Free agents find a place to fight for another chance
NORTH MIAMI BEACH
NORTH MIAMI BEACH (Reuters) - The quarterback takes three steps back, glances to his left and zips a pass right into the path of a sprinting receiver who grasps the ball, turns sharply and rushes into open space.
It is a perfect play, performed by professionals, but no one is paying them and no one is even watching.
There is no offensive coordinator barking instructions from the sidelines, no assistant coach taking notes and no team mates shouting on encouragement.
This is the world of National Football League (NFL) free agents, players without a team and whose only hope of seeing game action this season is plugging a gap somewhere caused by injury or bad form.
For NFL players who get the feared call into the general manager's office and return to their locker to see their nameplate already removed, there are three options - quit, go to the gym alone or workout with other free agents.
Some of those who take the latter option gather at an unlikely venue - a Jewish community center in North Miami Beach, where Bommarito Performance Systems helps players rehab from injury or stay fit and be ready for when a team calls.
They gather daily at 8 a.m. (1200 GMT), Super Bowl winners like Plaxico Burress walking past little old ladies heading for a gentle gym session. Experienced NFL receivers like Donte' Stallworth catching the attention only of children heading for the outdoor basketball court.
"It is hard to simulate the actual (NFL) team practices and games but this is the closest thing I can possibly do," Bryant McFadden, a former NFL cornerback who won two Super Bowls with the Pittsburgh Steelers, told Reuters as he sits on a bench, dripping in sweat after an intense session on the field.
"You can get a call at anytime saying 'be on the field tomorrow' and you have to be ready to go, that's why I am here consistently."
While the surroundings may hint at an informal workout, the reality is anything but casual. Program founder Pete Bommarito has a team of fitness and medical staff who ensure that agents looking for work for out-of-contract players turn to him.
"We have a good track record of keeping guys in shape," says Bommarito, who is particularly proud of one of his clients, running back Kevin Smith, who was a free agent from March of last year.
After nine months away from a team, Smith was called back by the Detroit Lions and in just his second game ran for 140 yards and two touchdowns.
"Football makes certain metabolic demands and we can mimic those," said Bommarito. "The only thing we can't do is hit. I tell guys all the time, as long as you stay focused, positive and consistent, we will keep you ready from a mental and physical standpoint."
Tough physical drills in the South Florida heat and humidity, such as dragging loaded sledges across the field, are followed by weight sessions with individually planned routines, as well as any rehab sessions and ball work.
"A lot of fans are in the dark about the amount of work that guys put in trying to get back into the league," says receiver Danario Alexander, who is searching for a deal after being cut by the St. Louis Rams in August.
The players clearly enjoy the chance to maintain the camaraderie of being part of a group, the chance to test themselves against fellow professionals while submitting themselves to a routine.
"Being around other guys that have the same hunger that I have is very important for me instead of being somewhere else working out by myself," says McFadden.
But the weekend offers a different challenge for free agents - with no involvement in a game, it can be tough to even turn on the television set and watch live NFL action.
Offensive tackle Alex Barron was drafted by the Rams in 2005 and has also played for the Dallas Cowboys and New Orleans Saints but was cut by the Seattle Seahawks in August.
The 30-year-old says he finds it hard not to be involved in the game.
"This is a little abnormal for me. I've never been in this situation before with a season going on and not playing as part of a team," he says, sitting in the community centre reception.
Barron says he expects to find a team soon but finds it tough to watch games on television.
"Sometimes it's a little irritating when you're watching and you see a lot of stuff going on. Like if you see someone out there making mistakes and it's something you wouldn't do and you wonder why you're not out there."
Others watch games in order to keep themselves fired up.
"You can't switch off. You have to watch because it feeds your drive, because you know you should be out there and you are going to do everything you can to get back out there," says former Minnesota Vikings safety Tyrell Johnson, who was cut by the Miami Dolphins last month.
"I like that feeling because it makes me more hungry. It makes me appreciate what I had more as opposed to acting like it didn't happen. It did happen. I did get cut. That's how you keep yourself strong mentally."
For Johnson, as much as the expert physical preparation provided by Bommarito's team, it is the feeling of being with similarly spirited men trying to get back in the game that leads him to the field behind a community center every morning.
"You have to be around like-minded people that are willing to work and try to get back to where they want to be instead of sitting around sulking," said Johnson.
"The people sitting around sulking are not here. These are people that are staying strong-minded and are willing to do what it takes."
(Editing by Frank Pingue)
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