The human body isn’t built to endure a full calendar year of professional football. Bones and ligaments can’t handle 10 to 12 months of bending and flexing, play after play, on the gridiron. But for nearly 40 players in NFL training camps, that year-round journey is the only way to live their big-league dreams this year.
USFL training camp began in March. Five months later, more than three dozen USFL alums are hoping to play through next February’s Super Bowl. If all goes well, a handful or more of those spring-league standouts will be on NFL rosters on Sept. 11 for Week 1 matchups. In order for that best-case scenario to be realized, those players will need to make the most of the preseason, which begins in earnest on Thursday.
From USFL to NFL: A spring-league success story
Following the quick dissolutions of the Alliance of American Football (AAF) and XFL 2.0 in recent years, the interest in spring ball and the advantages for its players seemed to fall by the wayside. But the reincarnation of the USFL decided to jump into the deep end this year anyway.
Despite the USFL garnering a relatively small television audience, the scouts in the NFL paid very close attention to what was happening in Birmingham, Alabama. Those eyes saw talent, and the scouts eventually pitched the standouts to their bosses in front offices, leading to contract offers and workout invitations.
“When I came into the building to sign my contract, they actually told me they paid close attention to the USFL,” said defensive back DeJuan Neal, who signed with the Washington Commanders in July after playing for the New Jersey Generals. “They sent a lot of scouts to come down and watch our games.”
Following a bevy of tryouts and visits, USFL alums started making daily news on the transaction wire. It all started with linebacker Christian Sam, who signed with the Dallas Cowboys on July 8. From there, the Commanders signed Neal and fellow defensive back Channing Stribling a few days later. And the ball has continued to roll ever since.
The USFL has touted those signings like a proud mother on social media. The constant posts are a keen example of the underlying success story that the USFL has become.
“We’ll take a look at good players from anywhere, right?” Philadelphia Eagles head coach Nick Sirianni said Sunday. “… I’m excited for the guys from the USFL that have landed on teams. That’s good for the NFL.”
A year-round audition
Rashard Davis stared up at the sky as a ball fluttered in the air at Legion Field in Birmingham. Standing at the 27-yard line in the third quarter of the Tampa Bay Bandits’ season finale, Davis only had about 16 minutes to leave a final impression and he delivered.
Davis fielded the punt, immediately dodged one defender, and then surged through a crease past two more Birmingham Stallions. With a seal block in front of him, Davis cut to his right behind the blocker and then zagged back to his left. There wasn’t a Stallion in sight, as Davis sprinted to the end zone for a touchdown.
Davis needed that moment. It was his gateway back into the NFL.
“I’m pretty sure that opened up a lot of eyes,” Davis told Pro Football Network.
Davis had been through the professional football wringer. After earning a Super Bowl ring as a rookie on the Philadelphia Eagles’ practice squad in 2017, Davis bounced around from Broad Street to Oakland to Kansas City to Tennessee. He was cut by the Titans after rookie minicamp last summer and later tried out for the Carolina Panthers but wasn’t signed.
Davis was out of football when the NFL made its big education push regarding the COVID-19 vaccination prior to last year’s training camp. So he was late to receive his first Pfizer shot, which meant that he couldn’t get his second shot until midway through training camp. That timeline ended up costing Davis an opportunity, according to the wide receiver.
“I had a few calls come in – maybe like six or seven teams wanted to bring me in – for workouts,” Davis said. “But I didn’t have my second COVID shot at the time. That kind of hindered them from bringing me in.”
With an NFL roadblock in front of him, Davis ended up in Canada, playing four games for the CFL’s Saskatchewan Roughriders. While Davis enjoyed being back on the field, playing north of the border was tough on his family, and he decided to head home as the USFL was starting up.
Davis caught 22 passes for 369 yards and two touchdowns for the Bandits, along with his punt return touchdown in the finale. That highlight play, along with his film at wideout, led to a workout with the New York Jets, who signed him just before the start of training camp.
“Since I’ve been here, like the returner coach has hinted at some of the things that I did out there,” Davis said. “It showed me they did pay attention, so I guess they watched some of the games, or some of the film from out there.”
Like Davis, Stribling had bounced around like a pinball during his pro football career. A standout at the University of Michigan, Stribling still went undrafted in 2017. He had stops with five NFL teams before trying his luck in the AAF, XFL 2.0, and CFL.
Naturally, the USFL was the next tour of duty for Stribling, who ended up leading the league with seven interceptions.
“I just love football, so any opportunity to get on the field is a plus for me,” said Stribling, who played for Philadelphia Stars. “It was just an opportunity to get more film, get in front of some scouts, and just play football again.”
Stribling and Davis have been under contract with three different teams in three different leagues over the past 12 months. That workload has been a blessing and a curse for both men, as they arrived in their respective camps in football shape but had little time to recover before competing for their dream jobs.
“It’s kind of a thin line – both ways – of doing too much and already being in shape,” Davis said. “As soon as I got back from the USFL, being optimistic about a camp invite or a workout, I kind of took the first two weeks off just to let my body recover and fully rest and try to rebuild.”
“It’s definitely helped me to play more free,” Stribling said. “I [didn’t] have to worry about it being my first real contact in a couple of months. I just came off a championship game, so the feeling of shoulder pads is always going to be on. It gives me a leg up to have that physicality.”
Diamonds in the rough
Bailey Gaither was just 24 when he decided to retire from professional football last summer.
After signing an undrafted free agent contract with the Green Bay Packers, Gaither spent three months trying to prove himself to head coach Matt LaFleur and GM Brian Gutekunst. But, according to Gaither, issues in his personal life forced him to step away from the game roughly a week into training camp.
After a few months, though, the itch to play football returned. By then, Gaither had missed his NFL opportunity, and he needed an outlet to showcase his talent. So, the former San Jose State playmaker decided to try the USFL.
“It was a decision that I had to make,” said Gaither, who played for the Pittsburgh Maulers. “I sat back and reflected about how much this game meant to me. I’ve always dreamt of playing at the highest level, so that was my avenue in that moment and time.”
While spring-league football has failed to draw an NFL audience due to its reputation as “B league” fodder, there were several players in the USFL with big-league talent, including Gaither, who signed with the Baltimore Ravens in July.
Gaither’s initial NFL setback was self-inflicted, while others were lost on practice squads or overlooked in the draft due to their small-school backgrounds.
“Honestly, I felt like there was a lot of great talent,” Davis said. “There were a lot of guys who had been in the NFL before and got knocked out for some reason. And then on the flip side, there were a lot of guys coming out of college who felt like they should have had NFL shots or NFL talent, but COVID or something like that hindered them from having their pro day and getting the opportunity they were looking for.”
Lance Lenoir, who signed with the Eagles in July, spent two seasons with the Dallas Cowboys to start his career. He played in eight games during his tenure, but eventually faced the chopping block and was forced to look for work elsewhere.
After failed stints in Seattle and Buffalo last year, Lenoir needed to put some live reps on film, and like so many others, looked at the USFL as his beacon for hope.
“It was great for me because I was playing ball – in my mind – all year-round,” Lenoir said. “Just being close to the game, being connected to the game in that situation helped me get this far.”
Lenoir, Gaither, Stribling, and Davis all agree that the USFL had several diamonds in the rough. For whatever reason, the USFL was able to filter out the standouts from the stand-ins.
“I just knew that I kind of had to do something to keep my name relevant because it’s a big [talent] pool, it’s a big draft and there are a lot of players who want to get that opportunity,” Lenoir said. “Any chance that you’ve got to play ball, you have to take it.”
A make-or-break preseason
Shortly before the Cincinnati Bengals started training camp in July, the franchise signed a pair of Houston Gamblers. Linebacker Tegray Scales and defensive lineman Domenique Davis played together throughout their time in the spring league, and now they are competing for depth jobs — together — on the Bengals’ roster.
“Chasing the same opportunity,” Scales told PFN. “It was exciting to be in a locker room with somebody you just shared a locker room with.”
Ten teams have signed multiple players from the USFL. The Commanders, who initially signed Stribling and Neal, have since added cornerback De’Vante Bausby and offensive lineman Alex Akingbulu. The four USFL alums, like Scales and Davis, have bonded over their shared experiences entering the preseason.
“We talk all the time, like, ‘We took a crazy route to get back here,'” Neal said.
While the good vibes of nearly 40 USFL players signing contracts is a major success for the spring league, the reality of the situation is that only a few — if any — will make Week 1 rosters out of training camp.
That’s why the next three weeks of preseason games will be monumental for this league-wide underdog story. Those who are able to get past the finish line to Week 1 will set the tone for future spring-league players who are looking to follow in their footsteps.
“It would be a great testimony to show kids who are in the same situation as me to not give up,” Neal said. “Find opportunities to help you move up to the next level and have that mindset that you can play at the next level and not give up on your talents.”