Bruce Gaston has a couple of dreams. He has the figurative one where he envisions himself completing a rags-to-riches journey from undrafted rookie nobody to heralded NFL somebody. And then he has the literal dream that reappeared Tuesday night as he fell asleep studying his Vikings playbook, in yet another strange hotel room.
“Honestly, in the dream, I wake up and I don’t know where I am,” said the 6-2, 310-pound defensive tackle, who was signed Tuesday morning. “In the dream, I wake up and I’m playing. But I don’t know where. I have to look down to see which jersey I have on.”
In Wednesday’s OTA session at Winter Park the front of Gaston’s No. 74 jersey said, “Vikings.” The back said nothing because it takes longer than 22 hours for the team seamstress to stitch in a new guy’s name.
“That’s not the first time I’ve practiced without a name on my jersey,” Gaston said.
Gaston is 24 years old and lives on the NFL’s fringes. The Vikings are his seventh NFL stint and sixth team since leaving Purdue as an undrafted rookie in 2014. He’s been with Arizona twice. He spent four days in New England. He’s been to Miami and most recently with Green Bay and Chicago last season.
“It’s the climb,” Gaston said. “It’s not about where you start. It’s where you finish. I got big plans and bright plans for my future.”
Gaston was signed as a three-technique tackle because B.J. Dubose, a developing sixth-round draft pick from 2015, suffered a season-ending ACL tear during an OTA practice last week.
The starting three-technique is Sharrif Floyd, whose durability remains in question as he continues to sit idle with injuries sustained last season. The primary backup is 31-year-old Tom Johnson, who knows all about going from journeyman fringe player to established veteran.
Once upon a time, Johnson was a rookie free agent with the Colts. He got hurt, got released and spent the next five years bouncing from car salesman in Mississippi to NFL Europa to the Arena Football League and on to the CFL. He didn’t play an NFL game until he was 26.
Asked Wednesday if he knew Gaston’s story, Johnson said “No,” in a manner that suggested he didn’t even know Gaston’s name.
“I try to help a lot of guys like that every year,” Johnson said. “It’s tough being a fringe guy. If you’re not an established guy, it’s a cutthroat business. But it’s like anything else in life. You got to believe in yourself and put in the work. If you don’t, you’re done.”
The NFL keeps giving Gaston reason to believe. He’s been signed 10 times to active rosters or practice squads, never going longer than 15 days without a job. Arizona signed him off Miami’s practice squad. Green Bay signed him off Arizona’s practice squad. And Chicago signed him off Green Bay’s practice squad.
“When I practice, I don’t see the path,” Gaston said. “I’m just following the yellow brick road until I get to where I know I’m going.”
Gaston played in nine games a year ago. He had one tackle in two games with the Packers. In seven games with the Bears, the south-side Chicago native had eight tackles and a sack. But on May 16, he was released. Again.
“I used to stress out all the time, but I prayed and I gave it all to God,” he said. “Once I gave it to God, I let go. I used to worry when my phone rang that I was about to get cut. Now, when my phone rings, I’m hoping it’s my delivery guy bringing my food.”
Gaston got 14 snaps with the third-team defense during Wednesday’s 11-on-11 drills. Travis Raciti, who was signed a week earlier, worked with the second unit. Scott Crichton, drafted as a defensive end in the third round in 2014, was at the three-technique tackle spot during individual drills but was held out of the team portion of practice.
After practice, Gaston was going back to the only place in the Twin Cities that he can find without the help of GPS.
“I rented a car from Enterprise,” Gaston said. “They came and picked me up, just like on the commercial. Then I learned how to get back and forth from the hotel to practice. I don’t need to be doing much more than learning my playbook.
“I look at how many guys there are who haven’t been blessed to be on all the teams I’ve been on. Their dreams are over. I’m still here.”