‘These checks aren’t what you think they are’

November 14, 2018

Second jobs. Sleeping in cars. Leaning on family. It’s easy to assume that everyone in the NFL is raking in money, but that’s far from reality for practice squad players.

 

When Jaguars wide receiver Jaydon Mickens joined the team’s practice squad last year, he quickly established a daily routine. After practice, he and Larry Pinkard, another practice squad receiver, would go hang out at a teammate’s house for a while. One of their most frequent hosts was Marqise Lee, who grew up not far from Mickens in Inglewood, California, and was already well-established in Jacksonville.

 

But although they were good friends, Mickens was careful not to wear out his welcome. After a few hours, he and Pinkard would say, “We’re out. We’re about to go back and lay down” — intentionally omitting exactly where they were headed. Then the pair would drive back to the practice facility, put the seats back in their cars, and go to sleep.

 

The next morning, they’d wake up around 5 or 6 a.m. and head inside to get ready for practice. Typically the two receivers wouldn’t get more than four hours of sleep; on Tuesday and Wednesday nights — the ones before their hardest practices — they’d split a hotel room.

 

Once Mickens had made the active roster and a few standout plays, his story become the kind of feel-good, overcoming-the-odds tale that sports media loves. NFL.com did a timeline of his “incredible journey,” while Good Morning Football did a segment on his “underappreciated storyline.” It was an up-by-his-bootstraps spin on a common issue for practice squad players, whose employment is week to week, and whose salaries are a fraction of those of their colleagues — despite the fact they’re doing all the same work besides suiting up on Sunday. Mickens and Pinkard’s story might be especially vivid, but practice squad players everywhere say they have to be as disciplined with their money off the field as they are with the ball on it.

 

Fans can have a hard time understanding exactly why those players on the fringes of NFL rosters feel like they need to live hand to mouth. In Mickens’ case, after his story was widely publicized anonymous online critics and armchair accountants asserted that he must just be dumb. They compared his salary to those of minor league baseball players, dug up pictures of his car to prove that he wasn’t that hard up for cash, and generally insisted that he had nothing to complain about. It’s an approach fans often take when discussing player salaries, and one that betrays just how widely misunderstood NFL contracts are.

 

“There’s a reason why they made the 30 for 30 show ‘Broke’,” cracks Giants safety Michael Thomas, who spent two seasons on the Niners’ practice squad before making the active roster with the Dolphins. “These checks aren’t what you think they are.”

 

For Mickens’ part, he says he never asked for sympathy. “[My critics] can say whatever they want, but that’s probably why they’re in the position they’re in — I’m not crying about it, I grinded about it,” he adds.

 

After spending the 2016 season on the Oakland Raiders’ practice squad, he’d gotten a taste of its unpredictability when he hurt his ankle during the team’s 2017 training camp and was cut with an injury settlement. A few weeks of unemployment was all it took to convince him his best move was to be frugal to the extreme. Because Jacksonville was still recovering from Hurricane Irma when he showed up with only his backpack and duffel bag to work out, that was even more of a challenge than he had anticipated. The city’s housing inventory was low because of all the property damage, and landlords wanted tenants who could commit to a year-long lease — an impossibility for a young player who didn’t know whether he would be with the team for a week or for three months.

 

So, he slept in his car.

 

“I’d been through worse,” he says of the decision, alluding to his upbringing. Even now that he has some active roster paychecks under his belt (currently, Mickens is on IR), he tries to keep the same mentality as he had on the practice squad. “I want to make sure I withhold it from myself, and do everything I can to act as broke as possible,” says Mickens. “To act like I don’t have a dime.”

 

This season, a practice squad player in California who is employed all six weeks of training camp and all 17 weeks of the regular season — a highly unusual situation — makes around $88,000 after taxes: $7,600 a week before taxes during the regular season, and $1,075 (rookies) or $1,900 (veterans) before taxes during camp. The problem is, while they’re playing, practice squad players have no sense of how much of that $88,000 they’ll actually make; most have to move at some point during the season, whether they’re signed to a new team or get cut and have to move home, which adds another impossible-to-plan-for expense.

 

“I had a bunch of people who graduated with me from Stanford, and they were making more money than me fresh out of college,” says Thomas. “I probably would have been better off trying to work in Silicon Valley.”

 

The lack of stability makes figuring out a place to live one of the practice squad’s biggest challenges. The cost of living varies so widely from city to city — as do each state’s taxes — that most players err on the side of caution when it comes to the rent they’re willing to pay, since they don’t know where they’ll wind up next.

 

“I’ve known guys who played in the league for five to six years and have had a roommate every year,” says free agent nose tackle A.J. Francis, who has played for the Dolphins, Patriots, Seahawks, Buccaneers, Washington, and Giants over his six seasons in the league.

 

Plus, the exploding cost of living in places like New York (and its almost-as-pricey New Jersey suburbs, where most NFL players live), Los Angeles, and the Bay Area isn’t accounted for in the practice squad players’ flat-rate salary. “That’s what we have the next CBA negotiations for, I guess,” says Thomas. “We have to look at a housing stipend for practice squad players based on the different cities where they live.”

 

Aside from trying to find a reasonably-priced apartment that they can leave at any time, players also have to account for the fact that, like all NFL players, they’re only getting paid 17 weeks out of the year. Unlike other NFL players, they typically have no signing bonuses or guaranteed money. “I was making sure I put away over half of my check in a separate account,” says Thomas. “I was losing half of my check to taxes, and it’s only for 17 weeks — if I stayed on the practice squad. I was very, very frugal, but you have to be.”

 

 

Practice squad players often take other jobs during the offseason or while they’re waiting for a team to call them. Francis has been an Uber driver, as has current Panthers’ practice squad member Brandon Chubb (he had a pickup truck, though, so it didn’t work well for him). Zeek Biggers, a linebacker who also spent time on the Panthers’ practice squad in 2017, was working at a moving company when he got the call to come to training camp. Thomas spent his offseasons in San Francisco training high school players.

 

“When you’re on the practice squad, you’re literally one step in the league and one step out of it,” says Thomas. “It forces you to think about life after football.”

 

At the same time, players need to invest in their own training and nutrition during the offseason if they want to up their game and ultimately make the active roster. Without the team’s facilities and staff, players can easily spend thousands on a trainer and gym access, not to mention what it takes to keep a healthy diet.

 

“It’s a lot of months,” says Mickens of the offseason. “You have to nourish yourself, you have to train ... Money has to go out so you can attain your goals in the bigger picture.”

 

Some practice squad players get some support from their families during the offseason. Mickens’ family for example, prepares his food. But he sees it as part of a trade that has him supporting them long-term. For those players who aren’t as frugal, what looks from the outside like a dream — you make it to the league and buy your mom a house — often turns to disappointment, as they’re surrounded by friends and family who think their baller status automatically translates into a bloated bank account.

 

“Most of the players coming into this league had humble beginnings,” says Thomas. “It’s not that they don’t know what to do with the money, but they want to take care of their whole family.”

 

Even outside of their immediate family, players who don’t have megawatt contracts are frequently forced to confront people’s misconceptions about their salaries. At a recent 3-on-3 basketball tournament, Francis and his team made it to the championship game —where people in the crowd told him he should give the other team his prize money if he won, because he was an NFL player.

 

“A lot of guys who say ‘I played in the NFL’ may have never even played in one game, but for the rest of their lives, they’re the money men,” says Francis. “If you’re not at the top of the league, you’re not anywhere near stable. If you add up all the contracts of the free agents and seventh-round draft picks that are on the Vikings right now, Kirk Cousins makes more than all of them combined. To put them on the same scale as him is ridiculous, but that’s what consistently happens.”

 

The idea that once you’ve made it to the NFL, you’ve it made financially has long been debunked (see the aforementioned “Broke”). But nevertheless, fans see a player’s contracts or their practice squad salaries and are quick to loudly explain how much more it is than they make, or how much better they would manage the money. The implication is NFL salaries are “enough” because they may be higher than the fan’s, and it’s a conclusion only possible when ignoring that playing in the NFL makes you the centerpiece of a business worth billions of dollars. Not to mention that it’s a job with a nearly unmatched combination of guaranteed physical toll and total career uncertainty.

 

“I wish all sports, but especially the NFL, would stop broadcasting how much guys get paid and making a big deal about it” says Thomas. “You do set the market that way, and guys can ask for more money in free agency — but it’s not advantageous for guys to have everybody know exactly what they’re making. It’s not like that in any other big business, so why is it like that for us?”

 

To Mickens, anyone who thinks he didn’t need to sleep in his car just isn’t seeing the big picture. He wants to invest in a gym, in real estate, and in his non-profit — Out The Mud, also his personal motto and the name of a Kevin Gates song. “I just made that decision —worked my butt off, got active, made a couple plays, and put myself in the position where I can change my family’s life,” he says.

 

Mickens doesn’t have any kids himself, but he wants to look out for his mother, sister, and godson. “I have to do the things necessary for them to survive long-term, not just for a couple months. When I get there, I’ll be able to treat myself in ways that a first-rounder would.”

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