Imagine for a moment the random difficulties players on an NFL practice squad face. Rookies, first-year players, and even second-year veterans, all of whom are sprouting wings into adulthood, face uncomfortable insecurity and the possibility that their NFL dreams could smolder like a Chinese chemical plant because coach believes someone, another relative unknown is a slightly better fit on their roster.
Teams can release anyone from the practice squad without penalty, expecting an acknowledgement from released practice squad players that they should feel privileged for the opportunity. Even so, practice squad players rarely garner much sympathy from fans, and maybe not even their contemporaries. Practice squad player, arguably not talented enough to be chosen on the 53-man roster, are hanging onto their NFL careers by a single thread.
Don't misunderstand this perspective: There are far greater sufferings and injustices prevalent on this globe to draw overwhelming sympathy. For example, according to the collective bargaining agreement, NFL practice squad players make a minimum of $6,300 per week they are on the practice squad; there is no limit on how much a team can pay a player on the practice squad. Some will offer a higher weekly salary in order to entice better players to sign, although the practice squad contracts do not count against the salary cap. If a player remains on the practice squad for an entire regular season, he would earn $102,000.
In addition, the practice squad opportunities allow players with above average collegiate careers to drop an obstructive foot into the doorframe. A healthy combination of training, development, effort and production can often lead an unknown player onto an NFL field under the intensity of bright lights and the intimidation of a national audience -- and hopefully, a big-time contract that leads to an oversized swimming pool and water resistant televisions in the bathroom.
Yet, things can be difficult during that first year -- especially for players coming from major college programs where they were significant contributors. There is former Florida State running back James Wilder Jr., a former NCAA champion who rushed for 1,363 yards rushing and 20 touchdowns during his career, spending his rookie season on Cincinnati's practice squad. Wilder had a great resource to vent, and thus learn from: his father, former NFL running back, James Wilder Sr.
"I was like, 'Man, pop, you don't understand," Wilder Jr. said. "'You came in and started right away. You didn't have to go through practice squad.'" True, he didn't. But Wilder Sr. still wants his son to stay motivated for a spot on the Bengals' 53-man roster. To do that, he told Jr. to reexamine his not-so-distant past.
Of course "pop" has installed toughness within his son, requiring a bigger picture perspective. Deal with challenges that you can control and make sure to do everything the best you can. Junior received unexpected opportunities during Cincinnati's win over the New York Giants last Friday. Due to second-quarter injuries suffered by Rex Burkhead and Cedric Peerman, Wilder generated a team-leading 53 yards rushing and a touchdown, which gave Cincinnati a 17-7 lead with 4:44 remaining in the second quarter.
"Don't be that selfish guy. Do what you can control. That's the thing he drilled into my head," Wilder Jr. said via ESPN, reflecting on lessons he's learned from senior. "Just because you're on the practice squad, go out there and kill the starting defense. Do the little things to get noticed. I got it in my head that I'm making the team better, I'm giving them good looks, but at the same time I'm making myself better and I'm going to be noticed."
Wilder accepted a shift in work this season, gaining mass while learning how to play fullback this summer. In addition to being a backup running back and fullback, he's working on special teams as well, doing whatever it takes to make the 53-man roster.
Cincinnati is scheduled to arrive in Tampa Bay on Sunday, where they'll play their second preseason game on ESPN's Monday Night Football. James Wilder Sr. played nine seasons with the Buccaneers, generating 5,957 yards rushing, 3,492 yards receiving and 46 touchdowns (37 on the ground). He'll be in the crowd on Monday night wearing a Bengals jersey and cheering for his son.