EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. (WCCO) — Every day that isn’t an off day, Toby Johnson is up by 6:15 a.m. and out of the house by 6:30.
It’s less than a 10-minute drive from his apartment to the Vikings practice facility, but he wants to make sure he’s there before 7.
Meetings aren’t until 8.
“Practice squad, you want to show that you’re dedicated,” Johnson said. “I always be up there. I come just to show my face. I want to keep my face relevant around the building at all times. I want them guys to know that I’m a pro, I’m serious about my job, I want to do whatever I’ve got to do.”
It’s a job that feels like a constant audition.
“Oh yeah, most definitely,” Johnson said. “They watch everything. They watch everything.”
And as he drives past the players’ parking lot full of Mercedes and Land Rovers, he’s reminded every day of where he fits in the food chain.
Practice squad players park in a separate lot in the back.
Next to the dumpsters.
“You gotta earn it,” Johnson said. “You gotta earn a spot up there.”
From time to time, you hear about the Vikings or other NFL teams signing or releasing this player or that player to and from their “practice squad.” It’s almost always someone you’ve never heard of, and you forget about it and carry on with your day.
But the practice squad is a fascinating place — out of the spotlight, in the margins of the NFL. Football’s version of Purgatory — stuck somewhere between the cut-list and the promised land.
This is life on the practice squad.
“I kind of tell my family I live my life day to day,” Johnson said. “I tell everybody that. That’s how you have to live.”
Each team can have 10 players on its practice squad — extra depth who can practice with the team but can’t play in games. Most are young players who show potential but need development. Any team can pluck a player off another team’s practice squad, but only if they add them to their 53-man roster. They get paid by the week — and a lot less money — and can be released at any time.
Which means at any moment, they could be cut or uprooted across the country.
“Ain’t no stability in this job,” Johnson said.
At the same time, they’re just one step away from their dream.
“I feel like I’m right there,” Johnson said, holding two pinched fingers together. “It can be any moment.”
Johnson bounced around four different teams last year — first the Titans in training camp, then three different practice squads – Jacksonville, Chicago and Minnesota — each for just a week at a time.
“It’s interesting, but you just want a chance to prove you’re a part of this league,” said Isaac Fruechte, who has gone from the Vikings to the Lions back to the Vikings just this year already.
He’s currently living out of two duffel bags.
“Everything,” Johnson said, “no matter what it is, I mean, cars, your rent, everything’s gotta be month to month. Because you never know what [could happen], you know what I mean? You can’t get locked into nothing.”
Renting a car?
“I’m renting a car,” Johnson said. “I didn’t even buy a car. It’s month to month.”
The Vikings practice squad players usually live at an extended stay hotel. But when the hotel needed the rooms for the Ryder Cup, they all moved out and got apartments.
“Living out of a hotel every day, it’s just not the way to live, man,” Johnson said with a laugh.
Johnson and practice squad teammate Isame Faciane rent a two-bedroom in Eden Prairie next to Purgatory Creek — rather fitting, isn’t it?
Month to month, of course.
“I don’t own nothing in here but my clothes,” Johnson said. “That’s one of the things you’ve gotta look for, being on practice squad. Everything’s gotta be fully furnished. It looks like a female decorated in here, right?”
The reason you don’t bring your own stuff?
“I learned that the hard way when I was in Baltimore, and then had to leave,” said Julian Wilson, who signed with the Vikings practice squad in September. “I had got furniture, everything. Packing all that, getting it shipped, all my clothes, all my shoes. So when I came here, I said no, I’m taking two duffel bags, and everything else I’ll just have to get as I go.”
Two days after doing this interview, Wilson was gone again — released to make room for Fruechte.
“I’m gonna be honest with y’all,” Johnson said. “I didn’t even unpack my suitcase until I moved out of the hotel recently.”
For all that insecurity, practice squad players make pennies on the dollar compared to their peers. Most make the practice squad minimum — $6,900 a week. To which you might say, that actually sounds pretty good.
But with little assurance you’ll be around next week, you can’t exactly live large.
“I drive a 2002 Nissan Altima,” running back C.J. Ham said with a laugh.
Not the glamorous life you’d expect in the NFL.
“You see Bentleys, Porsches, you’ve got everything out here, man,” Johnson said, pointing at the players’ parking lot. “I drive a Nissan. I mean, the car ain’t bad. For a normal person, they’d be like, oh, this a GREAT car! But when you’re pulling up, you see all this stuff, it’s like, man, I better park my car way on the other side.
“I ain’t gonna say a name, but I seen one of the other guys’ checks, and it was for 900-some-thousand. For two weeks. That right there makes me want to run through this brick wall.”
Since practice squad players don’t travel to road games, on gameday, they watch their team from home, on the couch.
“Makes me anxious,” Faciane said. “Supposed to be out there.”
At practice, a lot of times they’re not even running the Vikings’ offense or defense, but the upcoming opponents’, on the scout team.
“They show us a card of what the other team does,” Ham said, “and we look at the card and then we go out there and execute their play.”
That usually involves imitating a specific player, like when Fruechte was Odell Beckham, Jr.
“Wore a red jersey with 13 on it,” Fruechte said.
Or when it was up to Joel Stave to mimic 6-foot-5, 245 pound reigning MVP Cam Newton.
“He did the best he could,” Faciane said, breaking into a big laugh.
All the while, they’re trying to do it so well that the coaches take notice. Always trying to prove yourself. Just waiting for your chance.
“Whenever I get my opportunity,” Faciane said, “I’m not letting go.”
“It can be anytime,” Johnson said. “It ain’t even gotta be this year, it might be next. But I just gotta show the coaches I know what I’m doing. That I know how to be a pro .That even though I’m not on the 53, I’ve got those aspects of being on that 53.”
The NFL is full of practice squad success stories: Tony Romo, James Harrison, Arian Foster, as well as a dozen current Vikings, including Alex Boone, Marcus Sherels, Andrew Sendejo and Adam Thielen, who lived in his cousin’s basement while he was on the practice squad.
“It’s easy to get frustrated, because a lot of these guys have been the man their whole life,” Thielen said. “High school playing every snap, college playing every snap. And then now, it’s like, ‘Wow, I can’t even play in a game.’ And, it’s frustrating. But you’ve just gotta stay in it, and good things will happen if you just stay consistent and keep working hard.”
“You hear their stories, and you just be like, man, you can do it,” Johnson said. “Only thing you’ve gotta do is just work hard, listen to what the coach is saying and do your job. You can do it.”
Life on the practice squad is precarious at best. But they all say it’s all worth it to chase a dream.
“You can’t complain about having a chance to play in the NFL.,” Fruechte said. “It’s a different world. But you’re thankful for every day, that’s for sure.
“It’s a great life.”