Undrafted rookies keep underdog mindset with Steelers

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Steelers linebacker Terence Garvin, like many other undrafted free agents throughout the NFL, spent the final day of August hoping it wouldn't be the final day of his pro football career. Garvin, a rookie out of West Virginia, passed the time in his room at the Omni William Penn by talking on the phone with friends and family who were anxious to find out if he made the final roster.

"You don't even want the phone to ring," Garvin said.

Eventually his phone did ring and it was the call all NFL players dread. Garvin had been cut.

For many aspiring NFL players, the story ends there. But for Garvin, it was only the beginning of a whirlwind three days that saw him go from unemployed to the Steelers practice squad and then onto the 53-man roster Tuesday afternoon.

Garvin was the final addition to the roster and was the only undrafted rookie to make it. But Garvin is surrounded by teammates who endured similar adventures to make it to the NFL.

Garvin is one of 16 undrafted free agents on the 53-man roster. Five -- Isaac Redman, Will Johnson, Ramon Foster, Ryan Clark and Steve McLendon -- not only bucked the odds to make the NFL, but are starters. Clark made the Pro Bowl in 2011 and has flourished in the league for years.

"I was a foolish kid who thought he was going to make the team," said Clark, who enters his 12th season in the NFL and his eighth with the Steelers. "My mother said, 'Go get a job.' And I said, 'Of course, mom.' I didn't know any better. I didn't know the politics or the business of this league or how hard it was for a free agent to make the team."

After a while, Clark learned how difficult it is to stick in the NFL as an undrafted player. He was a member of the Giants' active roster in 2002 for the first six games, but spent the rest of the season on the practice squad. He earned his way back onto the roster the next season, but he never lost sight of the journey many drafted players don't have to endure.

"I talk to those guys and try to tell them things they can focus on to show them that they belong here," Clark said of mentoring undrafted players who show up in Steelers training camp every year. "When they do make it, I tell them they have to keep playing well and have to do certain things because it's almost like a stigma that you never let go. Forever, I will be an undrafted free agent.

"When kids come into the league now, they always ask me what round I was drafted in, but you can believe [general managers], execs, they know I wasn't drafted. They always look at you like there is a reason that 32 teams didn't pick you. I feel like you always have things to dispel and things to continue proving."

Foster, a five-year veteran on the offensive line, knows the same feeling. Though he has been a full-time or part-time starter his entire career, he has watched the Steelers draft lineman after lineman the past few springs. He is the only lineman who was not a first- or second-round draft choice.

"It doesn't get easier," Foster said. "You have to continue to have that chip on your shoulder. As an undrafted guy, there is always a draft pick that will be behind you looking for your spot. He gets the first dibs on most teams. You have to continue to distinguish yourself. You can't ever relax because you made the team one year. There are a lot of guys who are one-and-done in this league or go to the practice squad. It can't be taken for granted."

The biggest challenge for Garvin now is sticking on the 53-man roster. He knows he can be moved back to the practice squad or cut altogether if he doesn't play well. Garvin said he speaks often with Johnson, a former teammate at West Virginia who made the Steelers roster last year as a rookie and is now entrenched as the starting fullback.

"You just have to keep your spirits up," Garvin said. "Whatever keeps you going, do it. In this world, you never know what's going to happen."

NOTES -- Rookie running back Le'Veon Bell (foot) will not play Sunday against the Titans. Tight end Heath Miller (knee) is listed as doubtful and Johnson and rookie linebacker Jarvis Jones are probable. ... Defensive end Brett Keisel (non-injury-related) also is listed as probable.


Ray Fittipaldo: rfittipaldo@post-gazette.com and Twitter @rayfitt1. First Published September 7, 2013 4:00 AM


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