ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — In the days leading up to the Denver Broncos’ first win of the season Sunday, the team talked about perseverance, about “that place where you keep pushing through,” as linebacker Von Miller put it.
All they really had to do was look around the locker room.
Tackle Jake Rodgers and cornerback De’Vante Bausby have been waived a combined 21 times, been on a combined nine practice squads and spent time on a combined nine rosters during their careers. Talk about vocational perseverance.
“I guess you could say I’ve always believed I need to be ready for opportunity to come,” Bausby said Friday. “Some people just have to wait a little longer for opportunity to come. Some people have to wait a lot longer for opportunity to come. But people do this in everything, not just football.”
After suffering a scary neck injury on Sunday — one that saw him taken off the field strapped to a backboard — Bausby will have to wait again. He returned to Denver on the team’s flight from Los Angeles, and signs are positive that he’ll recover, but the Broncos placed him on injured reserve on Tuesday.
“Right now, we’re just going to take it real slow, gain my strength back and all that mess,” Bausby said. “I don’t have a timetable, but hopefully pretty soon. My plan is to come back and play [this season], though.”
Broncos coach Vic Fangio said it was a “compression” injury to Bausby’s neck and said, “I don’t think it’s anything that requires drastic treatment. It just needs time.”
In the days before his injury, Bausby said, “I’ve just learned to control what I can control. But deep down, I’ve always believed in myself, my abilities.”
Bausby’s and Rodgers’ experiences are unlike those of their current teammates or perhaps any teammates they’ll ever have. That even includes defensive end Shelby Harris, who was cut five times in his career before he found a spot on the Broncos’ defense in 2017.
“That’s what it takes, sometimes,” Harris said with a smile. “I thought I had the most [cuts], but in my case, it’s just a hard look every time. You have to believe you’re good enough, but you do have to be good enough, you know what I mean?”
Rodgers, who played at Eastern Washington in 2014, has been waived or released 12 times, including five times in the 2017 season. Bausby, who finished his college career at Pittsburg State in 2014, has been cut nine times and used a stint in the Alliance of American Football to catch the Broncos’ attention.
“It’s definitely a challenge. It’s really about having a mindset that you’re going to maximize every opportunity you have,” Rodgers said. “It takes, definitely — I’m not trying to toot my own horn or talk myself up — but it takes a certain mentally tough type person to do that. You’ve got to just keep going, even if it looks like you’re not getting there. I mean, I almost quit football at the end of last season because I just didn’t know if I was going to get another job or not. I thought about going into coaching, had an opportunity to do that, but just kind of decided I wasn’t ready to be done with football yet.”
Getting cut that many times has an effect. It makes even routine life happenings, such as the ring of a cellphone, an anxious experience. A player’s mobile device is the new Turk in the NFL. A knock on the door followed by the words, “Coach wants to see you. Bring your playbook,” has largely been replaced by a call or text.
Do they worry that they’re being cut again when their phones ring?
“Oh, God, yeah, you get a call from the area code you’re in, and you just got there, you just look at it and wonder if it was a team extension,” Rodgers said. “Like, if I got a call from the 303 area code right now, I’d be wondering for that split second. You’ve got to take a deep breath before you answer.”
Said Bausby last week: “An unfamiliar number calls you, and you’re actually in that area code, it makes you think, but I hope those days are behind me. But sometimes you do wonder if you pick it up if that’s it.”
Once the cut call comes, there’s a routine: a lot of hotel rooms, plenty of middle seats on hastily booked flights, packing a bag and not knowing how long (or even if) you’re staying in whatever city you land in.
It can be dizzying. Listen to Rodgers walk through a slice of his 2017 season, the one he called “the big travel year.”
“I started out that year technically on the Texans’ roster. Then they cut me after the draft, and I went to Pittsburgh. Got cut after the preseason, but basically every time they got somebody banged up in the O-line, I would go back on the practice squad,” he said. “I went back for probably three different stints on the practice squad — from where I live in Spokane, [Washington]. I think [I was] on their practice squad Week 3, got cut, then the following week had a workout in Miami, got home, three days later had another workout in New England, got home, went to Pittsburgh for, like, three weeks, got cut, came home, went to the Chargers for three days, got cut. Pittsburgh played the Thursday night game the next week, got cut on Friday, and then Sunday I went back to Pittsburgh. I think I did four weeks there and then finished the last two weeks of the season on the Texans’ practice squad. Well, wait, I got cut by the Panthers in there somewhere, too.”
Few careers in football end on a player’s terms, but as Bausby said, “Maybe if you keep pushing, you can get one started. You just have to believe in your abilities, be honest about what you’re doing and how you fit. I just believed I had the abilities, but it’s up to me to show that, too.”
“Baus? I love Baus,” said cornerback Chris Harris Jr., who made the Broncos as an undrafted rookie in 2011. “He has that fight, that little bit of dog. You can tell he came the hard way.”
Rodgers, even as he searched for the words to describe why he, too, believed in his abilities — when he was told it was a numbers game or just one of those things or an injury at one position forced him off a roster — offered a big-picture view.
“There are challenges in life. Some people — a lot of people — have a lot bigger challenges than just trying to play football,” Rodgers said. “But in my situation, it’s been a challenge for me because it’s something I want to do. But how you react to challenges, I think, is important. I definitely took it personally a lot of times. And you’d be foolish not to look at yourself in a situation like that and do whatever you can to make sure you didn’t miss something you could have done differently, but a lot of that can also fuel you. If you have that belief that you can do it and people are telling you, ‘No, no, no and no,’ that can kind of keep you going a little, too.”