10:00pm

Tue August 16, 2011
Sweetness And Light

You're Off The Team: The Most Unkindest Cut

Now is the time when The Turk appears –– he being that mythic figure in the NFL camps who materializes one night with those words of doom for the poor player before him: Pick up your playbook and go see the coach.

It is, of course, not the messenger who actually performs the dirty deed. But for decades now, the person who tells the player to report to the boss has been known as The Turk –– presumably because some old player with a vivid imagination envisioned an Ottoman warrior, wielding a scimitar sword that, more dramatically than any other, said cut.

The vision is absolutely correct, too, for in no other sport, when the coach makes the decision, is a cut so decisive as it is in football. In baseball, being cut almost always just means a trip back to the minor leagues. Good grief, you're still part of the family, in the same organization. Hockey is much like that, too.

In basketball, being cut can merely mean a trip down to the Developmental League, or even better, to one of the many substantial foreign teams, where there is good money and exotic attractions to salve the wound of taking your leave from the NBA.

Ah, but football. Perhaps The Turk should be better known as Brutus, for as Marc Antony suggested, his was "the most unkindest cut of all." In football, there is no Europe or Asia for NFL rejects to find solace and employment. Yes, Canada –– but the season is already under way, and there's a quota on American players.

And yes, each NFL team keeps a handful of the cuttees around on what was most colorfully known as "the taxi squad" –– for an old owner who ran a cab company and kept his spares on that payroll. But pay on the practice squad is a pittance, and only in the NFL are salaries not guaranteed.

Yes, when you are cut in football, you are cut off, too.

Football careers are also the shortest. It all ends so quickly. And worse, maybe too you have put on too much weight in homage to the game, and now you are not only a has-been, but a have-fat, as well. You are suddenly thrust back in a world where your body is out of joint. It's brutal when a football life ends.

The Turk, the angel of cut, used to be some functionary on the team –– the equipment manager, say, or an assistant trainer. In the modern world, it may be more impersonal: just a cellphone call. But the message is the same: Please pick up your playbook and report to the coach.

And every football player understands. Even before he reaches the coach's office, he knows that his dedicated young life, all that he has loved so much, is over. Football is done, and there is no place to go. You are cut.

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