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What Super Bowl week is like when you’re on the practice squad

There will be 20 practice squad players at Super Bowl LIII. From training, to tickets, to rings — here’s what the week looks like for them.

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Four weeks ago, safety A.J. Howard was finishing a 10-week stint on the New York Giants practice squad — the seeming conclusion to an unsatisfying rookie year.

This week, he’s on the cup of possible getting his first Super Bowl ring.

Howard’s NFL career began when he went un-drafted and signed to the Arizona Cardinals, and stuttered when he suffered a preseason turf toe injury that compelled the team to cut him with an injury settlement. He spent two months rehabbing in Phoenix before getting the call to join the Giants.

“It was kind of tough, honestly,” Howard says. “I prayed about it, and I feel like God really answered my prayers because a lot of teams were still interested after seeing how well I did in the preseason.”

Howard was signed to the Patriots practice squad five days before their divisional round game versus the Chargers, and now — ironically for the Georgia native who grew up a Falcons fan — he’s in Atlanta with the team.

“I don’t think anybody plans to get hurt and sit out, that’s not how you picture the rookie year going,” says Howard now. “But it’s finishing out pretty good.”

Howard is one of the 20 practice squad players at the Super Bowl, players who will spend the week preparing for the game alongside the active roster, and will stand next to them on the sidelines on Sunday. They’re competing for rings too, even though post-championship they’ll be back to competing just to have a job in the league.

It’s an in-between position that can feel like the ultimate mixed blessing: you’re at the Super Bowl, but still a set of shoulder pads and a helmet away from actually competing. “I would say it’s like, you’re there but not really,” says Eagles safety Tre Sullivan, who was on the practice squad during the team’s Super Bowl win and has since been signed to the active roster. “The guys who were inactive, though — we’re still locked into the game. I give kudos to the guys who were on the field last year, because they would come over to the sideline and ask whoever was playing their position what we saw, and that helped them.”

Sullivan and one of his fellow Super Bowl team practice squad members, wide receiver Rashard Davis, certainly felt lucky just to be on the team. Davis, especially, was cut and resigned three separate times over the course of the 2017 season; the last time was in Week 17. During the weeks he wasn’t able to secure a spot on the squad, Davis headed back to his hometown of Charlottesville, Virginia and worked as a server at a seafood restaurant while working out as much as possible in his apartment gym.

“It definitely a hard thing to keep trying to be consistent,” Davis says now. “But I was like, ‘I can’t give up now — I’ve made it too far.’”

In the end, though, he got a spot on the Super Bowl team, while knowing full well just how close he had been to not making the trip to Minneapolis. Winston Craig, a defensive tackle, was in the reverse situation: he was signed to the Eagles’ practice squad in December 2017, after spending months training and doing delivery for a barbecue restaurant in Richmond, Virginia, where he went to college. Then, five days before the Eagles’ first postseason game, he was cut because the team needed to add depth at another position following an injury.

“I wish I could have been there, but it just wasn’t meant to be at the time,” says Craig, who now plays for the San Antonio Commanders in the AAF. “But it just kind of fueled my fire a little more, made me train harder.”

The mechanics of what Super Bowl week is like for practice squad players varies from team to team. This year, Rams practice squad players were at the Super Bowl’s Opening Night media availability, and press conferences all week long; Patriots practice squad players weren’t (although they were last year). Howard wasn’t overly concerned about it, though; he and the other Pats practice squad players went to Top Golf Monday night instead.

“It’s kind of just been like a normal week,” he says. “Going into it, you think it’s going to be something really crazy, something different. But we’re actually just preparing the same, as if it was a regular game.”

The Eagles, according to Sullivan and Davis, went out of their way to make practice squad players feel included. They participated in team events all week long, and were given two tickets to the game (with flights and hotel rooms) each — which, for practice squad players, is basically the only way bringing family to the game is feasible. Right now, the cheapest tickets for Sunday’s game are going for $2,200 — or, roughly half of what a practice squad player makes in a week, after taxes.

“Being from down here, I have a lot of family that wants to go,” says Howard. “They don’t know that it’s not very cheap, I guess, and there are no complimentary ones.” His family will be watching from home instead. “People think you get so much more money than you actually do,” Davis says. “The money they see online that they think I’m getting, is not how much I’m really getting.” Since last year’s Super Bowl, he’s bounced between Eagles and Raiders practice squads — and still has never received an active roster game check. So while he has a Super Bowl ring, he’s never actually played in an NFL regular or postseason game.

Also, unlike active roster players, practice squad players receive no bonus for playing postseason games. “Last year, the bonus for winning the Super Bowl was like over $100,000, and we still got the regular pay!” says Davis, laughing. “It was cool because we got paid through the playoffs, but that bonus check would have been nice. Like, dang.”

“It would be nice [to get a bonus], but you would rather be there than at home and not making any money at all,” Sullivan adds.

Probably the oddest distinction between the experience of practice squad and active roster players at the Super Bowl is a caveat embedded in the NFL’s CBA that dictates that while practice squad players’ rings must look like the ones active roster players receive, “the Club, in its sole discretion, may provide any Practice Squad player with a ring of lesser value.”

Thankfully, the Eagles’ practice squad players’ rings, at least, are real. “That would be just plain out dirty, if you ask me,” says Davis. “Being a practice squad player, you get recognition from other players and coaches, but outside of that you really don’t get much recognition — even though you’re practicing every day with the team, going to every meeting and all of that. Not to give them a real ring, that would be dirty.”

Practice squad players feel rightfully entitled to that ring, and just as proud of the win as though they’d been on the field — in spite of the asterisks on their Wikipedia pages. “Some people think that you don’t do anything on the practice squad, or you’re not as important,” says Craig. “But the practice squad guys work very hard. You’ve gotta give good looks — if one of the guys who’s playing is banged up a little bit and can’t go in practice, you’ve gotta make sure you fill their spot, and you’ve gotta be ready because you’re always one play away from being activated. It’s a lot of work behind the scenes that nobody gets to see.”

“We all got a ring because we were in some way part of the victory,” Sullivan concludes. “It would have been great to have had a firsthand effect on getting that ring, but that time will come. It’s like getting a taste — just gives us something to look forward to.”

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