Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Uncertainty: Life On The Practice Squad
TAMPA - Most Bucs players decorate their lockers like a second room in their home. They hang pictures of family members or friends. Some have Bibles or other books. Others have iPods and speakers to blast their favorite tunes. A few have flat-screen TVs. Running back Michael Pittman even has disco lights in his locker. Not Bucs receiver Chad Lucas. "I got nothing. Too much uncertainty," Lucas said.As a practice squad player, there is a reason Lucas keeps only a couple of workout T-shirts, some practice jerseys and a few pairs of sneakers in his locker. Lucas, 26, never knows when his locker will have to be cleaned out. After entering the NFL as an undrafted free agent in 2004, Lucas has played in the Arena Football League, was on Green Bay's practice squad in 2005, played in NFL Europe last year, returned to Green Bay, only to be released and signed by Tampa Bay this year. Since then, Lucas has been moved on and off the roster repeatedly. "It's tough. It's my third year going through it. It's a little easier now," he said. "I didn't understand it at first when I got in the league, but it's tough mentally because you want to prepare like you're playing in a game. But at the same time, in the back of your mind, you know you're not playing, or you may not get a chance to play." Bucs rookie running back Kenneth Darby, 24, is learning the ropes of being a practice squad member. Darby, a former Alabama standout, was a seventh-round selection (246th overall). He rushed 15 times for 84 yards in Tampa Bay's first preseason game against New England, but finished with 135 yards and one touchdown on 33 attempts after four exhibition games. He was cut and immediately signed to the Bucs' practice squad. After being activated from the practice squad Oct. 3 to play against Indianapolis, Darby was cut from the team Oct. 14. He was re-signed three days later and remains on Tampa Bay's practice squad. "In a way, being on the practice squad is a good thing because you're sharpening your skills and helping your teammates to get better," Darby said. "But at the same time, it's a struggle because when Sunday comes around, you want to play and you can't do anything. You're just sitting at home watching it on TV. It's kind of hard, but it's a whole mind-set that you're telling yourself that you're going to get better as your teammates get better." What does not improve as the season goes along is the sense of isolation. Although practice squad players say their teammates never treat them differently, it is easy to be left out when others are talking about places they plan to visit on road trips. It's especially difficult considering practice players have been standout athletes since high school, but no longer have the spotlight. "It can make you feel kind of bad, but I try to be antisocial when the weekend comes around," Darby said. "I just want to do what I got to do and go home, because it has an effect on you. What you do is play football, and that is something I do well, and when the week goes by, I'm amped up and ready to play, but I know I'm not." The only way practice players can solidify a permanent roster spot is by doing one thing well - practice. Practice squad members are scout-teamers who give starters looks they should expect on game days. If players can find a way to excel throughout the week, like Bucs running back Earnest Graham did in 2003 and 2004, coaches are more likely to use them on weekends. "Their different roles are probably more in the pay scale than it is actual work," Bucs special teams coach Richard Bisaccia said. "They are all in the meetings just like the other players and expected to practice the same way. "A lot of times, when those guys give a look of the opposing team, there are a lot of things we also would do. A lot of times they are going to have to do the same thing to make the team. We grade every guy. Every play. We're putting them in positions that they could possibly come up and play for us and get in the game." As players practice hard throughout the week, they also learn the art of blocking out their uncertain future. Instead of taking setbacks personally, Bucs offensive tackle Dennis Roland, who spent a portion of last season on Dallas' practice squad before joining Tampa Bay's practice squad, views every transaction as a business decision. "Guys are coming and going every day. I just am lucky to play the thing I love to do. I thank God every day for that," said Roland, 24. "I guess you save the money you have so if you're not around one week, or for a while, you won't have a lot to worry about. "I try not to think about it. My wife and I don't think about it. I can't control that. All I can control is what I do on the field, and I'm just trying to improve." Lucas said he believes he is improving as a player, but he's prepared for his NFL dream to end at any time. He needs only three classes to get a marketing degree from Alabama State and will return to school this spring. Players are allowed to be on practice squads for only three years, so if Lucas does not make an NFL team next season, he likely will have to play in the Arena League, or give up his football aspirations. Lucas said he believes he eventually will become a standout NFL receiver. But until that time comes, his locker will remain pretty bare. "Every offseason, I work hard. During the season, I work hard. If it doesn't work out, I can say I put my best foot forward and I can be able to deal with that," Lucas said. "If I wasn't out here playing and giving it my best, I would be mad at myself. But since I've given my best, I can live with it."
Reporter Anwar S. Richardson can be reached at (813) 259-8425 or [email protected]