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For NFL long shots, draft day is an unpredictable emotional roller coaster

Published: Sunday, May 11 2014 4:45 p.m. MDT

Utah tight end Jake Murphy (82) gets tackled by Colorado defensive back Jered Bell (21) and Colorado defensive back Parker Orms (13) during the first half of a football game at the Rice-Eccles Stadium in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Nov. 30, 2013.  (Kristin Murphy, Deseret News) Utah tight end Jake Murphy (82) gets tackled by Colorado defensive back Jered Bell (21) and Colorado defensive back Parker Orms (13) during the first half of a football game at the Rice-Eccles Stadium in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Nov. 30, 2013. (Kristin Murphy, Deseret News)

EDITORS NOTE: This is the second in an occasional series on a group of local athletes trying to make an NFL roster. The Deseret News will follow the seven men for the next year as they struggle to make their dreams reality on the most high-profile stage in sports.

John Martinez sat with his best friend in the room where he grew up and discussed what comes after the death of a childhood dream.

Then a phone call changed everything.

“It was the worst, stressful waiting game ever,” said the Cottonwood alum of waiting for an NFL team to offer him a free-agent deal after the draft ended Saturday night.

The phone call came from Seattle assistant offensive line coach Pat Ruel, who was the man who recruited Martinez in high school to play for USC. When then-Trojan head coach Pete Carroll took the Seahawks job, Ruel went with him. In a few minutes, Martinez went from thinking his NFL hopes were dashed to believing he's found the perfect situation to succeed.

USC's John Martinez carries 320 pounds while training at John Madsen Performance in Sandy on Thursday, April 24, 2014.    (Laura Seitz, Deseret News) USC's John Martinez carries 320 pounds while training at John Madsen Performance in Sandy on Thursday, April 24, 2014. (Laura Seitz, Deseret News)

“(Ruel) was telling me good things,” Martinez said. “He told the staff I was a tough kid, a hard hitter, and that I would put it on the line if I played for them.”

His endorsement convinced the organization to offer Martinez a free-agent contract. Martinez said he’s thrilled to be heading to Seattle.

“I’m excited, definitely, but I still have to try to prove something to them, that I can play at the next level,” he said.

The USC graduate wasn’t the only one trying to hold out hope as he felt his dream of playing professional football fading with each passing minute. In hundreds of homes, football players waited for word on whether they would even have a long shot at the NFL careers they’d worked so hard to make a reality.

Utah Utes offensive linesman Vyncent Jones (64) calls a play during a  team scrimmage in Salt Lake City  Friday, April 5, 2013.  (Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News) Utah Utes offensive linesman Vyncent Jones (64) calls a play during a team scrimmage in Salt Lake City Friday, April 5, 2013. (Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News)

A few miles north of Martinez’s Murray home, one of the University of Utah players with whom Martinez worked out this spring was dealing with his own disappointment.

“It was really stressful,” said Jake Murphy, who left school early to declare for the draft because, as a returned missionary, he’s already 24 years old, and football is a sport that favors youth. “The hardest part was teams are calling you, telling you that they’re going to pick you here, pick you there, and then you don’t see your name.”

He focused on playing with his daughter to alleviate the stress, and he vented his frustrations and fears to his wife throughout the day as they monitored the draft’s final rounds.

“I was really just trying to get my mind off of it, really just trying to get through it all,” said the tight end. “Today there wasn’t ever a run on tight ends. Call it bad luck, whatever you want. It just didn’t turn out in the draft.”

Even before the draft ended, Murphy was fielding calls from teams that had run out of picks. Some called him, others called his agent, as teams offered free-agent deals that were difficult to compare because one of the conditions is accepting or declining immediately. It just increased in intensity when the draft ended.

His Utah teammate Karl Williams was texting him, reminding him that being an underdog isn’t always a bad thing to be.

Williams said his situation was different from his friend’s because he didn’t expect to be drafted.

“For me it’s been kind of an easy process,” he said. “I came from being a walk-on to being a starter. For me, I just want a chance.”

He had about 15 teams contact him in the week preceding, but the Oakland Raiders were the most promising. Some of those making decisions wanted to draft him late, while others wanted to wait.

“They said I just had to wait it out,” he said. “I had a couple offers on the table at the end of the draft, but Oakland had the best offer.”

He understood Murphy’s disappointment, but he knows how mentally tough his former — and hopefully future — teammate is.

“You’ve just got to be open to everything,” he said. “You’ve just gotta deal with it.”

That’s the mindset of all seven of the athletes who worked out together with former Oakland Raider free-agent John Madsen at JMP in Sandy this spring. Four of the men signed free-agent deals — Murphy and Williams both signed with Oakland and will report to rookie camp later this week. Martinez signed with the Seattle Seahawks, and USU lineman AJ Pataiali’i, who graduated from Hunter High, signed with the Baltimore Ravens.

Utah center Vyncent Jones was invited to two mini-camps — the Pittsburgh Steelers on Thursday and, if he can’t lock up a deal there, he’ll head to the Kansas City Chiefs' mini-camp on May 23.

“It’s pretty stressful just waiting around,” said Jones, who graduated from Jordan High. “I didn’t quite get what I wanted, which was a free-agent contract. But I got more than some people, so I’ll take it.”

The reality is that in the NFL almost nothing is actually a sure thing. Even those who get drafted can be cut.

While that can be a terrifying reality, it’s also a fact that gives guys like Jones hope.

“Signing a free-agent deal, you’re still not guaranteed anything,” he said. “Somebody like me could come in and beat out one of those guys. … So if I can’t steal a deal with the Steelers, then it’s off to the Chiefs. … It’s all down to fate. I’m prepared for anything, so let the chips fall where they may now.”

Two others who worked out with the group in hopes of earning a shot at an NFL roster — SUU offensive lineman Gavin Farr and Utah receiver Sean Fitzgerald — are still working for invitations to mini-camps or free-agent deals.

Unlike some of the men in the group, Murphy is in an unfamiliar position.

“I’ve never been in this position before,” Murphy said. “I never walked on. I’ve never been an underdog. But this definitely puts a chip on my shoulder. I feel I can bring a lot of things to the table and I’m going to try to prove that.”

Murphy said he heard the critics who said he shouldn’t have left early to declare for the draft, and there were a few moments where he may have agreed with them.

“It can go both ways,” he said. “I did think maybe I (should have stayed), but the fact that Trevor Reilly slid (to the seventh round) just confirmed everything I thought about me coming back.”

Like Murphy, Reilly served a mission for the LDS Church and he is older (26) and despite an outstanding Pro Day, many analysts speculated that his age hurt him.

“Trevor is obviously happy to be going to New York, but he’s one of the best linebackers in America,” Murphy said. “He’s someone who was first team all-Pac-12, a team captain and one little injury and being a little bit older dropped him to the middle of the seventh round. I looked at that and it was basically confirmation, especially coming off a wrist injury.”

He’s ecstatic to be headed to Oakland, especially because the team drafted teammate Keith McGill and signed Williams. All three men head to Oakland next week for the team’s mini-camp.

“I’m excited,” said Williams, whose enthusiasm was palpable. “I just wanted that opportunity. That’s all I need.”

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