So why do the players bother? The money entices everyone, but it disappoints most. One of my fellow kickers, Tyler Fredrickson, had earned $12,000 in three years trying to make the league. Fourth-string QB Preston Parsons made $600,000 in two seasons as a backup in Arizona, bought a house and car and various toys, and was jobless the next two seasons. When we met he was earning $400 a week, the standard NFL off-season pay. "Flipping burgers you make more than that," he said.
Ultimately, the players play because they can, because it's what they've spent years preparing to do, and because they are as irrationally hopeful as any of us—that they'll hit the contract lottery, that their inevitable injuries won't be too serious, that the game won't grind them under like so many others. And, they find, there's nothing like bonds forged while enduring football's physical and mental horrors together. Take offensive lineman Adam Meadows. After starting for seven years in Indianapolis, he joined Carolina as a free agent in 2004. But he struggled to recover from shoulder surgery and was unable to play; he retired and voluntarily returned a $2.5 million signing bonus. Meadows was a rational guy with a ton of money in the bank, a wife and two adorable girls and a thriving real-estate business. But here he was with the Broncos, attempting a comeback. "I missed it so much, man,'' he told me. "I love the locker room. I love the guys. I love Sundays. The competition is impossible to replace. You can't do that in real estate."
This, I decided, is what it means to be an NFL player: You don't necessarily want to be on the field, but you can't think of anyplace else you'd rather be.
Stefan Fatsis is the author of A Few Seconds of Panic: A 5-foot-8, 170-pound, 43-year-old Sportswriter Plays in the NFL, out this week.
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