Lance Gunn dropped to one knee and positioned himself behind the small scrap of electrical tape stretched across the synthetic red pellets of the Corpus Christi High School athletic track. He managed one final glimpse upon the man situated 40 yards downrange, stopwatch in hand, eyes fixed steadfastly upon his prospect.
After extending his hand forward until his fingertips touched the gray strip of tape, the quarterback and former three-year starter from Southern Methodist University lifted his rear, straightened his back, and adjusted his legs until his body was postured in a textbook sprinter’s stance. Eyes closed. Deep, controlled breaths. Lance’s world faded into silence as the man with the stopwatch waited.
“On you,” he called from the opposite end of the track. Lance opened his eyes.
Without cue, the athlete exploded from his stance in a burst of quick-twitch fury, all of his muscles uncoiling simultaneously as he sprinted from his starting position. Jay Sloan waited at the opposite end of the track alongside the man with the stopwatch, watching as the device clicked to life. Milliseconds accumulated into seconds as Jay’s client traversed the designated portion of the track—exactly 120 feet, or 40 yards.
Knees high. Arms in tight. Lance’s high school awards included a regional championship in the 100-meter dash, which qualified him as an excellent form runner. His training and muscle memory carried him in a nearly perfect trajectory down the track, all the way across the 40-yard marker, whereupon the man with the stopwatch thumbed the upper-right-hand button, freezing the readout at 4.69 seconds.
4.69. Not bad, Lance, Jay thought to himself. But would it be enough? He watched as his client gradually geared his sprint down to a jog, which carried him another couple dozen yards around the first bend of the regulation 400-meter track. Jay turned to the man with the stopwatch.
“Whatcha’ think, Mike?”
Michael Tresser lowered the timepiece and shrugged. A former roommate of Jay’s, Tresser currently served as a regional scout within the Department of Player Personnel for the Winnipeg Blue Bombers, a team competing in the Canadian Football League.
A native of Houston, TX, Mike had agreed to travel to Corpus Christi—though it was well outside of his designated region of the Pacific Northwest—to hold an unofficial workout for one of Jay’s clients. He did so as a personal favor to Jay, a longtime acquaintance and sometime friend who now anxiously awaited Tresser’s fateful judgment.
“He’s a great athlete,” said Jay, as if he was issuing some sort of reminder. “I know, he’s no Russell Wilson, but he’s very mobile inside the pocket. Very poised. It’s the first thing that pops out on film.” Tresser sighed, but otherwise remained silent, as if to carefully measure his words before speaking them. A long, uncomfortable pause ensued. “Will you say something, Mike?”
“He’s small,” said Tresser without hesitation.
“So is Brees.”
Tresser shook his head. “You can’t just compare every pint-sized quarterback to Drew Brees.” He turned his attention to Lance, who was standing anxiously at the bend of the track, waving from the distance.
“You want me to go again?” he shouted, an odd paradoxical mixture of hope and desperation in his voice.
“No need,” said Tresser, his tone failing to belie his verdict, and with it, Lance’s prognosis. For Tresser’s voice was teeming with his own subjective truth. And that truth was that after a strenuous 45-minute workout and evaluation, this quarterback simply did not have the skill set to sway fate in his favor.
Lance held up his head in spite of his drowning spirit. The quarterback stood idly at a distance, humbled and dejected once again, his career as an athlete growing ever more tenuous with each passing rejection. Jay took Tresser’s arm and led him a few more steps away from Lance to converse in private.
“Did you see the film I sent you?”
“Yes, Jay. I saw the film.”
“Did you watch it?”
He shot Jay a look of contempt. “He’s small—”
“You already said that.”
“He’s small,” repeated Tresser. “His arm strength is mediocre. He’s a good athlete, but not good enough to make a position change.”
“Use him in your wildcat package.”
Tresser laughed. “We don’t do wildcat in Winnipeg, Jay. It’s all fun n’ gun. And he just doesn’t have the gun.” Jay glanced over his shoulder at Lance—chest slumped, arms crossed in front of him.
The two had agreed to terms following Lance’s stellar senior season at SMU. Jay had hoped that the undersized QB could find a role in the NFL as a niche player. But after three days and 274 draft picks in the books, Lance had failed to hear his name called and thus was designated as an undrafted rookie free agent, or UDFA.
Jay still managed to put in a call to the Arizona Cardinals, who had expressed mild interest in Lance during the 7th round, projecting him as a possible convert to WR and creative package player. And even though Jay did, in fact, land Lance a standard UDFA contract with the Cardinals, the odds were never really in the young man’s favor.
Upon reporting to training camp, the life-long signal caller was immediately thrown into the wide receiver mix, whereupon he became buried behind a deep roster of talent that boasted a duo of veteran Pro Bowl receivers. After receiving a total of five snaps through two preseason games, Lance was issued his walking papers during the first round of cuts and never managed to log his name on another NFL roster.
“Just take him to camp,” pleaded Jay. “If he doesn’t have the chops, fine. But give the kid a chance.”
Tresser rubbed a hand over his balding head. “Who’s he with right now?”
“The Corpus Christi Spartans.”
Jay shook his head. “EIFL.”
Tresser nodded, silently acknowledging the fact that both men were both well aware of. That the Elite Indoor Football League was about as low as you could get on the professional football ladder.
“The indoor game is probably best for him,” said Tresser without a hint of the sarcasm—or the backhandedness that typically accompanied such a statement. Jay still took offense.
“Don’t say that shit.”
“I’m not knockin’ the kid. But our game is an open one.” It was true. CFL teams played on 120-yard fields with twelve players lining up across from one another. Indoor and Arena leagues used 50-yard fields and eight players apiece. “He has a much better chance to shine and put together a nice little career if he focuses on the indoor game. That’s a ladder I could see him climbing.”
“So that’s it?”
“I’m sorry, Jay. He’s just not what we’re looking for.”
Jay felt a familiar tightening in his gut. He tried to bury the disappointment—not for himself, but for Lance. An empathetic response of sorts. After all, in the four years following Lance’s college graduation, this was the best shot Jay had given him since the Cardinals. And probably the last.
An empathetic sports agent, Jay thought to himself. How’s that workin’ out? He extended a reluctant hand toward Tresser.
“Thanks for making the trip, Mike.” They shook hands and the scout from the Blue Bombers offered one last favor to his old college buddy.
“You want me to tell him?”
“Nah.” Jay shook his head. This was one burden he’d have to carry himself. “I’ll give him the news. Good luck this season.”
Lance Gunn observed from a distance as his agent, Jay Sloan, and the professional scout from Canada shook hands and exchanged parting pleasantries. His heart dropped as he watched Jay’s CFL “hookup” make his way toward the parking lot without offering a second glance in Lance’s direction.
The 27-year-old exhaled, hung his head, and prepared himself for the all-too-familiar news. And as he stood there, waiting, he reluctantly contemplated the acceptance that would mark the inevitable first step in ending his career and aspirations as a professional football player.