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There is a story behind each pair of eyes fixed on San Antonio Commanders coach Mike Riley as he addressed his team of 85 players for the first time last week at the team’s inaugural minicamp.
Each of those players has been, at one time, the best athlete in his neighborhood, high school, or college only to eventually experience the disappointment of not quite making it to the pinnacle of the sport in the NFL.
Now each has received a gift before Christmas – a second chance to prove he has what it takes by earning a roster spot for the inaugural season of the Alliance of American Football. The league will hold its training camp for all eight teams in San Antonio in January and begin a 10-game season in February.
“They’ve all had good college careers and opportunities in pro football and are looking to continue kind of their dream,” Riley said. “I’ve been very impressed with the maturity of the group. I think their intent is great and what we will find is we’ll have a very, very competitive camp. … They’ll compete real hard to keep their dream alive.”
At least 33 of the players on the minicamp roster last week won’t be here when the season begins and rosters are trimmed to 52. Those who are cut will have another disappointment to push through. For some, it will be the final gut punch that sends them off to life in the real world, leaving football in the rearview.
Some of these men have already been down that road a bit but came back to football when this startup league formed and an agent or coach gave them a call.
Andy Smigiera had tryouts with multiple NFL teams after a standout college career ended in 2016 at Robert Morris University in Pennsylvania. None of those tryouts turned into a contract and Smigiera, a 6-foot-1, 200 pound free safety, went home to Buffalo, New York, and took a test to earn certification to work for Morgan Stanley as a financial advisor.
“It’s honestly huge because two months ago I was reading balance sheets and income statements and financial reports and now I’m getting back to reading my playbook and getting through all of that stuff,” Smigiera said at minicamp when asked about having another opportunity to play football. “It’s pretty remarkable that I come from the North where it’s cold and now I’m way down here with the nice weather. It’s definitely a blessing. For me. It’s pretty remarkable.”
The standard-bearer for never giving up on a dream to play professional football might always be former St. Louis Rams quarterback Kurt Warner.
He worked a minimum wage job in a grocery store checkout line in Iowa in 1994 while harboring dreams of playing quarterback again after being cut by the Green Bay Packers. After stints in the Arena League and playing overseas, he eventually earned a shot in the NFL and made the most of it leading the Rams to the Super Bowl and winning an MVP award in the 1999 season.
The AAF is filled with young men hoping to follow in Warner’s footsteps and make the most of their second chance at a professional football career and prove wrong those who gave up on them previously.
Nick Temple, an inside linebacker who played collegiately at the University of Cincinnati, hopes to earn a job in January with the Commanders. He attended minicamp after spending a year out of football.
Temple played in the Canadian Football League in 2017 for the Winnipeg Blue Bombers. After his season ended in November last year, no other opportunities in the sport came his way. So he headed to Indianapolis, where he landed a job as an assistant dean at Paramount School of Excellence. He also served as defensive coordinator for the school’s football team this season.
Then a call came and an opportunity presented itself for Temple to get back on the field. He couldn’t pass it up, especially when the AAF is signing players who make final rosters to contracts worth $250,000 over three seasons, including $70,000 the first season, $80,000 the second season and $100,000 the third season.
The league is also offering bonuses, one of which is a full year of scholarship assistance for postsecondary or vocational programs for each full season played in the league. If Temple is able to play two years in the AAF, he would not only earn $150,000, he would be able to get a master’s degree for his effort as well.
“I went without playing football for a whole year not knowing when I might play football again, just being patient and staying ready and also teaching others,” Temple said. “I was helping kids grow for their dream that they want to have.
“In this business you’re not sure what’s going to happen. The only thing you can do is stay ready and stay positive and work on your craft. That way when you do get that call, you don’t have to play catch up. You’re already ready.”
Jevoni Robinson’s was one of the more interesting stories on the Commanders roster in minicamp. His is a bit different from those of many of his teammates who are returning to the sport for a second chance. Robinson is coming to the sport with very little experience at all. Robinson hopes to make the team as a tight end.
“It’s been a long road,” he said. “Sometimes I ask myself, ‘Am I doing the right thing?’ But I remain faithful and I want to give this a shot.”
He grew up in St. Elizabeth, Jamaica, and came to the U.S. in 2007 when his father was hired for a job in North Carolina.
He ran track and played cricket as a kid and decided to play football as a junior in high school once he arrived in America. He made the team as a 6-foot-2 wide receiver and caught one pass all season.
He moved on to North Carolina Central University for one year in which he grew nearly 6 inches. Now 6-7, he transferred to North Carolina State, where he eventually caught the attention of the basketball coaching staff. He earned a spot on the roster and played two seasons and graduated before deciding to move on to Barry University in Florida to pursue his masters degree in sport management.
While at Barry, Robinson also got a job working as an account executive at WME/IMG, an agency representing professional athletes and involved in sports marketing. It gave him a taste of what life might be like after sports and he wondered if that day had come.
“I would be lying to you if I said I didn’t consider that,” Robinson said. “The odds were stacked against me. My last year at Barry University the NCAA declined my eligibility. So I had to make a choice to finish my degree or go pro. So I finished my degree.
“To take a whole year off not playing sports, it kind of gets lonely. It seems like the opportunity is drifting away from you. For me to overcome that is, I think, one of the most harsh things I’ve been through. It was really a faith-tester.”
Robinson had started to consider a move back to football because he was told he might have a future in the sport as a tight end, but an opportunity came in 2016 to play professional basketball in Italy and he took it. After one season in Italy, he came back to the U.S. and devoted himself full time to building his body for football.
He hired an agent and worked out for four NFL teams. The Houston Texans signed him to a futures contract in December 2017 and he went through part of the offseason program with the team before suffering an injury. He reached an injury settlement with the team in the summer and moved on to the next opportunity, which ended up being here in San Antonio.
“I felt like I had to take a leap of faith,” Robinson said of his move to football. “I got in touch with the right trainers, the right agent and I got it done. It was probably the most challenging part of my life because I was training for six months not knowing if I would get a shot or if I made the wrong decision.
“I was completely questioning myself, but I kept on working, and that as probably the best decision I ever made.”