By Bruce W. Biesenthal
Dozens of NFL players are sent packing every year, many of whom are holding contracts – contracts for millions of dollars to be paid out over several years – contracts which NFL teams do not have to honor.
Unlike contracts in other sports, most notably Major League Baseball, where teams sometimes find themselves still paying the contracts of players who are no longer even on the team, the salary cap of the NFL is structured in such a way that only the signing bonus of a contract is guaranteed.
It has to do with the violence of the sport, and the relatively short service life of an NFL player. A player in the first year of a multi-year contract may blow out a knee. It happens frequently. The only way NFL teams can continue on a fiscally sound basis is to be freed from having to pay the remaining years on the contract.
So, that big contract for five years worth 12 million? It’s not. Depending on how it’s structured – if it’s loaded toward the end of the five years – it may be worth significantly less.
Scan the list of “Cap Casualties” on June 2nd of every year. It’s filled with veteran players, good players, star players, all of whom have years remaining on contracts that have a face value of millions of dollars.
And they’re out of work. And they have no income. And while most of them have been able to make and save enough money to last for a while, it’s still a difficult experience. It’s difficult from a financial standpoint, but more than that, it’s difficult in intangible ways as well.
The salary cap, with its casualties, is a very pointed reminder that the NFL is a business. And while players know the NFL is a business and most would say they are prepared for the eventualities that come with the fact they are a commodity, there is still something disconcerting about being on the receiving end of a business decision.
While those are not the words that are used, the effect is the same.
It happened this June to Scott Gragg, right tackle most recently with the San Francisco 49’ers.
A ten year veteran, five with the New York Giants and five with the 49’ers, Scott had a contract with three years remaining.
And he’s looking for a job.
“I don’t know how this is going to sound,” says Gragg, “But it doesn’t feel as strange after 10 years in the league as it did when I was released by the Giants five years into my career. I was entering the prime of my career. I was working hard. I felt so much disloyalty when I was released by the Giants.
“I didn’t recognize the different issues that go into the business of the NFL. Loyalty is not a big part of the business of the NFL.”
With 10 years under his belt, Gragg has a much better understanding of what the NFL is all about – not only on the field but off.
“I recognize what the 49’ers are trying to do. When Coach Nolan called me and talked to me I understood what they were trying to do before he could get the words out. They’ve invested in some young guys and they want to see how they can do.”
Gragg appreciates how the 49’ers handled his situation. “Coach Nolan didn’t have to call me and tell me what was going on. They could have made me come to the minicamps and then released me after June 1. Instead, they let me see what’s out there and not require me to come to the minicamps.
“When the call came I thanked Coach for being upfront.”
Not only does Gragg understand the reasons for his release, he finds himself in the position of hoping his former team does well.
“Coach Nolan is a man of great integrity, and he’s surrounding himself with other men of integrity, like Mike Singletary,” Gragg says. “I understand their motivation. I’m hopeful that those kind of men – men of integrity and men of faith – do well.
“It’s kind of strange. You’re rooting for those guys even though they’re firing you.”
So what happens to 315 pound linemen who have 10 years experience in the NFL and 142 starts under their belt?
They probably find work. NFL teams scour the list of cap casualties, hoping to find a good player at a bargain price.
Scott Gragg will probably be somewhere in the NFL this season. If not, that’s ok with him.
“I’m at peace with the whole thing,” he says. “I’m at peace with the uncertainty of where I’m going and when it will happen.
Part of the reason Gragg is at peace is he knows his value in the league. A big, strong, sturdy, experienced right tackle is a valuable asset to a team.
But the real reason Scott Gragg is at peace with being cut is he understands the place football has in his life.
“It’s about priorities. Football comes third or fourth.
“I’m a very competitive guy. I want to be successful and I want to be the best in my field. But football is not what’s most important in my life. It’s not what drives me.
“What drives me is finding my little place in the big picture about God and shining my little light in such a way that He receives the glory.
“Whether it’s football or coaching or teaching or politics or ministry – once I recognize it’s not about me, then I’m free to focus on doing what I do to glorify God, and that’s another form or worship.”
Actually, the most difficult part of being cut has not been the loss of income or any uncertainty about what lies ahead – it’s been moving from the San Francisco area. Scott and his wife Toni and family have picked up stakes and moved to Montana.
“We had such a neat church family,” Gragg states. “Lots of church friends we were close with and neighbors we were close with. Having our congregation pray for us as we left was difficult.
“But it’s kind of neat to know that whether we’re in South Bay or Tennessee or Montana, the Body of Christ is around us.”
So what’s on the horizon for Scott Gragg, former NFL player?
In all probability he’ll sign with another NFL team. But maybe not.
And either way is fine with Scott.
He’s doing what he’s called to do – whether that’s on a field or somewhere else – and that’s reflect the glory of God.
And that’s a calling from which you don’t get fired.