LB Shelton Quarles is far removed from the 1997 player who came to Bucs camp as a virtual unknown
Shelton Quarles, in the summer of 2006: Pro-Bowler, widely-respected 10th-year NFL veteran, seven-year starter, fifth-leading tackler in Tampa Bay Buccaneers history.
Shelton Quarles, in the summer of 1997: Little-known Canadian Football League performer, former undrafted NFL free agent, zero NFL games played, zero NFL tackles.
Two years ago Buccaneer fans made their choices for the franchise's "All-Time Team" through a five-month online voting process. When the fans' team was finally unveiled at the start of the 2004 season, only one appeared on the list in two places. Buccaneer fans chose Quarles as one of the two greatest inside linebackers (along with Hardy Nickerson) and the greatest special teams player in team history.
In the summer of 1997, though, you would have been hard-pressed to find a handful of Tampa Bay fans who knew his name. Quarles's subsequent rise is the quintessential training camp success story, that of the "80th Man."
There is a potential Shelton Quarles in every NFL training camp…dozens of them actually. Two and a half weeks ago, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers set up operations at Disney and brought 89 men to training camp. Most Buc fans could tick through the team's anticipated lineup in seconds – Chris Simms, Cadillac Williams, Ronde Barber, Simeon Rice, Derrick Brooks, et al. Only the most informed followers, however, could quickly call up such hopefuls as Anthony Trucks, James Patrick, Derek McCoy or Xavier Beitia.
When red jersey number 30 picks off a pass in practice in Lake Buena Vista, how many of the onlookers in the stands will have to glance down at their camp roster for the pertinent information: Dwight Ellick. The pass was intended for number 84? Ah, we all know that's Joey Galloway.
But, of the two, isn't Ellick's camp story more interesting at the core of it. Is Galloway going to make the team? Yes, even though he's been held out of half of the practices to keep his golden legs fresh. Galloway is undeniably great and the program works, but where's the intrigue in that? Is Ellick going to make the team? Who knows? But if he does, or Trucks or Patrick or Keith Wright or Derek Watson does, then that's news. And if any of those men or their lesser-known teammates is still on the team 10 years from now, won't we marvel at their one-time humble roots?
NFL teams are allowed to bring 80 players to training camp, plus a few more depending on how many NFL Europe exemptions were earned in the spring. This year, as mentioned, it's 89 in Lake Buena Vista. By September 2, those 89 men will become 53.
That's simple math. Thirty-six of the players working insanely hard in training camp will not be part of the team that tries to turn those camp gains into victories in the fall. That's the main reason cuts are so difficult for coaches to make; a coach wants to reward a player for hard work and dedication to the team, not give him a pink slip.
You could, if you wanted to, rank those men from 1 to 89 at the beginning of camp in terms of how solid their chances to make the team are. Returning starters with big contracts are obviously in little danger of The Turk. Somewhere around the mid-50s, you'd be listing the proverbial "bubble players." And eventually you'd have to choose somebody to put in the last slot, the 80th Man.
The thing is, you would probably have to rework your list a week into camp, and then again two weeks in camp. Quarles may not have been the 80th Man when he showed up at Bucs camp in 1997, but he was no sure thing, either. He had been to one previous NFL camp, as an undrafted player with the Dolphins in 1995. He had played a few seasons in the CFL and spent a chunk of time working in a printing press in his hometown.
But Quarles was talented, and that swiftly became obvious. He had the size-speed combination that makes a player a valuable weapon on special teams, and that alone earned him a spot on the 53-man roster. He might have even earned a starting spot by his second camp if not for an injury setback, but he was in the starting lineup by 1999, and he's been there ever since.
His story is wonderful, and a bit rare, but not unique. Who are some of the other 80th Man success stories in recent Buccaneer history? Heard of Karl Williams, the most accomplished punt returner in team annals? How about Todd Yoder and Chartric Darby? Michael Husted made that jump back in 1993. The only thing that saved Corey Ivy from total camp anonymity in the summer of 2001 was that he was one of two players by the same name on the roster, joining wide receiver hopeful Khori Ivy. Of course, five years later, we remember Corey but not Khori. The former owns a Super Bowl ring.
Williams made it into Tampa Bay's camp in 1996 almost by accident. Buccaneer scouts had visited his alma mater, little Texas A&M-Kingsville, in order to look at guard Jorge Diaz, who they did eventually sign as a free agent and bring to camp. But Williams caught their attention, too, and earned his own invite. When Williams got to camp, he was virtually indistinguishable, outside the gaze of team officials, from fellow receivers Terence Davis, Jermaine Holmes, Nilo Silvan, Marvin Marshall and Larry Ryans.
Silvan and Marshall might ring a bell with some Buc fans, but who doesn't remember Williams, who has improbably played in more games for the franchise than any other wide receiver in its history? Williams may have been an unknown when camp started, but he quickly distinguished himself from the pack with his extremely precise routes and seeming veteran presence. That earned him a spot on the team, if not immediately in the game-day offense. The passing game was still directed to such veterans as Courtney Hawkins, Mike Alstott and Jackie Harris.
By midseason, however, Williams had further proven himself on the practice field and the Bucs worked him into the game plan. He caught 16 passes over a five-week span from Game 7 to Game 11. Then, in December, unimpressed with the results they were getting from the return game, the Bucs put Williams back to field punts and kickoffs. They figured he would be solid and dependable, as he was at receiver. Instead, he averaged 27.4 yards on 14 kickoff returns and a stunning 21.1 yards on 13 punt returns, including the second return touchdown in team history. He was the NFC Special Teams Player of the Month, just a year after catching his last pass in Kingsville.
Williams stayed with the team through 2003, won a Super Bowl ring, played in 115 games and set the club's all-time record for punt return yardage.
Husted used one shining camp to build a lengthy Buc career, too. In 1992, the Bucs tried to give the job to Dallas castoff Ken Willis, only to think better of it a month into the season and call on ageless veteran Eddie Murray. Murray got the Bucs through the '02 season, but they went into 1993 looking for, possibly, a younger, stronger option. Smart money was on Daron Alcorn, drafted out of Akron in the eighth round. But Murray was back, too, along with a pair of kids named Tracy Bennett and Michael Husted.
From that crowded competition rose Husted, a rookie free agent out of the University of Virginia. Alcorn did end up with a long career in the Arena League, but Husted stuck for six seasons and was, until the arrival of Martin Gramatica, the leading scorer in Tampa Bay annals. The Buccaneers even matched a deal for Husted when the San Francisco 49ers tried to sign him away prior to the 1996 season.
Husted wasn't big, but he could hit the ball a long way, as evidenced by the team-record 57-yard field goal he made as a rookie in Oakland. Even after Gramatica's subsequent blitzing of the record book, Husted owns three of the seven longest successful field goals in Buc history.
Yoder didn't leave behind that sort of presence in the Bucs' record book after his four seasons in Tampa, but he did overcome even steeper odds. Tampa Bay took seven tight ends to camp that summer, only a few of whom were established NFL players. And Yoder was clearly seventh on the depth chart, even alongside such since-forgotten candidates as Henry Lusk, Lovett Purnell, Jason Freeman and draft pick James Whalen. Dave Moore and Patrick Hape were established and had jersey numbers 83 and 82, respectively, locked up. By the time Yoder got his shirt, the Bucs were down to 44.
But Yoder was a hard-worker, and he proved to be a good special-teamer. That was the bulk of his role, in fact, over four years in Tampa, and it helped him win a Super Bowl ring and, in 2004, a job with the Jacksonville Jaguars, which he still possesses. If you're scoring at home that is, so far, a six-year career in a field where the average career length is 3.6 years. And, far from the 80th man now, Yoder is still going strong.
Darby and Ivy came to the Bucs fresh off playing in other leagues, Darby in the NFLEL and Ivy in the one-and-done XFL. Both had played marvelously in those league, but that is hardly a rock-solid indication that NFL success will follow. These two made it work, though it took an extra year of toiling on the practice squad for both. Darby first joined the Bucs in 2000 and was on the active roster by 2001; Ivy came along a year later in both respects. By Super Bowl XXXVII, Darby was starting at nose tackle and Ivy was one of the team's best special teams players.
Darby made it back to the Super Bowl last year with Seattle, so his name is now well-known among both Buccaneer and Seahawk fans. Ivy went on to play for the St. Louis Rams.
Once established, these two found it easier to convince other teams they were deserving of a job. At one point, however, they were the unknowns, 80th Men who overcame long odds through hard work and a previously undiscovered reserve of talent. Chances are, that story will repeat itself this summer at Disney and, later, back in Tampa. Who will make that leap? That's the best story of training camp.