KANSAS CITY, Mo. – Professional football is not a career that encourages sabbaticals. Hundreds of fresh rookies arrive every summer ready to grab a roster spot from any veteran who wanted to take a season off.
A handful of players – some who took religious missions, others who tried coaching, journalism or acting – are trying to make the comeback this season.
“When you get out, it’s so hard to get back in,” said offensive lineman Ryan McKee, one of a handful of players trying to get a second chance in Kansas City. “Really hard.”
McKee was so fed up with football after getting cut by the Rams two years ago that he spent last season coaching at North Carolina. When he decided to give the game another chance, he realized that earning a job would be more difficult the second time around.
“The NFL really is about once you’re with a club, doing everything you can to stay with that club,” he said. “A lot of it is timing, staying healthy and making the most out of a chance.”
Players who spend a season off a roster are often forgotten. And rookies are easy to find and less expensive than veterans.
“You need to go somewhere where someone is going to give you a legitimate chance,” said safety Husain Abdullah, who along with his brother Hamza left the NFL two years ago to embark on Hajj, a pilgrimage to Mecca required of all able-bodied Muslims.
Husain, who had been starting at safety in Minnesota, managed to earn a job last season in Kansas City. He started out as a nickel back and on special teams, playing more as the season progressed, and now is in line to be the starting free safety.
Meanwhile, his older brother Hamza – who had been a backup defensive back in Arizona – never received another opportunity to catch on with a team.
“The biggest thing is putting in the work, proving you want to be there,” Husain Abdullah said. “You can’t lose faith, and you have to be confident in yourself.”
Joe McKnight was released by the Jets last season, spent a year away, and now is trying to catch on in Kansas City. Brandon Lloyd was cut by the Patriots and is trying to make it with the 49ers, the team that originally drafted him. Fellow wide receiver Derek Hagan spent a year away doing radio work and is trying to earn a job with the Titans.
“I put the same amount of pressure on myself as I did when I was younger,” said Lloyd, who dabbled in acting during his hiatus. “There’s always been a couple things that I say to myself – not to let the playbook defeat me, to give maximum effort every time and to make the plays.”
Danny Lansanah played five games for Green Bay in 2008. After spending time in the UFL, he began working for a rehabilitation program for troubled teens, and had nearly given up on playing in the NFL again. When the Jets called out of the blue last season, he gave it a shot.
It didn’t work out in New York, but he was signed by Tampa Bay and appeared in one game last season. Now, he’s listed as the Buccaneers’ second-team linebacker.
“When I got that second chance, I just made the best of my opportunity. Now I’m here,” he said. “I’m just enjoying the game of football, enjoying my teammates. They’re all great guys. I’m coming out here and giving my all every day.”
Packers defensive tackle Johnny Jolly also made the most of a second chance. After serving a prison term for narcotics possession, he managed to earn a job in training camp after three full seasons away. He started eight times and played in 13 games last season before getting hurt.
Not all comebacks work out nearly as well, though.
After playing for three teams in 2010, former All-Pro wide receiver Randy Moss was out of the league for a year. He came back in 2012 with San Francisco but was hardly the same player, playing in 16 games but catching only 28 passes for 434 yards.
“Truly, it’s a case-by-case basis,” Chiefs general manager John Dorsey said. “Once you know athletically where they are, can they get to where they were? That’s what you have to ask.
“There’s so much, ‘What-have-you-done-for-me-lately,”‘ Dorsey said, “but if you’re fine with them, you’re comfortable with the person, you did the research, then I think that’s the ultimate deciding factor. How much does he really have left?”