Life After "Hard Knocks": When the Cameras Went Dark

Date: August 12, 2017

By: James Justice (@JamesJusticeIII)

Every year around this end-of-summer period, NFL teams begin to report to training camp. It is during this time where HBO films and airs its widely acclaimed reality series "Hard Knocks", which takes a look both inside the walls of a certain NFL teams' facility, but also inside the lives of the 90 players who are all vying for a spot on the final 53 man roster.

I look forward to the series every year because of its impeccable journalism and storytelling, coupled with the entertainment value that exists when you shine light on the wide cast of characters that make up an NFL organization.

It's also refreshingly relatable to me, and probably many others, who at least once in their life experienced a summer training camp leading into a fall sport. It was freshman year of high school where I took part in football specifically and felt the type of camaraderie that only exists inside a football locker room. It was that summer that I endured double sessions every week day, mixed in with the occasional film session which took place in the claustrophobic, worn-down attic of James Caldwell High School's humbling fieldhouse. For those four weeks there was no job or schoolwork to worry about. I felt like a professional athlete, performing a game on the field every day.

For the 90 players in training camp, they're living that reality. Out on the football field, sending their endorphins to outer space, playing a game that most people had to put down for less enjoyable pursuits in high school or college. Watching Hard Knocks I see the extension of my high school training camp, but with obviously more talented guys whose supreme athletic abilities allowed them to go further down the road than almost all who put pads on in the first place.

And what makes the show so compelling is not those who have established themselves as stars on the NFL level, but those who are being humbled and facing that difficult question every athlete eventually encounters: am I good enough? These are players that almost no NFL fan would ever hear of without Hard Knocks; the player who is using the five weeks of training camp, if he gets the full five weeks, as an audition to continue the dreaming of playing.

Every year Hard Knocks introduces fans to a select group of those players, many of whom do not make the final 53 man roster. Most are promptly signed off the waiver wire or picked up by the practice squad, with the occasional feel-good ending with someone earning a spot. At this point Hard Knocks ends, but of course, the story for these players does not. And so, as the world is beginning to learn the stories of players in this year's Tampa Bay Buccaneers camp which will be aired over the next five weeks, here is a look at what has transpired with those players who were under the microscope with the Los Angeles Rams since the HBO cameras went dark.

Eric Kush, the lovable offensive lineman with endless tank tops and moxie was one of the toughest cuts which the L.A. Rams had to make last training camp. Many, including myself, were stunned to see the lineman be on the outside looking in as Kush didn't seem to be in a position of roster uncertainty until it was hinted at in the final preseason game.

Kush was promptly signed by the Chicago Bears after being cut and appeared in eight games, even starting four games. Few players cut at the end of training camp can turn around and make as big an impact on another team, but Kush showed why he had become so endeared to those watching Hard Knocks last year. His efforts earned him a two year contract extension in February.

The story for Kush turned sour however just a week ago, when Kush aggravated a hamstring injury to the point of no return for 2017. Kush was placed on injured reserve, but despite this will remain a part of the Bears' plans moving forward, according to head coach John Fox, per the Chicago Tribune.

Ian Seau, the nephew of Hall of Famer Junior Seau, showed flashes of his uncle's brilliance during his time in Los Angeles last training camp. The issue with Ian, size. Seau was undersized and outmuscled often, and told that by then Rams defensive line coach Mike Waufle when Seau was released in the final round of cuts.

After being released Seau did not see action with any team in 2016. His career seemed dead in the tracks, although opportunity arose with a change of scenery by Mike Waufle. Waufle, who was the Giants defensive line coach during Super Bowl XLII, became the Bills defensive line coach in January. Three months later, Seau got a call from Buffalo, and is now part of training camp with the Bills.

Rock Gullickson, the strength and conditioning coach who laughs at Father Time while deadlifting hundreds of pounds, was a key figure in the final episode of Hard Knocks last year. It was in that season finale where Gullickson had the unenviable task of wandering the weight room on the final day of cuts, pulling aside players to deliver the five words no player wanted to hear: "You gotta go see coach."

Gullickson's eight year run as strength and conditioning coach with the Rams ended in January when he was hired by Tennessee, and not the Titans of the AFC South, but the Volunteers of the SEC East. Gullickson returns to the college ranks for the first time since he left Louisville in 1999. The move to Tennessee could be mainly attributed to his relationship with head coach Butch Jones, whom he worked with in his first college stint at Rutgers from 1990 to 1992, when Jones was just a graduate assistant. Gullickson will serve primarily as the strength and conditioning coach for the football program, but will also oversee all 20 Tennessee athletic programs.

Ethan Westbrooks was and is easily identified by the tattoo under his right eye. The tattoo which reads in small letters "Laugh now, cry later" was revealed as motivation for him to make it in the NFL so he never has to look for another job facing the hurdle of a tattoo on his face. Boldly, he's put all his chips in on making it in the NFL, and his career so far for an undrafted free agent in 2014 has been quite the feel-good story.

During the 2016 regular season Westbrooks had his best season, appearing in all 16 games, totaling 24 tackles, 18 of which were solo tackles, and adding two sacks. He is the first of the now three players and five people overall in this article so far to still be in the Rams organization, although his last twelve months have not been without controversy.

Westbrooks was arrested in March for domestic violence, an issue which has plagued the NFL as much as any, with police finding the mother of one of Westbrook's children to have suffered injuries that were categorized as non-life threatening. Westbrooks status on the Rams roster remains unchanged despite the crime, although the same cannot be said for his public persona.

Paul McRoberts and Austin Hill were two wide receivers linked together in the final two episodes of last year's Hard Knocks. Even on a team deprived of accomplished wide receiver options, McRoberts and Hill were long shots to make it on the Rams final roster. The two had their ups and downs in practice, but rarely had their moment in preseason games where the trajectory-changing action for a career can take place.

In the final preseason game however, McRoberts got two moments, failing miserably by fumbling a punt return but making up to a degree by catching a late touchdown pass in the corner of the end zone. Hill, on the other hand, would never be given the big moment in-game.

When the final day of cuts came, and Gullickson was wandering the weight room like a shark, he pulled aside both McRoberts and Hill, although their calls to Jeff Fisher's office would bring about different outcomes. For McRoberts, it would bring a spot on the practice squad, but for Hill, it would be a thank you and farewell.

McRoberts time on the practice fields paid off down the road when he would be called up to feature and play in the two final regular season games. McRoberts would even put his name on an NFL stat sheet with 1 reception for 6 yards in week 17. The outcome may seem small relative to the types of numbers fans see put up by those players featured every Sunday, but few can say they have their name penciled into an NFL stat sheet.

Hill is one of those players who cannot, and as of today does not appear to be in any NFL training camp. Hill, who went undrafted out of Arizona in 2015 has spent time training with several NFL teams, but may be coming to grips with the harsh reality that working in the NFL is a profession that few are at the level required to carry it out.

As Hard Knocks premiered this week with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, fans were introduced to names and faces familiar to all like Jameis Winston, Mike Evans, DeSean Jackson, Gerald McCoy, and the like. These next four weeks however will get deeper into those characters which define the show; the characters which make up most of the untold struggle to live out the status of being an NFL player.

 

James Justice can be found on Twitter @JamesJusticeIII.

Posted in: Sports

 

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