The moment that Treyvon Hester, a defensive tackle who started the 2018 season on the Philadelphia Eagles practice squad, reached up and snagged the edge of the ball Bears kicker Cody Parkey had just sent towards the uprights, sealing his team’s playoff win, he became a very particular kind of hero. Instantly, Hester was the star of a familiar, irresistible NFL narrative: the underdog player who scrapped his way onto the team and wound up indispensable.
The NFL players who still haven’t had their primetime breakthrough rely on that narrative, too. “You hear all those undrafted success stories ... I mean I was in Seattle, so I had a bunch of examples right in front of me,” says Tyvis Powell, an undrafted safety who has played for five different teams in two years since spending his rookie season with the Seahawks. “I was like, ‘I’m going to be the next one to do that.’ Things just haven’t worked out that way, but the good thing is that I keep getting opportunities.”
The price of taking those opportunities, though, is much steeper than fans might imagine. Players at the bottom of the roster and on the practice squad have to be prepared to move across the country at a moment’s notice, for reasons that may have nothing to do with their own performance: a player in a different position group gets hurt, so suddenly adding depth there takes priority.
Those moves are only partially subsidized by teams, cutting into what are already comparatively modest practice squad salaries. Powell, who moved from the Niners to the Jets and back again during the 2018 season, estimates in his career he’s spent $15,000 just on relocating to play. “It’s unfortunate, but it is a job,” he says. “I’ve come to learn it’s better than nothing.”
There were 447 additions to NFL practice squads after Week 1, when teams sign their first 10-player practice squad. Though a number of those transactions account for players moving on and off of the practice squad of the same team, it suggests that the majority of NFL practice squad players had to move at least once mid-season — meaning the squad’s instability affected a wide swath of NFL players.
And even if their checks look substantial from the outside, if you account for taxes and the fact that they’re meant to sustain players over the course of the entire offseason, it’s clear the money is not enough to support the flexibility the position requires. It’s a journeyman lifestyle, but often without the active roster paychecks that make that path worthwhile.
Rees Odhiambo, a guard who moved four times during the 2018 season, shared what’s become an all-too-familiar routine. When a team calls, you get on a flight; if you’ve just been cut from the active roster, that call generally comes just after you clear waivers at 4 p.m. on Tuesday. There’s no time, really, to pack or deal with any of the logistics of moving. You arrive that night, the team picks you up from the airport and hands you a copy of the playbook to start studying. The next morning, you go through a series of physicals, sign your contract, and get on the field.
The team pays for a week in a hotel, during which players are expected to find their own housing. “You’re in a brand new location, and you’ve gotta learn the whole playbook that everyone else has had for the past few months,” says Odhiambo. “Outside of that, you have to cover finding a place to live, getting a car to drive, all the essentials. Even just getting a ride to the team facility — the team only covers you for the first day and after that you’re on your own. You start working at six in the morning and you’re back at six at night, and then you eat and study, and after that is the only time you have to find a place to live. That in-between time.” Plus, the place you find needs to accommodate the fact that you might have to leave at any time. A lease is a huge liability.
There are a number of solutions to this conundrum, most of them with considerable drawbacks. When Powell first joined the Niners practice squad in November 2017, he stayed in an Embassy Suites hotel near the facility that wound up costing him $7,000 for a month and a half. “It was the middle of the season and the team was 0-8, so they weren’t going to the playoffs,” he says. “So I decided to just do something temporary. I didn’t know anybody [in the area] or what else I could do.”
He was back with the team for training camp in 2018, and elected to rent a furnished one-bedroom; Powell lives with his girlfriend and dog, so getting a roommate wasn’t really an option. “I went fully furnished, because it was month-to-month, and being on practice squad it’s a ‘here today, gone tomorrow’ type of thing,” he says. That set him back $4,400 a month.
“It’s unbelievable,” he says, laughing. “That’s that California stuff. When you stay in expensive cities, the rent is really high so the majority of your money is going to rent —you’re not really saving any money.”
When the Niners brought him back as a member of the active roster for the last two weeks of the season, he stayed at Richard Sherman’s house. Now, staying with family back in his native Ohio, Powell can joke about it: “I refused to pay any more money,” he says.
For rookies, navigating the logistics is even more challenging. Richard “Dewey” Jarvis, a linebacker who graduated from Brown in 2018 and went undrafted, thought he had it made when he was on the Atlanta Falcons 53-man roster after training camp. “I saw a big paycheck and a little bit of a future there, so I got a six month lease — which I still have,” says the Massachusetts native, now home for the offseason. He’d also paid to ship his car from New England to Atlanta.
But Jarvis was cut the day of the Falcons’ first game, when a long-snapper injury meant the team needed to sign one off the practice squad. Having already traveled with the team to Philadelphia, he wasn’t even allowed on the field; Jarvis had no choice but to watch the entire game from the locker room. “I just never thought it would be like that,” he says now.
He was on the Falcons practice squad for a few more weeks before being cut from the team altogether. When he was signed to the Jacksonville Jaguars practice squad, Jarvis took a more cautious approach. “I had a different mindset, because I’d seen how quickly you can move,” he says of his choice to remain in the extended-stay hotel where the Jaguars had initially put him up. “I was paying a little bit more, but the minimum leases available were for three months, and at that point, I didn’t think I was going to be there for three months.”
When he was cut from that practice squad after three weeks and moved to Buffalo, Jarvis took the same approach: staying in a hotel, but with the added expense of renting a car — he left his car at the apartment he’s still paying for in Atlanta. Even in the inexpensive cities of Buffalo and Jacksonville, staying in a hotel cost him around $2,000 a month.
“If you look back at it, yes, there were ways to save money,” says Jarvis of the money he’s spent trying to accommodate practice squad life’s unpredictability. “But the problem is that you can’t predict the future.” On the practice squad, trying to predict the future gets you in trouble. Some players who enter the league with no money to get settled — after playing on national TV for three or four years without getting paid — take out loans from their agents. It’s a strategy that can backfire if they don’t do as well in the league as promised.
The pressure to perform when you’re on a team’s fringes is immense: maybe the media isn’t hounding you the way they do with some of the NFL’s stars, but you’re always a day away from getting cut. Moving midseason means not only learning a new playbook, but ingratiating yourself with a whole new group of players and coaches with the hope that they’ll keep you around — essentially restarting the process of making it onto an NFL team Hard Knocks-style but with a heavy handicap, since the vast majority of the team has already had much more time to get into a rhythm.
On the most basic level practice squad players do more work during the week as they’re expected to take reps on offense and defense, moving around the field to mimic a team’s next opponent. But for those who are really pushing to make the team, there’s even more work involved. “You’re trying to prove yourself, get on the coach’s good side, and gain the trust of your teammates to try to get off of the practice squad,” says Jarvis. “That entails doing extra things like staying after practice and getting extra reps, because you’re not really the focus during practice.”
In addition, some NFL teams task their practice squads with extra workouts. Powell says that the Niners have a special practice squad lift session early in the morning that active roster players aren’t obliged to participate in. “One of those hardcore, wintertime, back-at-college lifts where you’d say to yourself, ‘There’s no way you guys are gonna make me lift this and then go to practice today!” he says. “But somehow, some way, we did.”
According to Odhiambo, for offensive players learning the playbook alone can take two weeks. He’s had to learn four different ones over the course of the season. “It’s exhausting to have to sit there and cram almost every night,” he says. “[When you’ve been with a team for a while], you already know the playbook and you’re cramming for the team you’re playing against that week. But I had to learn an entire playbook as well as what the team is doing in the next game, so that when I go to practice I know what’s going on.”
“But you’re being assessed from the moment you get there,” I say. “Basically,” he replies, laughing. “And they don’t care.”
Powell and Jarvis have both also been asked to change positions repeatedly as they’ve moved from team to team, adding an extra layer of difficulty to making a roster. Powell has been between corner and safety over the entire course of his NFL career — whenever he’s gotten comfortable at one of them, he says, he’s been asked to switch, or cut and sent to a different team that wanted him to switch.
“It’s a gift and a curse,” says Powell. “The versatility is what keeps you around, but it’s kind of like ... I just want to master one thing. But whatever helps the money keep coming in, you have to do.”
There are other hidden liabilities to moving teams mid-season when you’re on the bottom of an NFL roster. Despite the fact that cuts are so often situational and have little to do with a player’s ability or performance, NFL resumes are treated like those outside the league: bouncing around too much is a red flag.
“The more you travel from team to team, the more you have kind of a stigma,” says Odhiambo. “Teams think that either you’re injured, or you have something wrong with you mentally, or you’re a troublemaker.”
He says coaches often ask him questions to try to suss out why he’s moved so much. “They ask about whether you’re drinking a lot or partying,” he says. “It’s like being re-evaluated from a draft perspective.”
During the draft and after, teams also sometimes ask players if they have a wife or girlfriend — any family that might impact a player’s ability to move freely from team to team.
“From the outside, it’s so simple — you just show up and play football,” says Jarvis. “But on the inside, there’s just so many moving parts.”
The uncertainty can be disillusioning. “The one quote that I’ve heard about a million times since I’ve been in the league is, ‘You have to control what you can control,’” says Powell. “As true as that is, you can do everything you’re supposed to do right and sometimes the numbers aren’t there. That’s been the whole thing with me — it’s just a numbers thing, there’s not space on the roster. Like, y’all need to figure out the numbers! Because it always seems to be me who gets cut.”
“I thought once I made the team, I would have a lot more stability,” says Jarvis. “But I didn’t realize how quickly people are rotated in and out of each team. That was really eye-opening.” Though he says he truly enjoyed his first season, and was amazed by the positive energy in all the locker rooms he’s been in, Jarvis is thinking about what will make life in the NFL worthwhile going forward. “Personally I’d rather have a home, put some roots down,” he says. “Next season I have to ask, ‘What are the chances? How stable is the next gig going to be?’”
There are some straightforward solutions that might make the unpredictable life of practice squad players more sustainable. One is requiring teams to provide housing for practice squad players, or a housing stipend. “That’s something that I think we’re looking into for our union deal,” says Odhiambo. “It’s one thing to go to Arizona or Texas, where it’s easy to get housing. But in cities like New York, San Francisco, or LA, guys have an impossible task as far as finding a place to live within the same week of having to report to work and be focused on this job.”
Another option would be expanding the NFL’s 53-man roster, which could reduce turnover and promote player safety by reducing pressure on injured players to stay in the game. Compared to college teams, who have no limit on the number of active players they can compete with — and who mostly play 13 games a season, max — NFL rosters are stretched remarkably thin. Sean Payton, Sean McVay, and Dan Quinn have all spoken this year about increasing the game day active roster, currently at 46 players — if it were larger, that might have a ripple effect and increase overall roster size.
“It might help with the numbers thing they keep telling me about,” says Powell. “That might save people like me.”
In the meantime, practice squad players will keep grinding — moving where the work is, and trying to get another one of those elusive opportunities.
“I always wonder how it feels to walk in the locker room and not have to worry, to be like ‘I know I’m gonna be here,’” Powell adds. “But then again, I don’t know if anybody has that feeling in the NFL. It’s such a cutthroat business.”