Now three days into free agency, the NFL media has been focused on the high-profile names signing the big-money contracts as some teams try to spend their way into winning ways, while others take a more prudent course, seeking value over headlines.
Yet it's not just the big-name free agents that determine a team's on-field success. Much mention was made after the Super Bowl how New England and Seattle benefited from huge plays made by entirely unheralded undrafted free agents, Malcolm Butler - who thought his football career was over when he was kicked off his college team, ending up working at a Popeye's Chicken - and Chris Matthews, who was in the middle of a shift at Footlocker when the Seahawks called to offer him a tryout.
Butler and Matthews' stories show that the NFL could come knocking at any time - but some players aren't just content to wait for football to come to them. Some players will actively chase their dreams as long as they can, even when the odds are against them. Some players claim they will go to any lengths to create an opportunity for themselves.
Not many would dare go to the lengths that Darrell Tate went to create that opportunity.
Not getting an opportunity was nothing new for Tate. A running back since middle school, the Alcoa, Tennessee native found himself in a crowded four-person backfield at high school as a freshman, where his positional unit included future NFL star Randall Cobb. Every year at Alcoa High, however, Tate saw himself move up one spot on the depth chart, so that at the end of his junior year, Tate was ready for his turn as the starter the following season.
The situation did not pan out as Tate hoped. A new running back joined the team in Tate's final high school season, who had similar measurables as Tate. His coaches decided that the best thing for the team was to play the new back at tailback, and move Tate to fullback. While he still was productive in his new position when he got the ball, the move to FB severely hurt Tate's ability to impress college scouts, and by the time he graduated, his only offers were from DIII schools.
Not one to be deterred, Tate joined Maryville College, just three miles from Alcoa. Even at Maryville, Tate didn't get his opportunity straight away - in fact, it wasn't until his senior year that he was finally named starting running back of the Maryville Scots. Ready to show the world what he could do, Tate's season started perfectly, notching over 400 yards in the first four games of the season; unfortunately, that would also be his season total, as he broke his ankle in that fourth game. His performance had still been enough to receive an honorable mention when the USA South All-Conference team was named, but with only four games' worth of footage as a starting running back, Tate unsurprisingly received no interest from any pro teams.
Where other people might have hung up their cleats if they were in his situation, Tate still felt he hadn't yet had the opportunity to show his best work - and still believed that if he was given that shot, he would prove he belonged on an NFL team. Tate looked to find representation, but went through two agents before he found one who truly believed in him, Calvin Williams of Explosive Training and Sports Management.
Williams encouraged Tate to continue to try and break into the pro game. With Williams in his corner, Tate attended several of the NFL's regional combines; nothing came of it.
Williams was then able to arrange tryouts for Tate with some CFL teams; yet nothing came of it.
Finally, Tate attempted to get into the Arena leagues; still nothing came of it.
There was still one option that Williams kept pushing - to look to play football not in North America, but in Europe, where the sport continues to grow and which is, at the top tiers, a semi-professional sport. Tate would not go, not because he didn't want to, but because he felt he couldn't, as he was engaged at the time.
Still, Tate continued to work out and keep his body in shape. Tate says he had seen too many NFL-calibre players in his time "just stop grinding and going for it", watching as they eventually got jobs in gas stations. Tate promised himself that this would not be his fate. In time, as can happen, his relationship with his fiancée ended. As painful as that must have been for Tate, it meant that he could finally take his agent's advice, and look to play football in Europe.
Creating a profile on the website Europlayers (the main hub by which teams can scout for players, and players can promote themselves to teams), Tate tried to contact several European football teams - 183 of them.
All one hundred and eighty three teams were uninterested in Tate.
Still, fate can be funny sometimes. An injury prevented Darrell from showing his potential as a senior at Maryville; now, it was an injury to another American player plying his trade in Europe that gave Tate his shot. Serbian football team the Indija Indians contacted Tate, saying that they needed a replacement running back for their final four games of the season, and that they could provide room and board - if he could pay his own way out to Serbia. Unwilling to let an opportunity to get additional, more recent game footage slip by, Tate bought a pair of plane tickets and flew out to Indija.
In those final four games of the Indians' season, Tate put up 413 yards on 57 carries, scoring six touchdowns and helping them win all four games. By the time the season was over, Tate was getting interest from the GFL, Germany's top tier of American football and arguably the largest and most professional football league in Europe. Unfortunately due to transfer rules, Tate would have to have waited four weeks in Serbia, without a job, until he could transfer to Germany. Tate chose to fly home instead.
Returning to America, Tate moved in with his brother, who had relocated from Tennessee to St Petersburg. While continuing to work out, Tate signed up to become a driver for Uber, while still looking for opportunities in football.
On his first day on the job, in mid-October 2014, he received what would become the biggest opportunity of his life.
The first visit to One Buc Place
Wanting to make a good first impression, Tate dressed smartly for his first day as an Uber driver. He was driving on the other side of the bay in Tampa itself, and as he drove down the Dale Mabry Highway, he noticed a cherry picker rising up from the training fields at One Buc Place, indicating that the Bucs were filming a practice at the time. Tate decided to park his car, and see what was going on at the facility.
About 20 yards from the front gate, a woman opened the door for him. "I guess it was a fan day," Tate says, as a bunch of fans followed the woman through the gates towards the practice field, where the Bucs were practicing for their post-bye week opponents, the Vikings. Tate stuck close to the group, as if he were one of the invitees, but "what was interesting was they didn't think I was a fan, they thought I was a member of the team." As the fans were directed to one side of the training field, Tate was left to go where he pleased.
Tate was starstruck, but kept his composure. Focusing on the running backs, he watched Doug Martin taking reps, and thought to himself that the players didn't look any bigger, or stronger, or faster than he did. "Why the hell am I not out here?," Tate thought, "I belong here." As the players walked past him, they gave him a friendly nod, as if they knew him. "I'm going to create an opportunity for myself", Tate said to himself, but with the team in the middle of practice, he decided that it was not the right time.
Leaving the facility, Tate called up his agent, telling him how he managed to get into OBP, and his plan to get back inside somehow to speak to Lovie Smith. Williams, warning that it wouldn't be as easy to get in the next time, told him that speaking to Lovie Smith wouldn't help - but he didn't dissuade his client from following through on his plan. Instead, he told Tate that if he wanted to go through with it, he should to try to speak to running backs coach Tim Spencer. Williams put together a profile on Spencer, including both background information and numerous photographs so that Tate would be able to recognise him. A few days later, he was ready to go back.
The second visit to One Buc Place
Williams was right; it instantly became clear that it would be much harder to get inside another time. Tate tried all the various doors and gates, but they were all locked. He saw one of the Glazers pull into one of the gated carparks outside the facility - recognising the car from when the group of fans had excitedly pointed it out on Tate's previous visit - but the co-owner walked in the opposite direction. Finally, he decided to go the direct route - he marched into the main lobby and spoke to the receptionist.
Tate explained to the receptionist who he was, and that all he wanted was an opportunity to speak to Spencer. The receptionist replied that it was the director of pro personnel that he would need to speak to, and gave Tate a number to call. Tate thanked her, left the reception, and called the number.
Unsurprisingly, the number went straight to the reception desk, picked up by the same receptionist he had just spoken with. He asked if he could speak with the director of pro personnel, and was transferred to another line - one which wasn't picked up. He left a voicemail, but the voicemail was never returned.
For Tate, there was only one option left: "you gotta do what it takes - I had to sneak myself into the facility".
The third visit to One Buc Place
Having seen at the last visit that all gates and doors were locked, Tate's third visit to OBP was purely a recon mission. Dressed as smartly as he could to hope and avoid being questioned, Tate bade his time, taking note of who was entering and leaving the building, how the gates were operated, "even looking at where the custodians came in and out to empty the trashcans". After a day of watching, Tate decided that his best route of success was to follow one of the players on foot as they swiped their cards at the entrance to the players' carpark. He had all the information he needed - he was determined to make sure that his next visit to the building would end with him being face-to-face with Tim Spencer.
The fourth and final visit to One Buc Place
Tate arrived at OBP, and waited for a player to approach the players' entrance. Spying someone approaching, he tailed them as they punched in a security code and went in through the gate to the players' car park. He saw that the player he had followed didn't need to swipe again to enter the actual building, so taking some time to compose himself, he walked up to the door and entered.
Not sure where to go, he followed the corridor to his left, which eventually led him to the team's weights room. He saw Bobby Rainey working out with some of the trainers, who tossed Tate a casual "what's up" before returning to his work out. Tate continued to explore the building, going into the players' lounge, the positional meeting rooms, the locker room, all the while thinking "wow, this is where it happens". However, he couldn't find the coaches' offices. Continuing to roam the halls, he eventually found an elevator.
Entering the elevator, he had a choice between the second and third floors; opting for the second floor, the elevator doors opened, and in front of him he saw the doors to the coaches' offices. The very first door in front of him? Tim Spencer's... with the light off and no sounds coming from inside.
Unsure what to do, Darrell walked a bit further down the hallway, where there was a small lobby-like area. He sat himself down, when two people came down the corridor. One of them knocked on Spencer's door; to Tate's surprise, someone answered, telling them to come inside - Spencer had been in his office after all. Waiting for the visitor to leave, Tate rehearsed what he was going to say, then knocked on Spencer's door.
Tate greeted Spencer, which the coach returned, giving him a firm handshake. "He looked at me like, 'I don't know who this guys is. Am I supposed to know who he is?'", Tate recounted. He began introducing himself to Spencer, but Spencer was more interested in how Tate got into the building. Tate began to recount he had gotten inside the facility to watch a practice, and told Spencer he wanted to talk about the Buccaneers offense, and about the running backs situation, to which Spencer replied, "OK, we can definitely talk about that - but first, how did you get in here?"
Darrell was up front: "Coach, I snuck in. I'm trying to create an opportunity for myself, I'm here right now, I've gone through a lot just to get here." Spencer was more impressed than anything. "He was like, 'that's awesome, well I'm a nice guy so I won't get you in trouble, so tell me what you want me to hear'". Tate told Spencer his whole story, about how he never felt he was given a fair shot at any point his in footballing career. Tate ended by asking Spencer what he needed to do to get an opportunity.
Spencer informed Tate that the coaches didn't actually have anything to do with who gets a tryout with the team - that usually, the head of personnel or director of pro scouting will bring people in, and then the coaches go from there. Spencer added that he had never brought a running back in for a tryout for the Bucs, but that the person Tate needed to speak with was director of football operations Shelton Quarles.
Spencer went on to ask Tate about his 40 time, about all the teams he had played for, and about how he saw himself as a running back - specifically asking if Tate saw himself as a tailback or as a 'combo' tailback/fullback. Tate felt he was getting somewhere with Spencer, but knew that ultimately the coach would, at best, just pass the information on to the scouting department. Spencer also warned Tate that there is usually a waiting list for tryouts. He also said that they had just brought in a couple of RBs on a tryout to replace the then-recently departed Jeff Demps, and that they were planning on bringing in Trindon Holliday (which the Bucs subsequently did), so they didn't have a specific need for running backs at the time.
Finally, Spencer gave Tate Quarles' contact information, walked him to the main entrance of One Buc Place, and wished him farewell. As Tate walked back to his car, someone came racing out the building after him - the Buccaneers' head of security. The head of security reassured Tate that he wouldn't be in trouble, but asked him to explain exactly how he managed to get to a coach's office, in order to make sure that someone else cannot do the same in future. Tate told him everything he wanted to know, after which the conversation became more friendly, with the head of security taking an interest in Tate's football background. He then told Tate that the person he needed to contact was, again, Shelton Quarles. With two independent sources both telling him that Quarles was the man he needed to speak to, Tate felt confident that he was finally on the right track.
Tate called Calvin Williams, and gave him all of Quarles' contact information. He left a message for Quarles, and Quarles actually called the agent back.
In an ideal world, I'd be writing here that Quarles told Williams that there'd be a spot for Tate at the next tryout. Tate would have come in, impressed the hell out of everyone, and would have gotten signed to the practice squad, or even the active roster. He would have become a key member of the Bucs' backfield, maybe, in time, become a starter, and one day down the road Disney would have made a movie about the running back who broke into One Buc Place and ended up as an NFL player, joining Invincible as one of those 'unlikely-but-true' stories.
But this is not an ideal world. Quarles informed Williams that they weren't interested right then, but that Williams should keep calling, and maybe something will open up.
Neither Tate nor Williams ever heard from Quarles again.
This is not the end of Tate's story, however. Spencer did tell some of the other coaches and scouts about Tate's audacious ploy to create an opportunity, and the story spread through the football grapevine. Williams began receiving more calls about his client's services, and Tate ended up starting in the 2014 "Cayman Kickoff Classic", a game that features American players trying to latch on with a pro team alongside some local talent. In that game, Tate - who started at running back - notched up 50 yards and a touchdown on just seven carries. He has continued to attend various events, combines and camps designed to give players an opportunity to be seen by scouts, and just last week was signed by another semi-professional European team, Hungary's Docler Wolves.
Will Darrell Tate ever seen an NFL field? It's unlikely - but Tate has never been one to back down when the odds are against him. Maybe, just maybe, nearer the rookie mini-camp weekend following the draft, Shelton Quarles will pick the phone back up to Calvin Williams and say there's a spot among the 70 spaces for Darrell, finally giving him that shot he's always wanted. Meanwhile, Darrell is recently arrived in Hungary, and will no doubt put as much effort into having a stellar season for the Docler Wolves as possible. Darrell has told me that he believes 2015 will be his year - and he remains adamant that, if he is just given the opportunity, he can prove that he belongs in the NFL.
Regardless of how Darrell's story plays out, there is one thing that he will always be able to tell others - that while some people may claim that they will always keep grinding to get what they want, there are very few who would go to the lengths that Darrell Tate has gone to, just to try and finally get his shot.
Finally, I leave you with some highlights from Darrell's 2014 season with the Indija Indians.
(h/t Mia Bajin of Touchdown Europe, whose article on Tate led me to tracking down and interviewing Darrell)