Darius Walker On How To Survive In the NFL
By Darius Walker
The vast majority of players in the NFL share a common dilemma.
At some point in their careers, they will find themselves cemented behind veterans with big contracts or early-round draft picks. Ultimately, they have to come to a stark realization that they'll need to change their perspective in order to survive.
I know because I was one of them.
After a career at the University of Notre Dame in which I finished fourth all-time in school history in rushing yards, I was buried abysmally deep on the Houston Texans depth chart in my rookie year in 2007. I was behind former Heisman Trophy winner Ron Dayne and my childhood idol, Ahman Green. Dayne was in his eighth season, and Green had recently signed a four-year, $23 million deal. In addition, our offensive coordinator, Mike Sherman, spent five years as the head coach of the Green Bay Packers, where the team relied heavily on Green as its workhorse.
There was no way I was going to see the field -- not as a running back anyway.
And therein lies the rub. For some players, the road to longevity in the NFL starts with becoming an exceptional special teams contributor.
Former Texans head coach Gary Kubiak made this abundantly clear at one of our first rookie meetings. He showed us highlights from an old Denver Broncos versus San Francisco 49ers game. Broncos running back Terrell Davis ran down on kickoff coverage and completely destroyed the kick returner. It was the launching pad to his Hall of Fame career. Ironically, Davis and I are nearly identical in stature, so I thought if he could do it, so could I.
Boy, was I wrong.
After repeatedly getting owned by backup linebackers and defensive ends, I realized I lacked the mentality to be effective on special teams. I needed to become a kamikaze, but unfortunately, self-preservation and staying healthy was too important to me. Plus, I had virtually no experience with any facet of the kicking game. The last time I was a member of a kickoff team was my freshman year in high school. I was completely unequipped to begin developing this skill set, particularly so late in my career.
So I had to change course and instead focus on being the best running back I could possibly be. To do that, I had to rethink how I approached practice or as Texans running back coach Chick Harris would say, "Treat practice time like game time, because it's the only reps you're going to get!"
He was right. For players in my situation, the only opportunity to get noticed was on the scout team. As the running back, my task was to give the defense a good "look" at what it could potentially see from our next opponent. This meant running hard, breaking tackles, and sometimes blocking defensive end and physical specimen Mario Williams. The former first overall pick was 6-foot-6, 290 pounds and in the prime of his career. Facing him was indeed no small feat.
To say I got physically punished is an understatement. Bumps and bruises were an everyday occurrence, but I wouldn't change the experience or do it any differently if I could. I was one of the lucky ones. In the end, I played another few years before transitioning into broadcasting. It was no storied career but one that probably suited me best.
While media headlines focus on the elite few who sign multi-million dollar contracts, most players are just trying to hang on to a childhood dream. The hope is that by sacrificing their time, bodies, relationships, and sometimes even their education -- they will be able to reap the ultimate reward from a lifetime of dedication to football. They're simply vying for a single opportunity to prove their worth on a pro field. If they're lucky like I was, they might even last longer than the three-year average.
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