Each player's road to the NFL is unique, especially the ones who fight to land those last few roster spots. Every week this season, espnW will profile the players who just made the cut, but still have a chance to make an impact. Meet the 53rd Man.
FLORHAM PARK, N.J. -- On a recent Friday in September, Garrett McIntyre got word he would be starting. The Jets were tapping the linebacker because Bryan Thomas was not making the trip to Pittsburgh, giving his injured hamstring more time to heal. McIntyre was the next man up, and a long way from where he'd started."It was a lot of hard work, a lot of time, a lot of ups and downs," said McIntyre, who has the look and bearing of a Marine. "But for me, it's always been about trying to work hard and adjusting quickly to wherever you're at. Being a chameleon -- whether it was Arena [football] where I was playing a position I've never played, or Canada where there are three downs and I was a yard off the ball, rules you're not used to -- being able to adjust quickly is something I take pride in."
It was just two years ago that McIntyre was set to try out for the Jets. At age 26, he was probably 10 minutes away from being too old for a rookie spot. With NFL dreams in his back pocket, McIntyre had played two years for the San Jose Sabercats of the Arena Football League and another two for Canada's Hamilton Tiger-Cats.
After the 2010 CFL season, in which he recorded eight sacks and 32 tackles, he got his shot.
Well, two shots, actually, but the first nearly ruined the second. The day before his Jets tryout, he'd worked out for Miami, and his hamstrings were so sore he felt like they would snap. But last chances aren't cheap, so McIntyre went back to his hotel room and improvised an ice bath.
"I filled up pillowcases in the ice machine and poured them in the tub," he said.
It must have worked. The Jets signed him, and he played in 13 games for them last season, recording 18 tackles.
The odds of a college player making it to the NFL are long, and they get longer for those who don't get drafted. Like shadows on the sidewalk growing with the passage of each hour, years removed from the proven pathway of college to the NFL make it less likely the dream will be realized.
"The key for that is you have to keep playing," McIntyre said. "I tell people if it doesn't work out your first year, just stay in the game. Pretty much when you take a year off, you're done. You cannot have a year off in football."
The 6-foot-3, 255-pound linebacker doesn't necessarily feel comfortable with his spot. Even though he was named a starter for an injured player, McIntyre knows that doesn't spell security. Last year the Jets started Colin Baxter in place of injured center Nick Mangold -- and cut Baxter right after Mangold returned.
"You just have to come to work every week and understand that you can be on the chopping block at any time and you have to produce," McIntyre said. "For me I don't think it will ever change. I don't think I'll ever be one of those guys that they give a ton of money to. It's just going to be a grind for me pretty much until I'm done. But I've accepted that."
Thomas said McIntyre is a "hustle guy," and said that his backup had the best training camp in his position group.
"You have to learn quick [that] whatever goes on upstairs in their meetings you can't control at all," said defensive end Marcus Dixon, who was cut by the Jets the week before the season began and was later brought back. "It's definitely tough on guys who know they aren't guaranteed to be here. You can't let it bother you because it's what you signed up for. But it should bring the best out of you instead of bring you down."
So how do you come to be a 26-year-old rookie? On draft day during his senior year, McIntyre thought there was one path to the NFL. He knew he wasn't going to be selected early, but as a starter for Fresno State, he thought he would be in the mix.
"You hear that you're going to get drafted," McIntyre said. "You hear so many different things. I thought I was going to be maybe a late-round guy, and then the draft gets over and you don't hear your name and you wait for the free-agent call, and I think I stood there for 30 minutes with my agent and I didn't hear anything and then I really started to get worried."
McIntyre knows NFL players are good. That was reaffirmed during a brief stint as an undrafted free agent with the Seattle Seahawks -- before he injured his hamstring on the first day of minicamp. Once he got to his Arena team, he thought it would be easy.
"I kind of had that attitude that, 'Aw, this is Arena football, I'm going to come in and be the man.' And that was when I got another reality check," McIntyre said. "Outside the NFL, there's a lot of good football players who might not be in the NFL for whatever reason."
Once McIntyre got to the Jets, it wasn't about money and football glory, it was about figuring out how to legally run a modified wedge. Rookies, even old ones, have to play special teams if they are going to stay on an NFL roster. It's simply a numbers game. The more jobs you can do, the more valuable you are, and the guys who aren't starters have to do the grunt work.
"I knew if I was going to stick in this league and play in this league, I was going to have to play special teams -- especially your first year, probably for the rest of my career, I'm going to have to play special teams," McIntyre said. "Going into that last year, I knew how important they were for me to just be on this team. And then if you want to stay in this league and stick around, you better know how to play them and you better do it right."
It's a long way from pouring concrete with his dad during the summer to make ends meet. Now, McIntyre and his wife, August, have some measure of stability and McIntyre gets the satisfaction of attaining his NFL goal. Days working construction taught McIntyre the difference between labor and football, which it turns out is a labor of love.
The Jets may have lost to the Steelers, but McIntyre had five tackles and two sacks. Not bad for an old guy in his first career start.