THE NFL AX DEALS DEATH TO DREAMS

Joe Bushofsky does not look like a killer. His face is wide and soft with the smile of a favorite uncle. But when you enter his office, especially during the last few weeks of NFL training camp, chances are something’s going to die. And most likely it’s your dreams.

In other eras he might be called “the Turk” or “the Ax” or “The Grim Reaper.” Joe Bushofsky is the man who tells the football players they have been cut. In the past few weeks he has been busy, lifting the scythe and bringing the news with one murderous swing of reality. “It is the worst part of the job,” admits the Lions director of player personnel. Like most executioners, he sighs and says someone has to do it.

“When they sit down in that chair, I say right away ‘You’re going to be released today. We have players on our team who are better than you and we feel like you will not make the team.’ “

“That seems so quick,” says a reporter.

“Well, you’d like to spend a lot of time with each one, but sometimes you have one at your desk, one across the office and three more waiting outside, all here for the same thing. . . . You explain it’s a numbers thing or maybe a money thing. You say there may be other teams interested . . .

“Ninety percent of them understand. They say thank you for the opportunity. Five percent are sad, they choke up and don’t say much.

“And five percent feel they might not have been given a legitimate chance. Or they can’t believe it. One player I remember, he thought for sure he had made the team. When I told him he was cut, he got very upset. He began to cry. Then he pulled out a Bible and began to read from it.”

“What did you do?”

He shrugs. “You listen. What else can you do?” Sooner or later, everyone gets cut

It is an empty moment to which anyone can relate. At work? On a date? On a job interview? It is endemic to life in America that somewhere you will be told you are not good enough — by a boss, a lover, a high school coach — you are not good enough and someone else is better. We are all, at least once in our lives, given our unconditional release.

In football it happens all the time. The players come through the office, they are given the speech, they sign a release form and are asked to drop off their playbooks before they leave. If they forget or refuse, they do not receive their final paychecks. Simple as that. The playbooks are part of the arsenal, loaned, like a rifle given to a soldier; during “waiver days” you can find a small pile of playbooks in the corner of Bushofsky’s office. They are careers turned in. A secretary gathers them and puts them on the shelf.

Such is the reality of pro sports, the bad news part. You die a little when you are cut from a team; sometimes more than once. Carl Bland, a wide receiver for the Lions, was cut in 1985, then brought back, then cut again, then brought back. Same team. Same year. When a reporter comes to his locker to talk about the subject, Bland responds with a grin: “Why?” he asks. “Did I get cut again.”

No, he is told. But can you describe it?

“Well, the first time it happens is the worst. It’s a deep hurt. Coach Rogers told me my first time. It was like . . . ‘Why? Why me? Why?”

Did you argue?

“No. I just dropped my head.”

And then?

“And then you leave. You don’t want to hang around and say goodby, even though you’re gonna miss everybody.”

Plane tickets are usually waiting. But there are stories of players who refused to leave. Stories of players who got violent. Stories of players who volunteered to do anything — return punts, carry equipment, sweep up — for one more chance.

Released. Waived. Axed. Fired.

The words themselves cut the flesh.
‘It’s the business’

The NFL season begins Sunday. The rosters have been whittled from 70-plus down to 47 players. The killing season inside Bushofsky’s office has, for the most part, come to an end. “It’s a relief,” he admits, “although players will still come and go throughout the year. Sometimes that’s the worst. A guy thinks he’s made the team, the final cut day passes, and then you bring in someone new and you have to let the old guy go.”

Harsh? Cruel? No. Just reality. This is not a business of seniority. There is a feeling in football that if you collect enough chestnuts of glory you will be untouchable, they will have to keep you, but that rarely proves true. On Monday, a lineman named Doug Betters was cut by the Miami Dolphins; he was once a star of their celebrated “Killer B’s” defense. Clint Didier poured champagne is last year’s Super Bowl; on Monday the Washington Redskins let his ax fall. Jim Plunkett. Stacy Robinson. Reggie Phillips. All one-time world champions. All cut this month.

“It’s the business,” says Bushofsky.

“It’s the business,” says Bland.

The business. Indeed. Such a distant sport to most of us, football, something we could never imagine ourselves doing at the NFL level. And yet this part is very imaginable and very real. You can almost see that player in the office chair, tears in his eyes, reading the Bible, hoping to find some phrase that will unlock the door that has just been closed.

“Like I said, it’s a deep hurt,” says Bland, “but you have to deal with it.” He looks at his locker, the pads, the helmet, the playbook. The tools of the trade are his for today.

“Hey, if I do get cut, don’t come back and tell me, OK?” he says, and the reporter nods and walks away.

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