The Spring League offers chance to keep football dream alive

ROCKETT – The stories behind each player in The Spring League are the ones everybody has heard before – the guy that was overlooked, the guy that was plagued by injuries, or the guy that was in the mix for making the roster but got cut.

It’s the determination and, perhaps, desperation of players in those situations that’s helped the first-year instructional league that showcases pro football talent be so successful.

It also doesn’t hurt that a development league for football prospects – similar to the minors in baseball or the D-League in basketball – is a wide open space.

“Outside of NFL football, this is the next best thing right now,” said The Spring League’s CEO Brian Woods on Tuesday.

The Spring League will hold a showcase at Napa Memorial Stadium at 6 p.m. on Saturday, with Spring League East squaring off against Spring League California.

Just beyond the quiet streets of downtown Crockett, under the backdrop of the Carquinez Bridge and C&H Sugar Refinery, a training camp-sized mass of players assembled for three days of practice at John Swett High School this week. Each session resembled the NFL format, with players separated by position groups, working first with a specialized coach before they came together for 7-on-7s and full-team scrimmages.

Each player was invited to the showcase after submitting an application and going through a vetting process, Woods said. The league leans toward guys who have tangible experience in the NFL, whether it’s playing actual minutes, making the active roster, or even just a practice squad.

Familiar names like Fred Jackson, Greg Hardy and Anthony Dixon headline this weekend’s rosters, which are stuffed full of former impact players from around the football world.

Dixon, for example, was an absolute force at Mississippi State, rushing for almost 4,000 career yards and 42 touchdowns before getting drafted by the San Francisco 49ers in 2010. He played for the South Bay Area club for four years, primarily backing up Frank Gore, but he had his share of moments.

In the 2013 NFC Championship, he started at fullback and scored a TD to give San Francisco a 10-0 lead over Seattle in the second quarter. That game would be his last as a 49er, though. He left after amassing 458 regular-season rushing yards and eight TDs.

Dixon was signed by the Buffalo Bills in the offseason and was there for two seasons, but the only moves he made in New York were down the depth chart.

“I just heard about (The Spring League) and, if they’re playing football, I’m there,” Dixon said. “It’s as simple as that. I called Brian up and he told me he’d have me. So I’ve been thanking him – I still can’t thank him enough – because I was just tired of sitting on the couch. I’m just happy to be out here.”

The 29-year-old bruiser has no ego about his situation, and sees this league as his best chance to get to where he wants to be, playing pro football.

“No doubt, you think about it. You think about the journey, where I was and where I’m at now,” Dixon said. “But me, I’m kind of embracing it all and taking it as a challenge. I think it’s my biggest challenge yet. I think I can get it done – I know I can get it done. I’ve just got to keep on working, keep on grinding and I feel like it’ll happen.”

Then there are guys like Griff Whalen, a former Stanford wide receiver that has ridden the roller coaster that comes with being on the fringe of the NFL.

He was a walk-on that earned a scholarship and turned into a reliable target for quarterback Andrew Luck. He then joined him on the Indianapolis Colts, making the roster as an undrafted free agent in 2012.

But his first season was cut short by a broken foot. The next year, his status fluctuated between the practice squad and active roster whenever a wide receiver spot opened up.

Whalen was eventually reduced to a specialist, and that trend of waive and re-sign became the only constant, bouncing from Miami to San Diego to New England in 2016 alone.

His view of The Spring League is positive. Whalen said it’s an opportunity to face high-caliber competition and perform in live action as opposed to working out for a team and “running routes on air.”

Naturally, being in this position, fighting to keep his dream of alive, is something he’s used to by now.

“You hear about that all the time, especially in sports. The guy who everybody told he couldn’t do this or couldn’t do that,” Whalen said. “That’s probably one of the best fuel sources you can get, as far as that internal motivation. I think that has played a role my whole career. No Division I scholarship offers, so I was a walk-on motivated to prove I could play and that I could earn the scholarship. Then after that, undrafted and trying to prove that I could play and make a practice squad, make a roster and play in the top level.”

Aside from the Napa showcase, The Spring League is comprised of four teams and operates in April, holds six games and concludes before the draft.

Putting on this weekend’s game was a bold move, Woods said, but came about partly because he wanted to keep the momentum rolling while also giving more free agents a chance to get seen during this crucial period in the NFL calendar.

“Our first season yielded extremely positive results. We got over 20 percent of our players either signed or back into NFL camps,” Woods said. “So the momentum from that is something we wanted to build upon. I spoke to several clubs about holding a showcase, so to speak, right before NFL training camps opened, and all of them liked the concept of it.

“So I went forward with this idea – it was quite ambitious to put it together with only a few months – but the awareness of the league is certainly building. The success of the league in its first year was something we’re extremely happy about.”

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