Keeping the Dream Alive: Life as an Undrafted Free Agent
Life after playing a sport is tough for any athlete, at any level, with the prospect of having to give up the sport they love. Only a select few get to continue their careers at a higher rank, whether in college, or at the professional level. For those lucky few athletes picked in the draft, their departures are considerably easier compared to those with no shot to continue playing, recognizing it is time to transition into real life putting their past athletic glories behind them.
But there is a middle ground, a purgatory so to speak, for athletes that leave the collegiate level not knowing if pro teams will ever come calling to give them a shot, but the desire to play still burns within them.
In football, if a player goes undrafted, many immediately get invitations to attend a training camp and earn a subsequent free agent contract. For those who don’t get the invite calls to a camp though, they enter a figurative limbo that requires unbelievable amounts of determination and patience to survive to continue pursuing the dream.
To fans these graduated Ducks are often out of sight out of mind, soon forgotten in the promise of next year’s football prospects. As players get picked in the draft, fans can relish in those from their team that got picked, and watch messageboards closely to find out if those underrated fan favorites were offered free agent camp invites. Forgotten are those left wanting, waiting patiently for their opportunity to also continue playing the game they love, at any post-college opportunity.
This situation applies to select Oregon graduated seniors every year, like cornerback Anthony Gildon, a highly-rated playmaker who was held back by unfortunate injuries just when his time had come to shine on the field as a full-time starter. Anthony Gildon came to Oregon as a three-star recruit from prestigious Oaks Christian High School in Southern California, a team featuring quarterback Jimmy Clausen now of the Carolina Panthers, and Oregon teammate Casey Matthews, now of the Philadelphia Eagles.
Gildon played in 40 games at Oregon, including extensive time as a starter in the 2010 Rose Bowl vs. Ohio State. A rare physical specimen, Anthony Gildon consistently was given accolades for weight lifting, and ranks fourth all-time for vertical leap at his position at 39.5 inches. In 2009, Anthony appeared in eight games, while in 2010, he started in six games before suffering an injury that forced him out of prominent playing time.
In 2011, he started in eight of his nine appearances, including a stellar performance against LSU to open the season with a career-high eight tackles, including one for a loss and three pass breakups.
“The most fun game that I played in, even though we lost, was the LSU game,” Anthony Gildon recalls. “The atmosphere, playing against another top team in the nation on the opening weekend in the new Dallas stadium, that was great. I played a great game, too, so for me, that was my favorite game.”
Unfortunately, Anthony Gildon suffered another injury in the middle of the season, prematurely ending his collegiate career just when he was settling into the full-time starting role he had strived to achieve during his years in Eugene.
“It was rough [being injured], since I started the season so well, and I felt that I was setting myself up for a great senior season. But at the same time, things happen, and this is a sport where injuries do happen. I’m just happy it wasn’t anything that ended my career. I was able to help the young guys along as much as possible, and still be a part of the team and enjoy the rest of the experience.”
Despite his best efforts, without extended playing time, Anthony Gildon wasn’t expected to be drafted, and had to sit at home while numerous teammates were selected. It would be understandable for Gildon to feel bitter and remorseful about his reduced opportunity to showcase his talents due to injuries, knowing from his years in practice that physically he was as gifted athletically as those being selected by NFL franchises, but he didn’t let it negatively effect him. “I was at home watching the draft, and you would have thought I got drafted, that’s how excited I was for them.”
After the draft, Anthony wasn’t invited to a training camp. While former Oregon teammates like Darrion Weems, Darron Thomas, and Cliff Harris all got invites to join an NFL team, Anthony’s phone didn’t ring. The unlucky draw didn’t deter him, though, “[When I didn’t get called] it just meant that I had to keep working. I didn’t get down about it. I had an injury-plagued season, so I didn’t get to finish [out] my senior year. I can’t blame anyone for that, things just happened that way. I had to keep grinding.”
Anthony’s story is typical of many graduating student-athletes around the country. Fresh off of years in college playing at the highest-levels of amateur athletic competition but left with no suitors pursuing their talents, it is a time to decide whether to continue pursuing the dream to play, or hang up the jersey and enter the real world degree in hand? For athletes like Anthony Gildon, the time after the NFL draft is a moment for pause to assess the next phase in their lives.
Some look to the CFL, some to the Arena League, some try to latch onto international club teams, like Oregon grads AJ Tuitele and Pat So’oalo in recent years, who both traveled to Japan to play on the same pro team.
The fork in the road is clear, but for many which path to take remains blurry. In the case of Anthony Gildon, he for now remains determined to continue playing, wherever that opportunity may arise.
“[I’ve been] working out every day, trying to get better at everything I do,” said Gildon. ”I’m lifting in the weight room trying to get bigger, faster, stronger. I’m working on my craft out on the field too, doing one-on-ones with receivers, looking at my old film to keep my head in football. Basically, I’m trying to get better at every aspect of the game so I can step up on the field whenever I get that call.”
Anthony Gildon being interviewed after practice.
Video courtesy of Duckterritory.com
As a corner, Anthony has to keep himself in shape mentally as well to be able to face the purely instinctual decisions that are demanded of cornerbacks. It is often said that football is a game of inches, and split-second decisions. Through endless repetitions in practice these skills are honed and perfected, but with no organized practices to attend, how does an athlete continue to maintain their skill level, particularly for a position like cornerback that necessitates precise footwork and reaction?
“There are receivers [where I train] as well. But I do footwork drills to help me recover from bad positions when I do one-on-one drills with them. I’m still working out in reading the quarterbacks and routes. The only thing that is hard to work on now is tackling, but I can still do a little bit of that, because tackling is basically all footwork.”
While Anthony keeps himself in shape for the professional football opportunity that may never come, Gildon must also work closely with his agent, Jedd McHaffie, to try to market his talents to a potential team rather than franchises pursuing him like they do with top draft picks.
The prospective selling of his talents can be tricky, the competition for a limited number of roster slots available fierce, and the time spent conversing with scouts and potential teams intense. This is where having an agent becomes invaluable, to do much of the legwork needed to find a football home. So how exactly does an agent sell their client to a franchise?
“First, [Jedd] reaches out to all of his contacts, talking to all the different teams,” said Gildon, “He talks about me, as a player and a person as well. He tries to tell them how much I can benefit a team. He looks around for teams that had interest, or have interest, and tries to find teams with certain needs; obviously teams that need corners or defensive backs. I’m also working on a highlight tape. He just tries to keep my name relevant as much as possible.”
In fact Jedd McHaffie represents several former Oregon athletes, his job to ensure his clients get the best possible opportunity to continuing playing.
“Changes to technology play a big part,” said McHaffie, “but I also send along player bios (an athletic resume). I make those for my clients, and send them to every team in the NFL so they actually have a piece of paper with a picture, and stats, so it’s long enough to have depth, but short enough to keep their attention. With those packets, I send a DVD of their highlights to avoid problems with videos on the internet. All together, they’re sent to scouts, and directors of personnel.
Jedd has had previous success finding a spot for Oregon players, including Marvin Johnson, a safety at Oregon from 2006 to 2010. Johnson was awarded the Wilson Award for most outstanding special teams player in 2009, and totaled five tackles in the 2010 Rose Bowl.
Like Gildon, Johnson also went undrafted, and had to reach out to agents to find an opportunity to play. “[Finding an agent] was very difficult. I didn’t know anything about contacting agents.” said Johnson, now a member of the Lehigh Valley Steelhawks in the IFL.
“Another Oregon player told me he knew an agent that was willing to work with me. Unfortunately, that didn’t work out, so I just kept on asking other former players who their agents were, and if they would be willing to work with me too? My mindset was that I wasn’t done playing football, and that I’m good enough to play at the next level. I just had to keep working out and keep hitting the gym. I wasn’t ready to give it up, I knew that there would be an opportunity at some given time.”
Eventually Marvin Johnson found Jedd McHaffie, and the two of them began the marketing process to showcase Johnson’s talents to prospective teams. “When I found an agent, he took all the tapes and footage that I have and tried to pass that along to other teams,” Johnson recalls. “I actually got in contact with my [current] team over the internet, where my agent had posted some footage, and we got the contract underway. My agent made everything easier, he handled all the marketing and paperwork, while I focused on playing football and training.”
For Marvin, staying confident was key in his time off from football. Through maintaining his physical regimen, a lot of hard work, and a little luck, Marvin Johnson was able to latch on with a team and continues to play organized football; something Anthony Gildon now hopes he too can achieve.
Marvin Johnson highlights with the LeHigh Valley Steelhawks of the IFL
“I feel that I can match up with anyone,” said Gildon, “It’s give and take–you’re going to win some, you’re going to lose some, but as a corner you have to have the mentality going into the game that you’re going to win every battle. I just have to get the opportunity to show everyone what I can do.”
Anthony Gildon’s current physical workouts and mental stress hoping the phone will ring is something all too familiar for Marvin Johnson, now two years removed from that same harrowing experience wondering if his final playing days were over. “[Anthony is] my boy, he just needs to stay focused, stay hungry. When one door closes, another one opens up. You just have to stay hungry, and be ready to step in when it does,” reflected Johnson of his friend and former teammate Anthony Gildon’s current plight to latch onto a team somewhere.
For anyone who has faced unemployment, or the inevitable ‘what now‘ question after completing school or some other major part of life is finished, the stress can be too much for some to bear. However for Gildon, he remains as focused on whatever the next step may be as he was on the receiver lining up opposite him in practice every day. Anthony Gildon continues to spend each day training, perfecting his skills, waiting for that phone to ring. “When I get the call, I have no idea [what I’m going to do], probably call my mom. Then get ready physically, and mentally, keep doing what I’m doing.”
For players like Johnson and Gildon, their times at Oregon prepared them well mentally for the next level, but above all, instilled a proper sense of confidence and determination within them to see a goal and achieve it. That infectious determination can only help a professional club in need of an athlete to fill their roster with the physical grit and mental acumen reserved for the elite talents that are afforded the opportunity to play beyond college.
“All of our coaches got us ready,” said Gildon. “They pushed us every day at practice and on the field to make us as smart of players as we are athletic. Give me a shot, you won’t regret it. I’ll be out there making as many plays as possible, and I’ll be a great addition to any team.”
For an athlete like Gildon, a premier playmaker in high school courted by nearly every major school but injury-plagued in college limiting his chance to showcase his talents, he remains one of many out there whose phone didn’t ring on draft day and are determined to prove the doubters wrong; capable of excelling at the highest levels of athletic competition if only given a chance to display his abilities.
For more on Anthony Gildon, check out this recent video interview on FishDuck.com: