Taking the Hits
For Ravens Hopefuls, The Preseason Often Means Their Big Break—or Their Final Play
Fast-forward some 15 years and Stamps stands on the 20-yard line in M&T Bank Stadium just before a Ravens preseason game against the Philadelphia Eagles on Saturday, Aug. 20. He is deep inside a crush of amped teammates encircling manic Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis, who’s in the middle of his shamanistic pregame team pep talk. The stadium is one big roar. And after taking on the Eagles, the Ravens head south for their next game against the New Orleans Saints in the Superdome, on pre-Hurricane Katrina Friday, Aug. 26.
And so, Stamps is excited, even though the coaches have already given him the bad news that it’s unlikely he’ll be getting any playing time tonight. That will make it that much harder for him to make himself noticed enough to get any playing time when the Ravens hit his hometown. Stamps, a 25-year-old wide receiver, isn’t a member of team, at least not yet. He scrimmaged with the team in practice all during the regular season last year, but this year he’s just another walk-on trying to impress the Ravens coaches enough to be offered a contract and a spot on the official roster. He’s far from the only one harboring such a hope, though, and the first cut, on Aug. 29, is little more than a week away.
Stamps’ National Football League career so far has been a yo-yo ride of hope and frustration. Originally signed as a rookie free agent with the San Francisco 49ers in May 2004, he was put on waivers a month later and picked up by the Jacksonville Jaguars. A shoulder injury soon sidelined him and his career with the Jaguars. He tried out for the Ravens as a free agent in August 2004, and while he didn’t make the team, he did make the practice squad.
And each August NFL teams invite walk-ons and free agents to training camp alongside the veterans returning from last year’s squad to, as head coach Brian Billick puts it, “claw their way onto the team.” More than 80 players take the field at the Ravens’ training camp at McDaniel College in Westminster for three weeks of sometimes twice-daily practices and a handful of preseason games, hoping to make the cut for the 53 spots on the Ravens’ official roster. Most of those cut go home, but eight would-be pro football players who show potential during training camp are selected by coaches to stick around and block and tackle and catch with the first- and second-stringers during regular-season practices. Teams pay these practice-squad players $4,700 a week for a maximum of 17 weeks’ work, but more important than the money for these men is the chance they get to run plays and hustle week in and week out before the coaches’ eyes. Sometimes that means another shot at getting on the team for real.
“They know what we expect, they should have learned and grown,” Ravens offensive coordinator Jim Fassel says of practice-squad members. “And if we were right in saying they have potential and [they] work hard, their chance [to get on the team] increases.” In fact, this past January the team signed 2004 practice-squad member Marques Ogden, an offensive guard.
But to get that slim second chance to impress the coaches over the course of the fall schedule, players must first make the practice squad. And once they do, there is a ticking clock: NFL rules allow players only two years on official practice squads before they have to make way for other, younger players to take their shots.
This year, five former Ravens practice-squad players were among the 85 men going out for the team again, including Stamps and running back Tellis Redmon. They were joined by, among others, running back Keith Burnell, who spent the past two seasons on the practice squads of the New York Jets and the Oakland Raiders, making this year a do or die situation—if he doesn’t make the team before the season begins, his hopes are all but dashed for this year. And then there’s Marques Ogden, who made the team but is looking to solidify his standing and prove to world that his shot in the pros had nothing to do with No. 75, the Ravens’ eight-time Pro Bowl offensive tackle Jonathan Ogden, who happens to be his brother.
These long-shot players spent August humping it through drills, living for a coach to bark, “Good hustle,” and privately speculating how a compliment, dropped pass, or tipped ball factors into their chances. “It’s something you think about every night,” Stamps says.
It’s a pins-and-needles drama that, on an individual basis, carries higher stakes than the media-saturated march to the Super Bowl. A veteran player may drop a pass, miss a block, or bolt offsides during a game—maybe even costing his team a win—making him the goat in the locker room and sports pages for the next week or month. But for him, there’s probably the next game, the next year. As a practice-squad player, if you let a ball go through your hands or fail to pick up a receiver in the third quarter during a preseason game, all your dreams might end right there in the murmur of a half-empty stadium. To the fans, it’s only the no-consequence preseason. But for any given practice-squad player, this game could be his life.
Make no mistake—all the practice-squad players can play. Each is a bona fide local sports hero who has known only praise for his athletic prowess. As coach Billick told those vying for spots on the team during the preseason, “If you couldn’t make the team, you wouldn’t be here.”
Take Fred Stamps. At New Orleans’ Carver High School, Stamps was a sensation, breaking some of alumnus Marshall Faulk’s records. At the University of Louisiana-Lafayette, he was a two-time First Team All-Conference (Sun Belt) selection and ended his college career in 2003 with a 44-game receiving streak—the second-longest active streak in the nation at the time.
At 6-foot-1 and 180 lean pounds, Stamps is one of the less-imposing figures on the practice field, and he carries himself with a certain shyness. But what he lacks in size, he makes up for with finesse and a nimble set of hands. Clarence Moore and Randy Hymes, the big guys on the Ravens’ receiving squad, can outjump him in the end zone, but Stamps can grab a low-slung pass like a falcon grabs a jack rabbit. “He’s got great body control—he can get in and out of little tight spaces,” Ravens wide receiver coach David Shaw says. It almost seems like Stamps prefers being horizontal, free-falling for a reception, landing on his feet, and hauling ass downfield. His grandfather didn’t call him Jimmy the Cricket for nothing.
But in the NFL, even superlative athletes such as Stamps know they are competing at a disadvantage. Most of the team-roster slots are already occupied by veterans, and the Ravens in particular have more than their share of superstars. Last year, despite not even making it to the playoffs, the Ravens sent five players to the Pro Bowl in Hawaii. During each off-season, the team busily drafts and trades for more top talent, from expensive free agents such as the retiring cornerback Deion Sanders to prospects such as cornerback Samari Rolle, picked up from the Tennessee Titans. The team’s coaches are going to give their sanctioned rising stars hard, long looks before ever acknowledging that they made a mistake and opt for a practice-squad member.
“The Ravens have all-stars on every position,” says Rob Long, a sports talk-show host on WNST (1570 AM). “It’s hard to come from nowhere and take someone’s job. Are you going to take Ray Lewis’ job? Chris McAlister’s? Let’s be honest.”
To elbow your way past the team’s commitment to high-priced players, Long says, practice-squad members can’t settle for playing as well as a starter—“You got to play better,” he says, adding they only get a few chances to show coaches what they can really do: “You don’t get a long look in this league. It is a very short look.”
That might explain why during the Ravens’ Aug. 13 preseason game against the Atlanta Falcons, Stamps opted not to follow textbook procedure and take a knee when receiving a punt, even though he hadn’t fielded a punt since high school.
In fighting for a spot on the Ravens wide-receiver squad, Stamps was going after one of the team’s most competitive positions. The Ravens made noise in the off-season by getting rid of 2000 first-round draft pick Travis Taylor and picking up Titans receiver Derrick Mason, who ranked second in the league for receptions for two years running (95 in ’03, 96 in ’04). The Ravens also drafted Mark Clayton from Oklahoma University. While Clayton spent much of training camp and the preseason pissing off Billick by holding out to improve his contract, second-year Ravens WR Clarence Moore was catching everything in sight. Not to mention that long shot Patrick Johnson, who was cut last November, showed back up at training camp in August and surprised coaches with a string of acrobatic catches worthy of a movie stunt man.
After getting only a few passes thrown his way during the early going against the Falcons, Stamps was looking to make something happen by trying to run back the punt rather than just downing the ball. Unfortunately for him, he and the ball were swiftly buried at the seven-yard line. A few minutes later, TV cameras caught Billick lecturing Stamps out of the side of his mouth.
“I just felt like the team needed a big play,” Stamps says later. He recalls that Billick responded, “‘It’s not about [you]. It’s about the team.’”
At the Aug. 20 preseason game against the Eagles, fellow practice-squad returnee and running back Tellis Redmon took punts. Stamps stood on the sideline.
During a phone interview the night after the Philly game, Stamps tried to take the situation in stride. Rather than dwelling on what may have been a serious error, he was looking forward to a potential make-or-break moment in front of a hometown crowd.
“I’d love to go back home in the Superdome,” he says. “I promise you I’ll be prepared.”
His mother, Rochelle Stamps, who, with the help of her mother and father, raised Fred, sounds slightly agitated at the prospect of his return to New Orleans. “I hope they use him knowing he’s coming home,” she says during a phone interview. “They’d better.”
Players like Fred Stamps are not only success stories in and of themselves, they’re often success stories for their families as well. Rochelle Stamps worked hard cleaning houses to make sure Fred looked good stepping out of his rental car in a tux for his prom. She made sure she was at all his games. She worked hardest, perhaps, to make sure he kept looking past the temptations of the street life right outside their front door. Eventually, she earned a degree as a nurse technician. As she watched Stamps’ friends drive around in nice cars, trophies from the drug trade, she took her son to church and introduced him to people who found success through legitimate means.
Rochelle says she gets a bad rap for being hoverer, though she acknowledges, “He’s a man living away from home, but he still has to call and tell me where he’s at.”
She was elated when Stamps was signed to the Jacksonville Jaguars in June 2004, only to be devastated when he was sent home weeks later with a hairline fracture in his shoulder. Thanks to her job at Tulane University Hospital, Rochelle was able to whisk him away for X-rays and therapy immediately. “With a lot of prayers, everything went back to normal, thank God,” she says.
Shirrel Ogden has already watched one son, Jonathan Ogden, beat all the odds and join the NFL elite. Though he says he had good reason to believe his eldest son was destined for the pros when he was a starring offensive lineman for UCLA in the 1990s, Shirrel says he didn’t know how far Marques, six years younger than Jonathan, wanted to go with his love of football. After all, Marques played college ball, but at Howard University, not exactly known as spawning ground for pro players. But then the school got a strength-conditioning coach. Ogden bulked up, grew stronger, and opted to go for career in the NFL.
“We made the decision—this is a once in a lifetime chance,” Shirrel Ogden, a retired Washington, D.C., investment banker, says of Marques’ decision to leave Howard three classes shy of a finance degree. “He could always go back [to school].”
Shirrel Ogden had his own NFL aspiration snuffed when he sustained a knee injury while playing for Howard in the early ’70s, and he enjoys watching his sons’ two different personalities at work on the Ravens line. Jonathan, he says, is more reserved and methodical, figuring out how to spend the least amount of energy making a play, conserving his strength. Marques, on the other hand, “enjoys doing it the hardest way, to knock the guy on his ass.”
Shirrel says he believes his youngest son needs to pick up on his older brother’s approach and work on his blocking technique. But either way, he also knows the preseason will determine Marques’ professional fate. “I cross my fingers and pray,” he says. “Should he stay healthy, I don’t think there is much doubt that he makes the team. That’s just my opinion—I hope [team executives] share it.”
Whether or not these men succeed is often more than a matter of concern to their immediate families. When would-be Ravens running back Keith Burnell was in high school, he spent many summer hours running up and down the 75-yard slope of a hill in a Virginia Beach, Va., converted landfill/park known to locals as Mount Trashmore. Often he made the trip hopping on one leg, wearing a vest loaded down with weights, or even dragging a billowing parachute. This peculiar workout came courtesy of James Church, his mentor and trainer.
Once a University of Richmond wide receiver with his own unfulfilled pro dreams and now the 40-year-old owner of car dealership, Church has won no small amount of fame among professional jocks with his unconventional training techniques. But out of all those he has trained, Church believes that Burnell will be the one people will one day be talking about.
Watching the third quarter of the Ravens-Falcons game on television, Church spotted Burnell at the corner of his screen, wide open with a clear shot to the end zone. “I’m just waiting for him to catch the ball in the flats,” Church says. “Please just to give it to him.”
Instead, the quarterback ran for his life to the sidelines.
Burnell went on to carry the ball three times during the game. In his most impressive run, he shook off a tackler in the backfield only to get as far as the line of scrimmage. Burnell says later that he is proud that he lived up to his personal credo: “The first guy can’t bring me down, no matter what happens.” He is less sanguine about watching his practice-squad rival Tellis Redmon break out with a series of good runs.
In a league where sheer speed has only appreciated in value, Burnell ran the 40-yard dash in 4.21 seconds at Virginia Tech, breaking a school record once held by Michael Vick, the Falcons quarterback who is redefining the position with his feet as much as with his arm. Though Burnell went on to toil a season each on the practice squads of the Raiders and Jets, their rosters were too deep with elite players to provide any breaks. But the questionable status of Musa Smith, a promising third-string Ravens running back who broke his leg last year in game against the Dallas Cowboys, and the fact that Ravens star RB Jamal Lewis is nursing an injured ankle and trying to shed the pall of spending a few months in prison during the off-season, may mean a bona fide opportunity for a running back with hustle.
Burnell has already spent two years on NFL practice squads, so if he doesn’t make the team this summer, he goes home—no more banging it out in practice week after week in hopes of making an impression. The pressure is on, but Church sees it as a good thing. “I can’t wait until someone gives him a ball, because he’s like a time bomb,” Church says. “ He’s such a positive player. He won’t get down, because he has so much ability, and he knows that. It’s just a matter of turning the head of the coach.”
After the Ravens’ 16-3 loss to the Falcons on Aug. 13, Church called and reminded Burnell that he was just “one play away” from his big break. But during the Aug. 20 preseason game against Philadelphia, Burnell was sent in just a few times to block and got no carries. Redmon, on the other hand, got carry after carry until finally he broke through a goal-line stand for a touch down. Someone in the press box blurted, “Redmon’s on the radar.”
For a player looking to make the team, or even the practice squad, the sideline is the absolute worst place to be. Using appearances in preseason games to assess a player’s performance under fire makes sense. Just how the players are selected to play during those games is much more mysterious. The players themselves try not to think about it.
After getting congratulatory slaps by fellow teammates for a nice grab in the end zone during the first week of practice, Stamps kept a stoic face. “I can’t read too much into it because I got guys out here making plays every day,” he says.
And then there are the peculiar niceties of practicing with highly paid superstars who you hope will someday be your teammates. Though the players sometimes slam into each other so hard it’s as if someone’s pride or money had been put on the line, many drills are executed so lightly that the players might as well be practicing dance choreography. Even though practice-squad members are desperate to make an impression, the scrimmages can only be so all-out when Billick reminds his players daily to “take care of one another.”
After one of the more hard-hitting sessions, Marques Ogden admits he could have easily taken out a defensive player who had a loose helmet. “I kind of got a little soft on him,” he says. “I didn’t want to kill someone that’s my teammate. If it wasn’t my teammate, it’s over.” He adds: “I’m still going to hit the hell out of you. If I knock your tooth out, oh well, tighten your helmet up.”
The weekly hit-and-be-hit routine does have its benefits. Offensive coordinator Fassel points out that practice-squad players get the chance to sharpen their skills against the Ravens’ first-stringers. Fred Stamps faced off against powerhouse defensive backs Ed Reed and Chris McAlister; Marques Ogden got lessons from defensive end Anthony Weaver. What the practice-squad player has to do, Fassel says, “is come out and show us if he’s improving in potential.”
It can be brutal, thankless work. “I must have topped the league in carries last year on practice squad,” Burnell jokes.
And while those who make the practice squad for a season may spend each practice scheming and sweating over how to catch a coach’s eye, the coaches usually have other things in mind for them. Despite their hopes for advancement, practice-squad players are not rookies in training. A big part of their value to the team lies in their mastery of the team’s playbook and the ability learn new plays fast—to help the first- and second-stringers rise to their best. During the regular season, the coaching staff pulls all-nighters studying game footage of the coming week’s opponent. They will then hand the opposing team’s plays to the practice squad to learn and run out for the benefit of the starters during the few days practice before the game.
Once the regular season begins, practice-squad players are allowed to watch home games from the sidelines but can’t suit up. They seldom travel with the team for away games.
“I sympathize with the guys that’s trying to work it,” veteran NFL star Deion Sanders says while walking to the locker room one day after practice. “They just need the encouragement and motivation. They are on the outside looking in, and I try to give them everything I’ve learned, the years of playing this game on and off the field, and my life as well.”
Being free agents, working and getting paid week to week, has its upsides, too. Practice-squad players sometimes find themselves being picked up quickly by other teams who find themselves in a crisis because of an injury in the regular roster. Last year, when Ravens center Mike Flynn fractured a collarbone and was out for seven games, practice-squad player Mike Sowell’s stock suddenly rose around the Ravens complex. When another team came after him, the Ravens suddenly had to match its offer.
And good things can and do happen to practice-squad members. The unquestioned role model for the Ravens practice squad is starting defensive tackle Kelly Gregg. At 6 feet, 310 pounds, Gregg came off the practice squad in early 2001 to eventually replace the larger than life Tony Siragusa. Gregg answered the challenge of filling Siragusa’s enormous shoes by tying Ed Reed for fourth on the team with 89 tackles for the 2004 season.
Of course, not all big breaks end so well. Flynn is back at center, and Sowell is currently out of professional football entirely.
Marques Ogden aims to be latest practice-squad success story. He certainly lives and breathes his position. Many fans write off the offensive line as trench warfare between human oxes stumbling and falling—an unglamorous part of the game that only a guy like John Madden could love. But Ogden makes playing the o-line sound like preparing for a martial art. He talks about footwork, stances, and angles. He’s forever quoting offensive line coach Chris Foerster’s philosophical koans: “Align your body to the defender’s body,” “Get to where a man can hurt you the quickest.” He also loves to point out that being an offensive lineman is the most unnatural position in the game: You play the whole game in reverse, blocking the rush, back-pedaling to protect the quarterback from the huge defensive linemen barreling forward.
Ogden was elated, naturally, when he got signed at the end of the ’04 season, but there was little time to celebrate. Ogden committed himself to the Ravens off-season strength-training program, sticking to his workout routine with monklike dedication. He pumped iron, ran, played racquetball and basketball, and even golfed.
“If I got cut because I wasn’t playing well, I could live with that,” Ogden says while sitting in his new Owings Mills apartment. “But the hard work I’ve put into this shows me that it will pay off.
“If you want to be good, you can go home and come back whenever everyone else comes back,” he adds. “If you want to be great, you have to do things that everyone else is not going to do.”
It’s one thing to know the ins and outs of the game and train hard, it’s another to put it all together and execute out on the field with a game on the line. Yes, Ogden did open up a nice hole for Tellis Redmon in the Aug. 13 preseason game against Atlanta, but he and the rest of the offensive line also struggled mightily, getting pushed around, barely able to prevent a free shot at Ravens quarterback Anthony Wright.
After the game, he sat in a darkened auditorium at the team’s palatial Owings Mills facility watching film of the game when he felt a tap on his shoulder. It was his brother Jonathan with some advice.
“My problem against the Atlanta Falcons was my stance was too wide,” Marques recounts. “I couldn’t move my left foot and I had push him by the pocket.” He spent too much energy and got tangled in a wrestling match with the defense, Jonathan told him, assuring him that future opponents would pick up on and exploit this weakness to try to come inside.
Marques says he literally wrote his brother’s words down and took the slip of paper back to his hotel room to mull it over. The next day was a Sunday that the players had off after playing their Saturday game, but Ogden spent some time hitting the blocking sleds, practicing his new stance.
In the following week’s game against the Eagles, Ogden says he found himself playing at a whole new level. He could tell that the lineman across from him had planned on exploiting his weak stance and was flabbergasted. “If you get them thinking about what to do, by that time, the ball’s gone,” Marques says, doing a terrible job of hiding his glee.
When the game ended, he says met up with his brother, who always has been his harshest critic, never hesitating to use an expletive as punctuation. Marques knew he had a good game, but he was curious what Jonathan, a likely future Hall of Famer, had to say.
What he said was, “Don’t be complacent.”
Fred Stamps spent his few hours of downtime before the New Orleans game on Aug. 26 at his mother’s house, hanging out with his twin 13-year-old brother and sister, trying to find something to quash the sense of impending doom. The first major cut, on Aug. 29, lay only a few days away. Eighteen players were due to be released.
When his mother asked him if he heard anything about getting any game time in the Superdome, Stamps replied that the coaches had just told him to “keep doing what you’re doing.” Stamps then reassured his mother that that coaches generally don’t tell players much to preserve their urgency.
But Rochelle Stamps says she knew that her son was worried. When he left to go back to the team hotel, his sister asked, using Fred’s nickname, “What was wrong with Stink?”
“My 13-year-old picked that up,” Rochelle says. “I said, ‘He just missed you all.’”
Come game time, Rochelle and her father and mother sat in seats that put her right above where the Ravens ran out onto the field. But she never saw her son play a down. Stamps did get a chance to play in the last drive, but Rochelle was busy escorting her elderly parents down the ramps to the team locker room to wish her son good luck next week.
“I was very disappointed, but I didn’t let him see it,” she says. “I know him. He was kind of hurt by it. He smiled and said, ‘Next time.’”
On Monday, Aug. 29, the Ravens announced 11 cuts, leaving 71 players to vie for the 53 spots. Among the casualties were Marques Ogden, Keith Burnell, and Fred Stamps.
Ogden didn’t return phone messages by press time, but his brother Jonathan told the media assembled at a press conference that Monday that “it’s one of those things where I completely disagree with the whole situation and I don’t think it’s right, but at the same time I do understand the nature of it, because it is business.” He added: “I know where they’re coming from, but it doesn’t mean I’ve got to like it or that I’ve got to sit here and give you a happy song and dance.”
Reached at his home in Chesapeake, Va., Burnell says he saw the cut coming and thinks the Ravens never gave him a fair evaluation. The cut particularly hurts, he says, since he gave up his spot with the Jets, where he was in the mix behind Curtis Martin and LaMont Jordan, to take a shot with the Ravens.
Asked what he was going to do next, Burnell says, “I’m going back to Mount Trashmore.”
Sitting in his office, where a massive flat-screen TV played footage from a preseason game, Ravens wide receiver coach David Shaw recounts that he told Stamps that the deck was kind of stacked against him, considering the team’s commitment to the other receivers. “The one thing I told him was don’t take being cut as a disrespect to his ability,” Shaw says. “He has the ability to play this game, whether it’s here or somewhere else.”
By the time the coaches called Stamps in to turn in his playbook that Sunday, aspirations of being a Raven had given way to the news of Hurricane Katrina barreling down on New Orleans. Fortunately, his mother, grandparents, and twin siblings had endured a 15-hour exodus to Houston (normally a four-hour drive) and were safe. The new family home that he helped buy was only a pitched roof jutting out of the floodwaters. As of press time, there was still no word from his 21-year-old sister, who had stayed behind in the city.
“I’m not going to lie and say it didn’t hurt being released, not knowing where you’re going to, not knowing your future,” he says. “A lot of things are going through my head. I need to be employed so I can help my family. If I stop and think about it all, I’ll be a crazy man.”
In addition to losing his spot and possibly his home, Stamps has lost his refuge in the all-consuming workouts at the Ravens practice facility. After spending last season on the practice squad, last winter bulking up in the Ravens weight room, and the summer going all-out for a wide receiver slot, he now sits in his apartment and watches footage of storm damage on his TV. Still, he is somewhat hopeful.
“I appreciate going against the best—the Ray Lewises, the Ed Reeds, the Chris McCalisters,” he says. “If I get picked up by another team, I can’t say it will be easy, but I’ll have no choice but to be better.”
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