TAMPA, Fla. – Sean McHugh had just bought his family's first house in suburban Detroit.
He'd just found out his wife, Ashlee, was pregnant with their second child, a daughter to go along with their then-18-month-son, Jack – though the excitement was tempered due to some early complications with the pregnancy.
McHugh, right, celebrates with Willie Parker.
(Gene J. Puskar/AP Photos)
The good news was McHugh had just survived final cut day with the Detroit Lions, meaning he was all but assured another year in professional football. He hoped to start at fullback and would play for the league minimum – about $520,000 for his experience level.
But just before the first practice in September, he was summoned to the office of team president Matt Millen. He knew the drill.
"When they come get you and Matt wants to talk to you, it's never a good thing," McHugh said. "You just have a sinking feeling. You walk through the locker room, up a flight of stairs and you just think, 'What the heck is going on?' "
What was going on was that he got cut, fired, laid off by Detroit. The team had signed someone else and to make room, McHugh was out.
Just like that, Sean McHugh was deemed not good enough to play for the lowly Lions, who would go winless – the first 0-16 season in league history.
If you're not good enough to play for the worst team ever, who exactly are you good enough to play for?
"What are we going to do?" he thought.
How about play in the Super Bowl?
Within days of Detroit cutting him, he unexpectedly signed with the Pittsburgh Steelers. Four months later he finds himself here preparing for a shot at an NFL championship against the Arizona Cardinals.
Cut by the worst team, McHugh may wind up part of the best.
"That's the thing I'll never understand," he said. "They didn't think I was good enough to be on the worst team in the history of the NFL, but the people here think I'm good enough to help the team out and play in the Super Bowl.
"I go from getting cut from the Detroit Lions and thinking life's over and flash-forward and now you're getting ready to play for a Super Bowl."
There's never been a story like McHugh's in the NFL because there's never been a team as bad as the Lions this season. This isn't just worst to first, it's worst-ever to first.
"You go from the lowest low to the highest high," he smiled.
McHugh is a blue-collar guy from outside of Cleveland. He knows how fortunate he is to play a single down in the NFL, let alone parts of four seasons with his current salary. He's hesitant to compare his situation to the estimated 2.6 million Americans who lost their jobs in 2008.
He wasn't living check to check. He was pursuing a dream. He gets it.
Still, getting fired is getting fired. The fact he's never had more than a one-year deal means he has more in common with the fan in the stands than many of his mega-millionaire teammates.
"It's not like I have money set away so I can spend the rest of my life not working," he said. "We've been smart and lived within our means and saved so we have a cushion. But it's a very real possibility that that money is going to run out.
"So you think about [money]. You try not to obsess about it because that's life. Everybody deals with that. You look in Detroit; lots of people are out of work going through the same problems."
Getting fired hurt for more than economic reasons. Being a football player wasn't just a job, it was an identity. This was humiliating, hurtful, confusing.
"One of the hardest things you have to deal with [is] failing and feeling that you're not good enough," he said. "It's a whole series of emotions.
"I left all my stuff in my locker. I didn't want any of that stuff any more. I got in the car and called my wife. She was as shocked as I was. I went home. I was mad and complained a little bit."
McHugh contemplated his future. Was his career over at 26? Or could he catch on somewhere else? He had a bad ankle so the prospects weren't good. Besides, was bouncing all over best for a young family? McHugh had long thought about becoming a high school coach; was this reality forcing a decision?
Ashlee, he said, helped him look at it in a positive way. They had college degrees. They were healthy (the pregnancy has progressed fine). Something would work out.
McHugh recalled the advice of former teammate Dan Campbell.
"For people who work hard, things always seem to work out," McHugh was told.
That night the phone rang. It was McHugh's agent.
"Hey, the Steelers want to bring you in and check you out," the agent said.
Three days later he was signed for the season. He's been mostly a reserve fullback, making the most of his chances, doing the dirty work of blocking. He's marveled at the culture of success that the Steelers organization has established.
"There is an expectation when you become a Pittsburgh Steeler that you're going to win," he said. "And anything less than that is not acceptable. In Detroit it was like you were hoping to win."
Only as the season played on, no matter how hard they hoped, Detroit didn't win. Week after week as Pittsburgh experienced success, McHugh's old team dealt with failure. He looked on with mixed emotions. He had friends on the team. He liked the coaches.
Then again, this was a franchise that dumped him. He experienced schadenfreude.
"Oh, yeah," he smiled. "You're sitting there in warm-ups and you look at the scoreboard and see Detroit's losing. Part of me smiled. I wouldn't personally want those guys to do [badly], but the organization [is different].
"It's a little I told-you-so deal. It's a little satisfaction."
It's a little bit of redemption, a little bit of success in the face of distress; a little bit about remembering that what appears to be the worst thing can turn out to be the best.
"A door closed," McHugh said, "and a world opened."