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On the Outside, Looking In
Sometimes, when he is lifting weights at six in the morning or running at two in the afternoon or playing touch football on the weekend, Ron Heller wonders whether the phone is ringing back at his new home in Redmond, Wash. When he looks each week to see how all the tight ends did in Sunday's games, he thinks he might get a call from a team and hear these words: "We'd like to bring you in and sign you to play tight end for us. How soon can you be here?"
"Every time the phone rings, especially early in the week, when teams are making roster moves, I think, It's a team; I wonder which one," says Heller, who for the first time in five years is desperately seeking NFL employment.
All around the country there are Ron Hellers, recently released players who are hoping to get back into the league. "I know I can help somebody," he says, sounding like many others in his situation. "I'm in my football prime."
Players like Heller haven't rushed to get jobs in the real world, because they're still waiting for the Call. Heller spent 1986, his rookie year, on the 49ers' injured reserve list and then played for them in '87 and '88. He was with the Falcons in '89, and last year he played for the Seahawks, who waived him in August.
Two teams called during the first half of this season—the Dolphins, who said they would get back to him and never did, and the Lions, who brought him to Detroit for a workout. As it happened, the Lions didn't need him, because an injury to one of their tight ends wasn't serious enough for him to be put on injured reserve.
During phone conversations with Heller, who has call-waiting, you notice a little rise in his voice each time a beep signals that he has another call. However, when he comes back on the line with you, his voice has returned to a monotone. "The hardest part is when you're not prepared for it," says Heller. "I never expected Seattle to release me. I suppose it's like a middle-aged person owning a business all his life, selling it and waking up one morning and it's gone. What do you do? I know I can still play. But I look at teams with three tight ends, and I'm not one of them, and I second-guess myself. Am I fooling myself? Do they see something I can't see?"
The call-waiting beep goes off again. It wasn't a team. He continues: "The reality of the outside world shocks you. It bites you. Football's such a fantasy life. You make all this money, you have six months off to do whatever you want, and you have an absolutely set schedule. You go from that to the real world. It totally changes your life. It puts pressure on your marriage. You ask yourself questions you've never had to ask before: Where are we going to live? What are we going to do? What am I going to do for a job?
"Everybody talks about the transition, and let me tell you, it's as tough as they say it is."