Cam Newton was selected first overall in the 2011 NFL Draft by the Carolina Panthers. The quarterback won the Heisman Trophy and a national championship while at Auburn University.
Peyton Manning was an All-American quarterback at the University of Tennessee before being chosen No. 1 by the Indianapolis Colts in 1998. We all know the caliber of career he had in the NFL.
While players like Newton, Manning and countless others dominate the headlines and spotlight, there are many players, if not more, who are relative unknowns.
Ryan Spadola falls into the latter category.
‘The Average Joes with the tough road,’ said Spadola, a wide receiver with the Detroit Lions. ‘People think when you’re on an NFL team it’s making a ton of money, doing commercials, people want your autograph, you get endorsement deals. Yeah, there’s five percent of the guys on the team who do that, but the majority of the guys don’t have those luxuries. It’s truly one of the toughest competitions in the world.’
Spadola, 25, is a relative unknown. He didn’t come from a successful high school football program. He didn’t play at a Division I program in a major college conference. His games weren’t broadcast on national TV every Saturday. He wasn’t drafted into the National Football League.
Yet here he is in the same league as players like Newton, J.J. Watt, Odell Beckham Jr. and Tom Brady.
Spadola’s journey, though, was different. It was anonymous.
‘There’s the easy route where you’re fortunate enough to be born with the athletic ability, you go to a place where you showcase that, get a free ride (athletic scholarship) to a big school and have the spotlight on you so everyone sees what you can do,’ Spadola said. ‘Then there’s the road the majority of the people like myself have to go through. You take those steps and overcome every obstacle put in front of you under the radar and then still get to the same spot a lot of the big-name guys are at.
‘It’s definitely more rewarding looking back on the things you went through to get there.’
Football had always interested Spadola. He grew up surrounded by it, whether it was his friends playing it or his father, Donald, coaching it. He viewed the sport as an opportunity to spend time with his friends and have fun.
Spadola did just that at Freehold Township High School in New Jersey with no anticipation of continuing his career at collegiate level. It’s why he had no qualms with stepping away from the game as a sophomore to focus on track. But it was at this moment when he came to a realization.
‘It wasn’t until I took that year off when I realized how much I had a passion for football,’ he said. ‘Junior year I went back with the mindset of, “Let’s see how far I can go with football”.’
Spadola didn’t garner much attention from coaches at the next level though. Smaller, non-scholarship schools, particularly in the Patriot League including Lehigh University, Lafayette College and College of the Holy Cross, expressed interest.
Like his realization when he stepped away from football as a sophomore, it was when Spadola visited the Lehigh campus in Bethlehem, Pa., that he knew what he wanted.
The transition from high school to college wasn’t easy for Spadola. The increased workload in the classroom and on the field, being on his own and the higher level of competition took some getting used to. Spadola, though, adjusted. He had 78 catches for 1,130 yards and nine touchdowns as a sophomore and it was at an evaluation meeting with offensive coordinator Dave Cecchini and wide receivers coach Jason Miran when he realized his true potential.
Cecchini, who had coached other players who played in the NFL, including receiver Andre Roberts, saw something in Spadola.
‘That was the first point where I was like, “Holy cow, a guy from Howell, N.J., can make it into the NFL,”’ Spadola said. ‘That was beyond a childhood dream of mine. I enjoyed watching the NFL as a kid, of course, but never did I really think it would be the place I would end up. I took his words to heart and really pushed myself.’
Spadola had a record-setting junior season at Lehigh and began garnering interest from NFL scouts. Even though he didn’t get drafted after his senior season, he signed a free agent contract with the New York Jets — the same team he had seen in person countless times when he was younger with his father and younger brother Randy.
Being a rookie in the NFL is hard enough. Being an undrafted rookie makes it even tougher. Undrafted players aren’t guaranteed money compared to those who are drafted. Undrafted players are therefore more expendable.
Yet, Spadola continued to showcase his talent and skill set. He was labeled as the ‘feel-good story of (Jets training) camp’ in 2013. His roster spot had to be earned. It wasn’t guaranteed.
Toward the end of the summer ahead of Week 1 of the regular season, NFL teams must reduce their rosters to a maximum of 75 active players. A few days later, they are cut down to a max of 53 players.
Spadola would be one of those 53 for the Jets’ 2013 regular season. He played in three games.
‘Making your first NFL team undrafted your rookie year, which I did, looking back is mind-blowing,’ he said. ‘What people don’t realize is once you make the team, you aren’t guaranteed anything. Even though I was on the 53-man roster, I was probably 52 out of 53 in terms of money invested and, I guess, importance to the team. I was a young guy, easily expendable.
‘I had to go out and bust my ass every single day, every single practice was like a game. It was full-go 24-7. I couldn’t afford to take a play off or practice off.’
Unfortunately, the harsh reality of the NFL, as Spadola referred to it, came to the forefront. Players can get cut for a myriad of reasons, including ones out of their own hands. That happened with New York. Because of a slew of injuries on defense and the need to acquire replacements, Spadola was a casualty.
A staff member approached him at his locker that fateful afternoon. He was told to report upstairs with his playbook.
‘It’s a heart-stopping moment,’ Spadola said. ‘Prior to being with the Jets I watched the show Hard Knocks, so I had some knowledge of how it went down, the whole cut routine. Seeing teammates of mine in camp in the first rounds of cuts, you know who you want to see and who you don’t want to see. It’s a shock. You think, “What did I do wrong?”’
After a player is released, there is a 24-hour dead period where other teams can claim him to their active roster. Once that time is up, the team that cut a player can re-sign him to their practice squad or another team can sign him to theirs.
Three days after being released by the Jets, Spadola signed with the Miami Dolphins to their practice squad. Receiver Brandon Gibson tore his patella tendon and would miss a significant portion of the season.
There was now a spot on the active roster available. Spadola proved he deserved it. He was promoted to the active roster and played in the 22-20 win against the Cincinnati Bengals on Thursday Night Football on Oct. 31, 2013.
Unfortunately, that same harsh reality of the NFL resurfaced. Spadola had been dealing with abdomen pain, but for fear of missing significant time due to the injury, kept playing through it. He would receive anti-inflammatory Cortisone shots, but after a second opinion found out he had two tears in his abdomen and surgery was required.
‘If you have an injury and you have to sit out, you’re no longer part of the team, you can’t practice, you aren’t worth anything to them,’ Spadola said. ‘With no contractural binding contracts in terms of money, teams can get rid of you whenever they want and replace you scot-free. They don’t owe you anything.’
Following surgery and rehabilitation, Spadola landed on the practice squad with the Atlanta Falcons during the 2014 season. He was cut two months later after a veteran receiver became healthy.
Spadola signed with the Arizona Cardinals later that season to their practice squad, but a dislocated finger in the 2015 preseason ended that relationship. He signed with the Lions’ practice squad during the 2015 regular season.
An injury, a poor performance or a change in system or coaching staff are all events that can change the course of a player’s career. A player can go from being a lock on an active roster to a free agent, anxiously waiting for his phone to ring with another opportunity.
‘I try not to think about it,’ Spadola said. ‘Whether I mess up, get yelled at or get hurt, the more you think about it the more it’s going to happen. I take the approach that I’m going to have fun and enjoy the whole process and let everything else fall into place. The important thing is controlling what you can control — going out and going play by play.’
To make matters more complex, money, especially for a practice squad player, isn’t guaranteed. If a player is on a roster for two weeks during the regular season, he gets paid for those two weeks. NFL players receive a weekly paycheck during the 17-week season that has to last them the entire year.
A practice squad player making $6,000 a week who gets cut after 4 p.m. Tuesday (when each NFL week begins) of Week 3 earns $18,000 that season if he can’t find another job in the league. That has to pay rent, buy groceries, pay for a car and support a family in some cases.
It’s the NFL. It’s more than the three hours seen on TV on Sundays.
Spadola is currently on the Injured Reserve after suffering a pectoral tear in the second day of practice with Detroit. He is expected to miss six months. Because he is still on the team’s roster, he continues to receive a paycheck, though only a certain percentage of what he could have been earning if he was healthy. With another year left on his contract, Spadola is anxiously awaiting his return to the field with his teammates in anticipation for the 2017 season.
‘I know what I’m capable of, but can I get the breaks to go my way and stay injury-free? That’s the toughest thing,’ Spadola said. ‘This season I thought was going to be my breakout season going into training camp, but then this injury happened. Fortunately I was able to have a great offseason showcasing my talents and versatility to the team. Now my focus is making sure to have a successful recovering and getting myself back to where I need to be on the field competing.’