It’s hard to start on a high school football team. Even harder in college. And so few even get a shot at the pros.
That’s why what happened for a few former area athletes last week was so unthinkable.
Every year, guys go undrafted and head to NFL minicamps and training camp hoping for a sliver of a chance at making a team. Most get beat up and then head home, deciding whether they’ll do it again the next year.
Outstanding football players, such as Crystal Lake South grad Jake Bernstein and late Cary-Grove grad Alex Kube, fit that mold. Others, such as 49ers fifth-round draft pick Fahn Cooper, a Crystal Lake South grad, made it a little closer, making an NFL practice squad, which is part of the team but not part of the 53-man roster. Last year, McHenry grad Robert Tonyan finished the season on the Green Bay Packers’.
But last week, something different happened. Three local high school graduates – who all were undrafted free agents who never had made an opening 53-man roster before – joined veteran Bryan Bulaga in the NFL’s McHenry County contingent.
Tonyan even might have surprised himself that he made it, as he told Green Bay reporters that he received a prank text on his phone to bring his playbook and tablet upstairs only to find out from the coaches there that he actually had made the team. I have a theory on who sent it, but what do I know?
Meanwhile, in Arizona, Crystal Lake South grad Dennis Gardeck was keeping his excitement measured until last Sunday, when team’s could sign guys other teams cut off waivers and potentially replace him.
The Cardinals didn’t, and South Dakota sports writer Matt Zimmer wrote that Gardeck is the first nonkicker from the University of Sioux Falls to make an NFL roster.
Then there was Woodstock grad Mike Liedtke, who has tried to make an opening NFL roster since 2015, bouncing around NFL practice squads until he made the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ roster at the end of last season.
This year, he’s on the Bucs’ roster to start the year.
They’re local grads, on opposite ends of the country, but still connected by their grit. Making an NFL team is such a low percentage thing to have happen, but sticking around is even more difficult.
Which is why what Marian Central grad Bulaga is doing, entering his ninth NFL season with the Packers on Sunday night, is so impressive. He’s coming off an ACL tear that cut last season short, and he is set to open this one against the Bears and new pass rusher Khalil Mack.
It reminds me of what McHenry grad Jace Sayler – the only other local guy aside from Bulaga who I’m aware of has a Super Bowl ring – told me in 2015: “People don’t understand how hard it is to stay at that level. ... Once you get to that level, almost in a weird way, there’s luck. You see a bunch of other people around you with great ability, but to get through a season and be able to keep doing it, it’s a credit to him on how he holds his body.”
Things happen out of your control. C.J. Fiedorowicz, one of the best athletes this area has seen, retired this offseason after four years with the Houston Texans after a season that included three concussions. Fiedorowicz spent part of his offseason helping Tonyan get to his big moment. Liedtke joined them a few times, too.
On Sunday, the next chapter begins.