Life without football? At one time, Andre Wadsworth was okay with that, he really was. The proof is contained in a letter he wrote as a 12th-grade student in advanced-placement English, 15 years ago.
The assignment was to write about future goals, and Wadsworth filled five pages, describing how he wanted to earn a college degree in finance and open his own business. He barely mentioned football, except to note he was only days away from the final game of his senior season - his last hurrah.
"This is the last time I ever suit up for sports," he wrote.
Turns out that Wadsworth was just getting started. He went to Florida State as a walk-on, developed into an all-America defensive end and became the third overall pick by the Cardinals in the 1998 draft. Somewhere between walking on and walking away - actually, he limped away because of ravaged knees - football became more than a 12th-grade crush.
Football became a soul mate, but it left him after only three NFL seasons. Now he wants it back before it's too late. Wadsworth is 32, with knees that belong in the Smithsonian, but he's attempting what could be an unprecedented comeback.
After six seasons away from the game, Wadsworth is a walk-on again, trying to make the Jets' roster as a minimum-salaried free agent. He signed a non-guaranteed contract last month that would pay him $1.2 million for two years. The once-feared pass rusher has a chance to re-write the ending to his career, a rare opportunity in the cut-throat business of the NFL. If he makes the team, his story would be worthy of the big screen. That he made it this far, after all the tears and setbacks, is something special.
"It's a miracle," Wadsworth said the other day. "This, to me, is a miracle."
That may not be too much of an overstatement, considering his medical history. By the time he submitted his retirement papers in 2001, Wadsworth had undergone four knee operations, he confirmed. That included a complicated microfracture surgical procedure on his right knee, the third surgery on that knee. He cried that day, when the doctor advised him to quit football and get on with his life.
"I'll never forget that moment," Wadsworth said. "It hurt a lot."
He declined to discuss his post-2001 medical dossier, but, according to a person with knowledge of the situation, Wadsworth has undergone surgery "several" times since leaving the Cards. Unbeknownst to many, he tore both Achilles' tendons years ago in the early stages of his attempted comeback.
It would've been easy to surrender and retire to his comfortable life in Arizona - he has a wife, two kids and a growing business portfolio that includes five car dealerships in Florida. But Wadsworth refused to quit. He didn't want to live with the torment of "What if?"
"For Andre, it's not about money," Roosevelt Barnes, Wadsworth's longtime agent, said by phone. "It's about peace of mind."
Some might think he's nuts, risking permanent damage to chase a young man's dream, but there's something you must know about Wadsworth: His competitiveness, which carried him from a 6-2, 217-pound kid with no scholarship offers to a 6-4, 275-pound stud who was hailed as the next Bruce Smith, didn't die in that operating room six years ago. Risk, be damned.
"I don't live my life based on fear and speculation," said Wadsworth, a spiritual man who prayed for guidance during the darkest days of his rehab. "You pursue and go after the dreams you want. Whatever happens, happens. We made a good decision and I think I'll be okay."
In 1998, Wadsworth was considered the complete package - smart, hard-working and ultra-talented. He was drafted after Peyton Manning (Colts) and Ryan Leaf (Chargers) and received a $10.5 million signing bonus, which he invested wisely. The Cards were so happy to pick him that the general manager, Bob Ferguson, actually cried at the news conference.
After a solid rookie year, Wadsworth's downfall began the following training camp, when he woke up one morning and noticed his right knee was "swollen beyond belief." It shocked him. The previous day, he was an absolute monster on the practice field, knocking two offensive linemen out cold. The damage to his knee was so extensive that, late in the season, it locked up while he was chasing Bills quarterback Doug Flutie.
Hello, operating room.
"It's a shame because Andre never really got a chance to play," former Cards coach Dave McGinnis said in a phone interview. "Some people say he was one of the biggest busts. No he wasn't. Any team would've drafted Andre Wadsworth. He was a hell of a player."
Asked if he considers himself "unlucky," Wadsworth delivered an animated rebuttal, insisting he has enjoyed a charmed life, injuries and all.
"‘Unlucky' isn't even on the radar," said Wadsworth, whose "first" career consisted of only 36 games and eight sacks.
Now he will try to make history. The longest layoff in recent history, according to the NFL Network, belongs to former Seahawks running back Bobby Joe Edmonds, who returned with the Bucs in 1995 after missing five years with a leg injury. Wadsworth is a longshot - he still must pass the team physical at the start of training camp in July - but he's no stranger to the underdog role.
Jets GM Mike Tannenbaum acknowledged "the odds are pretty high" that Wadsworth will make the team, but he added, "He was a walk-on at Florida State and became the third pick. That says something about him. His work ethic and love for the game are two things you can't deny."
Wadsworth longs for the first day of training camp, when he can put on the pads again, smell the grass and rush the passer. The first player he hits, he told his agent, is going to feel the fury of seven years of pent-up frustration.
If he can't make it back, at least he will have closure. A life without football isn't as painful as a life of wondering what might have been.