NFL Cut-down Day, when teams reduce their roster from 90 to 53 players, is by definition a bittersweet exercise, and this year’s roster-trimming day was especially bitter for one Ponte Vedra football player and his family.
The player I’m referring to was an outstanding Nease High School student athlete, rated the No. 5 high school center in the country by ESPN.com. He went on to become a four-year starter at a formidable Division I school in the Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC), a conference comprised of perennial powerhouse teams like Clemson, Florida State and Miami.
In his college career, this athlete earned ACC Player of the Week honors three times and was a two-time nominee for the Rimington Trophy, awarded annually to college football’s most outstanding center. He was named third-team All-ACC center in his junior year and second-team All-ACC center in his senior year. A well-conditioned and durable athlete, he started every game his junior and senior years when his team won 19 games. In short, he was an outstanding Division I football player at a key position requiring unique attributes.
The unique attributes for a center are second only to that of the quarterback. In importance, the center position is second only to the quarterback position as well. The center makes all the line calls. He requires athleticism, strength and quickness and like the quarterback, must be intelligent and possess leadership skills—characteristics not often found in young players. It is also worthy of note that most centers in football are typically capable of playing the guard position as well; conversely, not all guards are suited to play center.
All things considered, this young man certainly should be a commodity coveted by any NFL team. But despite his skills and credentials, this prospective player went undrafted in April.
Now this, by no means, is the kiss of death for an NFL prospect. Tony Romo and Antonio Gates are two notables who were not drafted. In 2014, 400 players on NFL rosters never had their names called on draft day, and last season, there were more undrafted free agents on NFL rosters than first and second round picks combined.
Although not drafted, the Arizona Cardinals signed this young center to a contract as an undrafted free agent. He was released after several weeks with the Cardinals and was soon after picked up by the Pittsburgh Steelers, where he practiced and played both center and guard.
About a week before the preseason ended, the Washington Redskins made a trade with the Steelers to get this player, with their stated intention of placing him on their practice squad. Then, unexpectedly, the Redskins released him.
It is inconceivable that a player with such attributes, who excelled at such an important position for four years as a starter in the ACC, is not deemed worthy of even a practice squad spot as an investment in an NFL team’s future.
For years, NFL teams have overlooked quality players because they didn’t “fit the NFL mold.” A player who doesn’t measure up to the “NFL standard” for a given position—be it height, weight, speed, arm length, shoe size or whatever—doesn’t pass muster.
Perhaps the NFL’s selection criteria is flawed. With all the testing and evaluation teams do before and after draft day, they don’t seem to have a way to measure a players’ heart, his grit, his determination, his fortitude, his toughness, his character or his commitment. If they could measure these critical traits, this Ponte Vedra football player would certainly be a member of a National Football League team today.
But this was not the case, and Lucas Crowley’s hopes and dreams of playing professional football were dashed, at least for now.
With time, his disappointment will ease. After all, the career duration of most athletes—especially football players—is but a brief moment in an entire lifetime.
Lucas can look back on his accomplishments and feel proud. He has already achieved what most young athletes can only dream of. What he learned playing football will serve him well in the future. It is now time for him to "get on with his life"…and what a life it is certain to be.