MANKATO – Every NFL coach and general manager has that one guy they think of immediately. The one guy who changed forever the way they look at young players who initially appear to have absolutely no shot of making a 53-man roster.
“For me, it’s Danny Rains,” said Vikings linebackers coach and Pro Football Hall of Famer Mike Singletary, referring to his former Bears teammate from 1982 to 1986. “Danny wasn’t real fast. Wasn’t real big. Wasn’t real smart. But I tell you what, every time the ball was snapped, Danny was around the ball.”
Heading into their second preseason game on Friday in Buffalo, the Vikings, like every other team, are fine-tuning the top of their roster while searching the bottom for the next Danny Rains. The rest of us whine about preseason games, but for coaches and GMs, these meaningless exhibitions are the only place they can truly identify whether a Zach Line or a Bradley Randle is the next Danny Rains.
Or the next Curtis Buckley.
“I was special teams coordinator in Tampa and [then-Buccaneers General Manager] Rich McKay came to me and said I’m bringing in this young man who’s a special teams demon,” Vikings receivers coach George Stewart said. “Curtis Buckley. This kid was a cornerback and he couldn’t cover me. In practice, receivers used to count the players in the defensive backs line so that they could go against Curtis. Never in a million years did I think he’d make our football team.”
Wait. There’s a but.
“But then we started playing preseason games,” Stewart said. “Those lights came on and wooo. We played the Buffalo Bills in Orlando. Curtis ran down on the kickoff. A guy was getting ready to block him and Curtis jumped in the air, did a somersault over him. It was like gymnastics. The guy missed him, Curtis came down on the other side and then made the tackle. That somersault became Curtis’ signature until the league said he couldn’t do it anymore.”
Buckley not only made the team, he played seven seasons. In 1996, when Stewart was in San Francisco and 49ers coach George Seifert needed a special teams demon, Stewart made sure Curtis Buckley, the former NFL nobody from East Texas State, signed with the 49ers.
The Vikings have had their share of undrafted rookies make the final roster over the years. John Randle even went from a speck of a school named Texas A&I to the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
The current roster might not have any stories that end up in Canton, Ohio. But it does have stories like Matt Asiata, who got cut in the summer of 2011, spent a year out of football, gave it another go last summer and then made the team as a special teamer and No. 3 running back.
“The key is to not think negatively. Ever,” Asiata said. “Stay positive. Never give up.”
After being cut in 2011, Asiata worked in an industrial supplies warehouse in Salt Lake City. He stocked shelves, filled boxes, made deliveries and, “kept my head up.”
“I looked at my kids’ faces every day,” he said. “I looked at my wife and how she worked all her life. I felt it was my turn to provide for them.”
Guys like Asiata come from all walks of life.
“Danny Rains had been playing semipro for about five years,” Singletary said. “He also lied about his age. He was about 27 and said he was 23. He absolutely changed how I look at players who come in and aren’t the biggest or the fastest. Danny was consistent. You could trust Danny. When Danny got so tired that he couldn’t do it, he just checked into his will and his will took over.”
Vikings General Manager Rick Spielman also has his own version of Danny Rains. Spielman met this player in 2004 while Spielman was in Miami’s front office. The player had made the Chargers’ final roster as an undrafted rookie but had been released after the season opener.
The guy’s name?
“Wes Welker,” Spielman said. “He was short and small and didn’t run real fast. I never would have guessed that he would become the player he has. That, to me, was an important lesson that solidifies that you can’t lose sight of what these guys are as football players. You can’t get tied up in what they’re supposed to look like.”