Teddy Lehman thought it might be time to hang up the cleats for good last year. His love for the game was wavering a bit after going through three teams in five seasons. He was quickly reaching the conclusion that no other NFL team wanted him.
This wasn't supposed to be the plan for the nation's top collegiate linebacker at Oklahoma, the fast, intelligent, leader that started 38 games for a Sooners defense that featured several future NFL standouts.
No way this happens to the player who made one of the greatest plays in the Texas/Oklahoma rivalry as a sophomore when he intercepted Chris Simms and returned it for a touchdown to seal a win in the waning minutes.
How can a former second round pick with a knack for making plays and a tireless work ethic be looking for a job instead of being courted by teams?
It's the word no NFL coach or general manager wants to hear, 'injured.'
Lehman entered the NFL with high expectations and lived up to the billing as a rookie with the Detroit Lions. As the 37th overall pick in the 2004 draft, he finished with 120 tackles and two forced fumbles in his first season.
Six years later, he was waiting for a call from any team. He received it from the UFL, an upstart professional football league, and they asked him to join a host of other former NFL players still looking for a shot of playing football. The opportunity quickly changed Lehman's outlook on the game.
"I wasn't super excited about it at the time," Lehman said.
That's understandable considering his journey that now has him competing for a roster spot with the Jaguars in 2010.
It started with a "bad foot injury" in his second season that caused him to miss 23 games over the next two seasons. He suffered the injury midway through the 2005 season and missed the final 11 games. Steve Mariucci, the coach who pulled the trigger to draft him, was fired and Rod Marinelli was brought on board.
The first thing Marinelli saw was an injured Lehman who began the '06 season on the physically unable to perform list and played in only four games.
"The new people come in and I'm still hurt," Lehman said. "You don't have much of a chance to compete for a job and you are kind of put on the backburner. That was challenging."
Lehman finally returned to the field healthy in 2007 and played in all 16 games. The Lions opted to let him test free agency and he signed with Tampa Bay. He went in with the impression he was going to compete for the backup middle linebacker job. It never happened.
"I went down there and for whatever reason they literally never gave me a shot," Lehman said. "As soon as I got down there, day one, they have me playing number three middle linebacker. They got rid of me the day before training camp so everyone had their rosters full."
He landed back in Detroit and five days into training camp he injured his hamstring. It wasn't a bad injury, but it was enough to keep him out of the preseason. The Lions released him and he sat home without a team until Buffalo signed him in November for the final part of the season.
"I just sat at home waiting on a call and never got a shot," Lehman said. "I was staying ready and in shape, but I just didn't hear anything."
Lehman retreated back to Norman, Oklahoma to work out with the Sooners strength staff on a daily basis when he received a call from the UFL in July. They told him if he didn't get any NFL offers, they would love to have him join the league. When the phone didn't ring, Lehman was assigned to the Las Vegas franchise led by former NFL head coach Jim Fassel.
"It was exactly what I needed as a player," Lehman said. "For four years, I had just been a backup and playing special teams. It was good football, a bunch of NFL guys in the same position I was. I played a bunch of snaps at linebacker and got my confidence back."
Lehman quickly found out life was going to be different when he reported to training camp in Casa Grande, Arizona. His check would be approximately $35,000 for seven games including a postseason game, about what he received on a weekly basis in the NFL.
But a smile takes over Lehman's face when he is asked about the experience. It was a chance to play again and most importantly get on tape so NFL scouts could take notice.
"I loved it and I loved my teammates," Lehman said. "I fell in love with the game all over again. It was exactly what I needed."
Sitting in the Jaguars large lockerroom this week, Lehman looks back with no regrets. Being asked to wash his own uniform in the early part of training camp, receiving only one pair of gloves and cleats for practices and games, is part of what he enjoyed the most.
"It was so great," Lehman said. "It was like being in high school or college again. I hope people in this lockerroom know what they have. The UFL is exactly what I needed."
The inaugural season ended on Thanksgiving Day and Lehman was back at work a week later at his alma mater. He was expecting some offers right away so he was staying in shape for the opportunity. He had workouts with Oakland and the Jaguars in January but nothing materialized.
Lehman finally received a call from the Jaguars the week before minicamp asking if he would fly down and participate on a tryout basis. It was a no brainer.
"I didn't want to pop open up the champagne by any means, but I knew it was so much better for me as a veteran guy to get five practices in front of the coaches and put it on film, instead of putting my hand down running a forty and doing 225 pounds on bench press," Lehman said. "I knew if anything I will put some good stuff on tape and see what happens."
Lehman impressed the staff with his ability to pick up the defense quickly and earned an opportunity to compete for a roster spot.
"It's just a shot," Lehman said. "I've being fighting since after my rookie year just to get a shot. I'm hoping I do get a fair shake. What I tell myself is to put them in the position where they have no choice but to keep you."
When asked if his journey has made him a better person as he moves forward, Lehman stops and ponders the question.
"I don't know if it's made me a better person but I know it's made me have a lot of sleepless nights," It makes you question yourself a lot."