The ritual was repeated every week. The ritual of the fringe player. The holy ritual of hope. During the 2004 season, when most NFL players...
KIRKLAND — The ritual was repeated every week. The ritual of the fringe player. The holy ritual of hope.
During the 2004 season, when most NFL players were preparing for the next Sunday, Joe Tafoya was sitting in his Chicago condo, waiting for another phone call from his agent, another private audition.
Almost every week, Tafoya flew to another casting call. He traveled to New York, to Cleveland, to Seattle. He said he tried out for at least 10 teams during the season and made none.
“After a while I started asking my agent, ‘Is this even worth it anymore?’ ” Seahawks defensive end and special teamer Tafoya said Wednesday. “He kept telling me, ‘If it’s in your heart to do it, then you’ve got to do it. If not, then you might as well give it up.”
Even knowing the odds were against him, Tafoya couldn’t quit, couldn’t turn off his high-revving motor.
“The beautiful thing about Joe was that he never gave up,” said Tim Ruskell, Seahawks president of football operations. “He knew he could play. That’s what you love about him.
“He’s never said, ‘Well, I must not be good enough.’ He really loves playing the game. I would equate it to baseball. You’ve got a great pitcher out there and maybe you’re not a great fastball hitter, but if he throws you a hanging curve, you’re going to knock it out of the park. Joe has that mentality. ‘Just throw me a mistake.’ “
Just like he did before the 2001 draft, Tafoya, 27, traveled around the country in 2004, running 40s, lifting weights, testing all of his football measurables, auditioning for a chance to get back on a roster, at defensive end or on special teams.
“It was a nightmare,” he said.
After playing three seasons for the Chicago Bears, he couldn’t find a job.
He went to training camp with the Bears and was cut in August. The next day he was claimed by Arizona and cut six days later. He signed with Atlanta two weeks before the season opened, but was cut five days later.
“After a while it just got disheartening,” said Tafoya, who had his best game of the season Sunday with three tackles from defensive end and two more on special teams. “After a while I kind of gave up on it. Everybody was basically saying the same thing. They’d bring you in. They’d work you out. And they’re like, ‘You’re on our short list.’
“It’s disheartening to get a call and then get your hopes up and then nothing. You don’t get a call back from anybody. While everybody was playing the games, I was just working out, trying to be ready for that one call I hoped would be the right one. But there was nothing I could do about it.”
The league was telling the 265-pound Tafoya to give it up. Teams were telling him they were looking for somebody a little bit bigger, or a little bit faster, or just a little bit better.
“Joe’s not going to be the guy that runs the fastest, or does all the jumps,” Ruskell said. “But when you watched him at the University of Arizona what struck you was just the effort at everything that he does. That’s the only way he knows. He can’t choke it down. He can’t only go half. He’s one of those high-motor guys.
“I never forgot those qualities and I thought he was a guy who could bolster our special teams. And if you give him a chance to make a play and be productive, he will.”
This summer, Tafoya finally landed with the right team. The Seahawks were looking to improve their special teams and looking for one more speedy pass rusher.
They claimed Tafoya off waivers from Tampa Bay. He probably was the last player to make the team before September’s opener in Jacksonville. He was the Seahawks’ summer boy on the bubble.
“The positive for Joe was that we knew he was a great special-teams player. Not just a good one, a great one,” coach Mike Holmgren said.
Several times last season, Tafoya came this close to quitting. It hurt to watch the games on Sunday. He wanted to hit somebody. Wanted to make a tackle. Wanted to feel that sweet sting after making a great play.
“My whole career I’ve felt like a salmon swimming upstream, but last year was ridiculous,” Tafoya said. “But I think persistence and hard work are paying off for me this year, because now I’m happy. I’m on a great team. I love it here.
“I’m always going to be one of those guys that people think’s just not good enough, or has never been anointed. Some guys are anointed and they’re thrown in there and they stay in there. It’s never happened for me until now. I kind of feel like, after all this time, things are starting to change for me.”
This season the ritual has changed. This season Joe Tafoya is playing football again. He’s part of a defense that has surprised the league. The ultimate no-name player on a no-name defense that, 10 weeks into the season, is beginning to make a name for itself.
Steve Kelley: 206-464-2176 or firstname.lastname@example.org