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Shadow Warriors
October 29, 2007
Like their brethren across the league, the Detroit Lions' practice squad players live in a world of blurred lines and constant uncertainty, one step removed from the NFL dream—or from football oblivion
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October 29, 2007

Shadow Warriors

Like their brethren across the league, the Detroit Lions' practice squad players live in a world of blurred lines and constant uncertainty, one step removed from the NFL dream—or from football oblivion

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THEY LOOK like NFL players. They hit like NFL players. They dress with NFL players and watch film with them. From Monday through Friday they are a crucial part of every NFL team. But come Sunday, the only day in the league that really matters, they wear jeans and polo shirts. They are the anti--Allen Iversons. They just practice. � On Sunday, as the Detroit Lions hosted the Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Ford Field, Detroit's practice squad players were sitting in leather lounge chairs high above the action, munching on quesadillas and chicken tenders, watching their teammates from a luxury suite. It is one of the few luxuries of the job. � In addition to the 53 players on the active roster, every NFL team has an eight- or nine-man practice squad—a unit made up of players who fulfill a critical role but are not full-fledged team members. Practice squad players are paid a minimum of $4,700 per week, but their salaries are not guaranteed beyond today. They're eligible neither for long-term benefits nor for an NFL pension. If their team wins the Super Bowl, they're entitled to championship rings—but not necessarily ones with real diamonds. In a league of bling, the practice squad is cubic zirconium.

The Lions' nine-player practice squad is diverse but not atypical. Ron Bellamy, a former Michigan standout, has one career NFL reception. Ben Noll, a former stockbroker, has one career start. Brandon Middleton, a former substitute teacher, has played in one NFL game. Jon Dunn, a former chef, has never gotten onto the field. These are the veterans of the group. None of them is older than 26.

While those players are trying to sustain NFL dreams, the younger ones are just embarking on theirs. Rudy Sylvan is an undrafted rookie free agent; LaMarcus Hicks, an undrafted second-year free agent; Buster Davis, a third-round pick in the 2007 draft; Ramzee Robinson, the last player drafted this year; and Salomon Solano, a free agent from Mexico who is part of the NFL's international development program.

They are not tackling dummies. The squad includes linemen who weigh in at 300 pounds and receivers who run a 4.4 40-yard dash. They come from such football powers as Florida State, Alabama and Virginia Tech. All were legitimate NFL prospects. Many of them still are.

But when they are on the practice squad, their names are listed below the 53-man roster, below the injured list, below the inactive list, not even on the depth chart. At this time a year ago none of the Detroit nine was in the NFL. Six were not playing organized football. Their career options included the Arena league, Canadian football and other fields altogether. "Look how far we've come," says Bellamy, 25. "Now we're just one play away."

One Play Away—it is the mantra of practice squad players everywhere. They are indeed that close to making the active roster. But they are also one misplay away from losing whatever shot they had. One blown assignment in practice and they may be gone for good. Pro Bowlers and first-round draft picks cannot fathom the anxiety.

"It eats at your guts," says Middleton, 26. "It has to be the hardest job in the NFL."

ON MONDAY the practice squad players study tape of a game they did not play in. On Tuesday they study tape of an opponent they will not play against. On Wednesday, Thursday and Friday, in practice, they pretend to be people they're not. And on Saturday, when the other players go to a hotel, the practice squad players go home, to one-bedroom apartments with month-to-month leases. They have the weekend off. But they would rather be working.

"I've seen it take the love away from a lot of guys," says Dunn, 25, a three-year starter at tackle for Virginia Tech (2002--04). "That's the secret to doing this: No matter what happens, you can't ever let it take the love away."

Dunn's devotion was tested last month. He was watching NFL games on his couch in Virginia Beach, monitoring injury lists. Practice squad players do not like to acknowledge the obvious: For their chance to arise, someone usually has to get hurt. One Play Away can be a euphemism for One Injury Away.

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