Middleton, who set Conference USA records for
receiving yards and touchdown receptions as a senior at Houston in 2004,
returned three kicks for a total of 70 yards and forced a fumble on special
teams in a 37--27 win over the Chicago Bears. But when Johnson healed, the
Lions needed a roster spot for him. Middleton had to go.
For just a moment
Middleton missed Hightower High, outside Houston. At this time last fall he was
a substitute teacher at Hightower. He stopped working out. He played flag
football on weekends. When he told his students he used to be on the St. Louis
Rams' practice squad, they didn't believe him. After they Googled his name,
they accused him of creating a fake website with his picture and bio. "I
had to call some former teammates and put them on speaker," says Middleton,
26. "After that I could feel a lot more respect in the classroom."
unexpected happened to Middleton during his time away: He enjoyed it. He knew
his next paycheck was coming. He knew he could see his young daughter, Brielle,
after work. And he knew, when the phone rang, it was not a coach calling to
inform him of his release. "For the first time in my life I had
stability," he says. "I wasn't waking up in the morning thinking, Is
this it? Is this going to be my last day?"
He was done with
football, but football wasn't done with him. Last winter NFL Europa called, and
Middleton could not bring himself to hang up the phone. He played well enough
with the Frankfurt Galaxy for the Lions to invite him to training camp. "I
wanted somebody to just come out and tell me I wasn't talented enough to play
in the NFL," Middleton says, "but nobody ever told me that."