Late-season greeting for Seattle's Sean McGrath
It was Dec. 17, the day after the Seahawks routed the Bills 50-17. There were two games left in the regular season and the postseason was on the horizon, but Sean McGrath, a tight end on Seattle's practice squad, had already begun thinking about next year.
The undrafted rookie out of Henderson State had been on and off Seattle's practice squad since August, getting released and picked up, depending on what look the team needed on a given week. By late December he had made it almost two months straight on the practice squad and started looking ahead to a potentially larger role in 2013-14.
"You're wrapping up toward the end of the season," McGrath said. "You start to think about next year, what's my plan gonna be?"
Then it happened.
McGrath got a message from Ed Dodds, a scout and regional coordinator for the Seahawks, telling him the team planned to call him up to the 53-man roster. That Tuesday, after fellow tight end Evan Moore was released, McGrath got the nod.
"Oh my gosh, I was ecstatic," McGrath said. "It just so happened that my parents were coming out for that weekend for the first time, and they had already planned the trip and everything, so it just worked out perfectly."
Pat and Nita McGrath, who were flying in from Chicago to spend the holidays with their son, would get an early Christmas present. They got to be there for McGrath's first NFL game, a nationally televised Sunday night contest against the 49ers.
When McGrath ran out of the tunnel onto CenturyLink Field that night, it was a dream a long time coming for all three of them. Of course, for a while they all thought he might be wearing a different uniform.
"The whole time I was praying and putting it out into the universe to get my opportunity somewhere. I knew that’s all I needed. I just kept my head down and kept grinding."-Sean McGrath
"We did an exercise starting in third grade," McGrath explained. "And then we answered the same questions in fourth grade. The first time I said I wanted to be an artist when I grew up and the second time I said I wanted to play for the Bears."
A native of Mundelein, Ill., McGrath continued to dream of playing for the Monsters of the Midway. After graduating from Carmel Catholic High School, the 6-foot-5, 247-pound tight end and long-snapper headed about four hours south to continue his football career at Eastern Illinois University.
After two seasons as an EIU Panther, McGrath was dismissed for a violation of team rules. He'd always known it wouldn't be easy to get where he wanted to go, so a little detour wasn't going to break him. He got some help finding his next step from his assistant coach at EIU, Jeff Hoover, who would die in a car accident just a few months later.
"I was fortunate," McGrath said of getting a second chance. "The late Jeff Hoover hooked me up with Coach [Scott] Maxfield down at Henderson State U, and bada-bing, bada-boom, I'm in the Bible Belt. Arkadelphia, Arkansas."
Sounds made up, but it's a real place. There were, of course, a few growing pains for McGrath, who adjusted to the South while sitting out the 2009 season.
"It's a different place," he said. "When I first got down there I didn't know what a dry county was. Needless to say we had to get that changed. Political process went into effect and, you know. Let's just say it was wet when we left."
By 2010 the students of Henderson State were getting their buzz on and McGrath was back on track, catching 55 passes for 565 yards and four touchdowns. He was injured for much of his senior year and went undrafted, but he refused to give up on his dream to go pro.
"From a young age they're always telling you that the odds are stacked against you," he said. "Every Pop Warner football player aspires to be in the NFL and it's just something I never lost sight of. I was never afraid to dare to dream, just stuck with it."
After college, he played in a couple of all-star games and impressed with his speed and athleticism at a few pro days. That April he got the chance to work out for his beloved Bears and did a private workout for the Packers.
"The whole time I was praying and putting it out into the universe to get my opportunity somewhere," McGrath said. "I knew that's all I needed. I just kept my head down and kept grinding."
The Bears passed on the hometown kid, but the Seahawks were willing to give him a shot.
"I wanted to go somewhere where you know that they want you," he said. "You're not just another body, a space-filler. I go a lot off my gut and how I feel about certain situations. A lot of the vibes I was catching [in Seattle], they were all good. I felt like they were doing something special here."
He didn't make the 53-man roster after training camp, but he found a home on the practice squad -- for two days. Then he was re-signed five days later, then cut again two and a half weeks later. Each time the team would release him, they'd tell him to stick around, he'd be re-signed in a few days.
Those days off were tough for McGrath, who got antsy sitting around waiting. But the success of other practice-squad players gave him something to hold on to.
"First guy who gets called up off the practice squad, Jermaine Kearse. As soon as he gets pulled up we're like 'Man, this is real! They're really doing it,'" McGrath said. "Then another guy gets pulled up. All these guys get pulled up and it just gives a light at the end of the tunnel."
McGrath had to wait a while, but he finally got to that light.
After nearly four months on the practice squad, he made the jump to the big leagues just in time. With two regular-season games under his belt, he helped his Seahawks beat the Redskins in the opening round of the playoffs on Jan. 6. In fact, the rookie got his first postseason win 252 regular-season games ahead of fellow tight end Tony Gonzalez, who got his first a week later when his Falcons beat the Seahawks.
Right now, McGrath can't share much else with Gonzalez, but he's just getting started. That light only gets brighter.