Underdogs you can pull for in training camp
By Jeff Reynolds-PFW
July 17, 2003
National media will flock to NFL training camps next week, cameras and microphones affixed on the megastars of the league.
In Macomb, Ill., all eyes focus on QB Kurt Warner. He’s coming back from an injury-laden season and aiming to find the MVP form he had in 2000 and ’01. Chiefs fans will flood River Falls, Wis., positioning for a good glance at the hip of RB Priest Holmes. In DePere, Wis., Packers fans clamor for what may be a final glance at QB Brett Favre, who is considering making the 2003 season his NFL swan song.
Those are the names you know. The ones you’ll remember. But on each of the NFL’s 32 bloated rosters hides a story or two you haven’t heard before. The long shot with little chance of sticking or the veteran clawing to make it back. No doubt, the underdog has a place in football. Here are a few, know them or not, you may find yourself cheering for this summer.
Mike Echols, Titans
Echols has a chance to be the team's nickel cornerback with Donald Mitchell (Cowboys) opting for greener free-agent pastures. A second-year player from Wisconsin, Echols is diabetic; he also had a titanium rod permanently inserted into his left leg to correct a stress fracture that he suffered before the Titans drafted him in the fourth round of the 2002 draft. Prior to minicamp, nearing as close to 100 percent as he'll ever get, Echols went down with pneumonia. He has ability, but his health may force the Titans to question how heavily they can rely on him. That may have something to do with why GM Floyd Reese used the team's top draft pick on CB Andre Woolfolk.
If Echols doesn't suffice, you should pull for seventh-round pick Todd Williams. An offensive guard from Florida State, Williams had a troubled childhood and spent time in juvenile detention before getting his footing on the straight and narrow. All he did at FSU was earn All-Conference notice and graduate with multiple degrees.
Aaron Gibson, Bears
“Gibby” has had a career of ups and downs — both emotional and physical. A monster of a man (6-6, 410 pounds at the end of ’02 season), Gibson was a first-round pick, No. 27 overall, of the Lions in 1999. Injuries and weight fluctuations limited his effectiveness and ability to play in space. Gibson was cut by the Lions midway through the 2001 season and, after a short stay in Dallas, signed with the Bears. In the offseason, Gibson has been more dedicated than ever before and is, according to a team source, “in playing shape again.” While Gibson has started a mere 15 games in four NFL seasons, he’s dropped a significant amount of weight and believes he can contribute on the field with the Bears in 2003. He is only 26 years old and has a chance to turn it around. Also keep an eye on younger brother Adam, who at age 13 is a 6-3, 312-pound lineman at Decatur Central High School in Indianapolis.
Bryan Gilmore, Cardinals
The most humble of NFL players, Gilmore came to the NFL as “just a guy” from Midwestern State in Texas. His 4.36 speed was enough to get him a few looks, and he spent 2000 and most of ’01 on Arizona’s practice squad, adding a trip to NFL Europe in 2000. He made the team last season and then-WR coach, now-offensive coordinator Jerry Sullivan — one of Gilmore’s biggest fans — turned to him when David Boston was sidelined with a knee injury. When Gilmore was finally able to get playing time in a big-game situation, at San Francisco in Week Eight after the Cardinals’ 4-2 start, he broke his ankle.
Nothing new to Gilmore, he simply went back to perseverance mode. Gilmore rid the cast prior to minicamp and has his speed and quickness back. Now, Sullivan and the Cardinals are considering making him a starter at receiver. As if you needed more reason to cheer for him, Gilmore is “everything you want your son to be,” a team source said, a humble, religious family man who has never been in trouble.
Eric Hicks, Chiefs
If you plan to visit the University of Wisconsin-River Falls, give a word of encouragement to DE Eric Hicks. Hicks made the club as an undrafted free agent in 1998. He knows a thing or two about being an underdog. He started in ’99, while daughter Shayla was undergoing multiple heart surgeries. Shayla inspired her dad to a 14 ½-sack season in 2000; she’s expected to live without further heart complications.
Justin Kurpeikis, Steelers
The third-year pro might be the hardest worker on the team, but he can calculate his career totals with his fingers. A prep star in Pittsburgh, Kurpeikis was converted to linebacker after playing defensive end at Penn State. He’s listed behind Pro Bowl ROLB Joey Porter going into training camp — not exactly prime territory for a guy looking to get on the field. But Kurpeikis will make his mark on special teams and continue to be one of the Steelers’ best public-relations weapons for his work in the community.
Sean Morey, Eagles
Morey is a 5-11, 194-pound Ivy League graduate who has had a tough go of it in the NFL. He was an ultraproductive receiver at Brown but doesn’t have a catch or rush in the NFL. He played two games as a rookie with the Patriots in 1999, did not play in 2000, and then played in more playoff games (three) with the Eagles in ’01 than he has career regular-season contests. Morey, again out of football in ’02, returned and tied for the NFLEL lead with seven TD catches this spring. He has an outside chance of sticking with the Eagles as a fifth receiver and special-teams player.
Ian Smart, Jets
Diminutive doesn’t begin to describe No. 45 in the hunter green. Smart, undrafted out of Division II C.W. Post, enters his rookie season with a chance to earn a leading role on a contending team. To do so, Smart must impress special-teams coach Mike Westhoff as he did in minicamp and show that he has what it takes to replace RS Chad Morton, who was fourth in the NFL with an average kickoff return of 26 yards and totaled 1,509 kick-return yards and two touchdowns. Smart is quick, smooth and can make tacklers miss in the open field. At 5-7, he’ll be hard to find behind the Jets’ wedge blockers but will become a fan favorite if he makes the club.
Luke Staley, Lions
The odds seem to be stacked against Staley, who has endured 13 operations from the waist down to continue a career in football. The Lions drafted him in the seventh round in 2002 after Staley led the nation in yards per carry and touchdowns at Brigham Young but ended the season hurt. Then, Staley tore ligaments in a right knee that had been reconstructed less than a year earlier in training camp and missed all of last season. Another injury could force Staley to retire at 22. He’s a gifted player who could help the Lions — if he isn’t snakebitten.
Aaron Stecker, Buccaneers
Since enrolling at Wisconsin one year ahead of Ron Dayne, coaches have longed to replace Stecker. He was cut by the Bears in training camp in August 1999 because he was plagued by hamstring injuries. The Buccaneers picked him up, sent him to NFLEL in 2000, and Stecker was named the league MVP with the Scottish Claymores. Having paid his dues in Tampa Bay as a return man and kick-coverage guy, Stecker received more carries with Jon Gruden at the helm. With the uncertainty surrounding the Bucs’ RB picture, Stecker, who has added muscle and worked with a speed coach in the offseason, is a dark horse worth watching in August.
Hollis Thomas, Eagles
The wide-bodied defensive tackle helped the Eagles scratch their way out of the basement and reach respectability just in time for him to be plagued by injuries. A fractured foot that has required two surgeries has kept Thomas from playing in two NFC title games. The initial injury befell Thomas during player introductions on the day the Eagles clinched the NFC East in 2001. He reinjured the same foot in training camp and missed all of last season.