Journeymen, misfits try to find their way in UFL

Jason Cole

ORLANDO, Fla. – Koren Robinson(notes) is defiant, Odell Thurman(notes) is desperate, Chas Gessner(notes) is daring and Zach Piller(notes) is dedicated.

The 4-D Club defines the essence of the United Football League, a consortium of four teams filled with former fringe NFL players or guys who didn't have the life skills to handle the big time. The league began practices last week for its six-game season, which opens with Las Vegas hosting San Francisco on Oct. 8 and will culminate with a title game on Nov. 27.


Thurman, left, had a team-high 106 tackles for the Bengals in '05.

(Brian Tietz/US Presswire)

Two of those teams, the Florida Tuskers – squad for the aforementioned four players – and the New York Sentinels, have gathered here in the shadow of the Citrus Bowl, practicing on fields that feature port-a-potties for facilities. The cold tubs are in the parking lot, little more than keg tubs filled with ice.

Welcome to the Ellis Island of football.

In all, there are 248 players currently competing for jobs that will pay between $25,000 for specialists to $35,000 for regulars – for the whole season. Just a tad of a salary cut for guys who in some instances once commanded million-dollar contracts. The good news is that quarterbacks get paid a little more and there's a bonus pool at the end of the year for play time and performance.

Still, by NFL standards, that's tip money and this is not the goal. Practice squad players in the NFL make more than twice as much. But for as bleak as it may sound, UFL personnel man Rick Mueller puts it in perspective.

"I told the guys, 'There are 248 of you in this league right now and there are another 248 guys who just got cut by NFL teams that wish they had your spot,' " Mueller said between beeps on his BlackBerry, where he handles more than 50 emails a day from agents looking to get jobs for their players.

For Robinson and Thurman, there is hope. The pair defines the list of recognizable players from the league. Robinson, a first-round pick of the Seattle Seahawks in the 2001 NFL draft, let alcohol derail his career. For Thurman, a former second-round pick who was a standout rookie in 2005 with the Cincinnati Bengals, it was alcohol, drugs and fighting. Others like A.J. Nicholson(notes), Tatum Bell(notes), Todd Sauerbrun(notes) and Claude Wroten(notes) have some bruises on their résumé as well.

Even the coaches are guys looking for a way back to the NFL. Florida is being coached by former New Orleans Saints head coach Jim Haslett, who was the interim coach in St. Louis last year. The other coaches are former NFL head coaches Jim Fassel and Dennis Green, and longtime assistant Ted Cottrell.

It was only last January when Haslett was at the Senior Bowl, scouring the NFL for a job as an assistant. Now, he fashions himself as a real-life genie.

"Whatever their dreams are, I'm here to help them with that," Haslett said.

Still, as one agent put it, the UFL is collection of intriguing misfits.

"It's the who's who of who's not," the agent said.

Playing with the Sentinels is defensive end Simeon Rice(notes), a guy who basically talked his way out of Tampa Bay. In Las Vegas, there's cocksure quarterback J.P. Losman(notes).

Or as Piller put it: "In this league, everybody has a story. Not an excuse, but definitely a story."

Wanting another taste

Robinson has been to the top of the football world on a number of occasions. He was the No. 9 overall pick in '01. He was the No. 1 receiver for Seattle for two years, topping the 1,200-yard mark in only his second season. Even after his first run of problems with the NFL's substance-abuse policy, he was a Pro Bowl kickoff returner following the '05 season.

Robinson can also be friendly and engaging. He was so deeply liked by Mike Holmgren that the then-Seattle coach cried when the Seahawks finally had to cut Robinson after the 2004 season. Holmgren had prayed for Robinson at one point, hoping something would turn him around. Even after his ups and downs, Robinson rejoined Seattle last year – Holmgren's last season with the 'Hawks – for 12 games.


Robinson during his 90-yard score against the Eagles last year.

(Otto Greule Jr./Getty)

These days, Robinson says he's in a good place when he comes to his battle with alcohol and other substances. But he's clearly an example of someone who has had to go to the extreme to get the message.

"Some people can get slapped in the hand just once and they don't do whatever their issue is again," said Robinson, who is now 29. "Some people gotta keep getting smacked in the hand repeatedly and some people get what they cherish taken away from them. It has to be something tragic in order for that light to come on. That's how we are as people."

Now, Robinson is trying the UFL, hoping for another shot.

"Once you get a taste of it, how great it can be, you want to do anything you can to get it again," Robinson said, referring to the NFL. "This is another means of getting back to that level. This is taking that first step in that process."

During Robinson's stint with the Seahawks last year, he caught a franchise-record 90-yard touchdown pass from backup quarterback Seneca Wallace(notes) during a loss to the Eagles in Week 9. However, he wasn't brought back because of a chronic knee injury.

As for his troubles, Robinson tries to deflect it as much as possible.

"I don't really want to talk about that," he said. "I'm a couple of years removed from that, so every time I do an interview I don't want that to come back up. I still have my issues, I'm still fighting it or whatever. I've been fighting for a couple of years and I'm good. My journey has been successful and I'm still successful to this day. But that's not what this is about."

Palpable fear

For a stretch of three years, Thurman was a dominating linebacker. For two years at Georgia, he was truly special, a semi-finalist for the Butkus Award and a guy capable of game-changing plays. He holds the record for the longest interception return in Georgia history (99 yards vs. Auburn and quarterback Jason Campbell(notes)).

As a rookie for Cincinnati, Thurman made people understand why he had the talent to be a first-round pick. He helped the Bengals reach the playoffs that season for the first time since 1990. He was considered a candidate for NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year, which was ultimately won by Shawne Merriman(notes).

After that, however, he showed why he fell to the second round. Between bans from the league for substance abuse to twice being investigated for assault (charges were dropped both times), Thurman's life has been a train wreck. Much of the reason, according to former coaches and associates, is that when Thurman's grandmother died in 2006, he went into a tailspin of drinking and anger.

Even now, Thurman looks like he has trouble with the memory of his lost grandmother. His face reveals a combination of fear and confusion when asked what happened.

"It's one of the worst times I had to deal with, but it's in the past," said Thurman, who described her as the "backbone" of the family, the person who held everything together. "I still think about my grandmother. … You learn from your mistakes. At the time when she did pass, I handled it wrong. I made mistakes, so this time around … like I said, you learn from it."

Thurman hasn't played a down of organized football in four years and he looks a little round on the edges. That said, football conditioning is not his problem.

"Really, this is a one-shot and you're out deal," said Mueller, who said the league currently has no interest in former NFL cornerback Pacman Jones. "Odell has been great so far. He's day-to-day and he's trying to prove himself everyday. We have a couple of guys with that kind of situation and they understand."

Sadly, some of them have no choice. Asked what he has been doing to support himself for the past few years, Thurman says only that, "I got a lot of family that helps me out."

"I've never stopped working. I never gave up. Even if this [doesn't] work, I'm not giving up on playing football," Thurman said.

The vagabond

Wide receiver Gessner, 28, is the definition of a player on the fringe. This marks his seventh year of professional football and he even has a Super Bowl ring from his one season (2003) with New England. The Tuskers are his seventh professional team and he has lived in seven cities, including Berlin.


Gessner during an earlier workout in Orlando.

(Scott A. Miller/US Presswire)

But when it comes to some NFL stats, Gessner has one more ring than he has catches or even games played. Seven years in and he has yet to appear in an NFL game.

Even as his Ivy League classmates from Brown University climb the corporate ladder in places like Wall Street, Gessner is content to wear his hair long and dress in shorts and a T-shirt to go to work. When asked about his vagabond life, he doesn't wince at the "V" word.

"It's a choice that I made a long time ago and there are times I get fed up with it all and I want to put down roots somewhere," said Gessner, who calls "home base" Tampa because his stuff is there at a friend's house. "Then there's other days where I have seen people who have done that and it seems kind of boring.

"I'd like to have something stable, but not at the expense of this. This is too big a dream. I have put too much into it to sacrifice it. First of all, I'm stubborn. I set a goal for myself, I set the bar real high and I don't want to sell myself short. I never want to be able to say, 'What if?' I don't want to be sitting on a couch being angry watching a football game."

To Gessner, who majored in history and minored in business, all the trappings of a traditional life can wait. He'll get an MBA someday and then go into business full-throttle at the proper time. When he gets there, he'll have plenty of unique experiences. Like standing on the sideline at the Super Bowl between New England and Carolina as a member of the Patriots practice squad.

"That was incredible, just to be on the field for that game," he said. "Just being around that team, to see what it's like to make that journey. I've kept up with a lot of those guys and gotten a chance to experience things I never would have seen if I had just gone to work. … This is something that none of my peers [from college] can say they did."

Pressure's off

Piller spent eight years with Tennessee as a guard. If the NFL called again (it has been two years since he played), he'd answer.

But he's not waiting by the phone.

"I'm certainly not desperate to get back in the NFL," said Piller, who says he has enough money in the bank. His only goal is to have his 6-year-old daughter Zoe see him play.

"My daughter doesn't remember me playing. I'd like her to come out here and see me, maybe run around on the field. … I've had a life the last couple of years and I'm happy with my life," Piller said. "But something is drawing me out here. I appreciate the competition."

But not necessarily the pressure that came with being an NFL player.

"I haven't played in a game here yet, but I haven't had pressure like I had in the NFL the last two years since I've been out," Piller said. "Sure, there's pressure in the real world, figuring out bills and doing this and that, but it's a different pressure. The NFL is the highest level of pressure I've had in my life.

"It's just everything. Me and [former Tennessee tight end] Frank Wycheck used to say that when you made a good play you were just relieved that you didn't make a bad one. Every Monday, if you lost, it was the end of the world. … The NFL is great, but it's a grind and, mentally, it's really tough."

Even now, Piller wants no part of some of the more intense parts of line play. When asked if he might play left tackle, given that he's one of the more experienced offensive linemen, Piller doesn't anticipate offering his services.

"I hope not," Piller said, his eyes widening. "I'm a left guard."

This may only be the UFL, but there's no need to add any pressure.

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