Don’t tell the NCAA, but three former Minnesota football players might have been guilty of gambling.
Whoever among the Gophers’ three senior linebackers in 2009 — Nate Triplett, Simoni Lawrence and Lee Campbell — recorded the fewest tackles in a game had to bring double cheeseburgers to a team meeting the following week.
“I like double cheeseburgers,” Triplett said. “I also like winning and getting tackles.”
Now college football seems like small fries to three guys hoping to make a name for themselves in the National Football League.
All three have taken different paths — all with ups and downs — in their first year away from Minnesota, but as a group, they collected just four tackles in the NFL this past season, all of them belonging to Triplett.
Even if the former Gophers have had a chance to talk to their “man crush” LaDainian Tomlinson (Lawrence’s admission) or high-fived Dwight Freeney during a game (Triplett), their dreams have taken a hit in this first shot at professional football.
But all three kept fighting and plan to do so until — hopefully — they can play every Sunday.
Rooted in special teams
During his freshman and sophomore seasons with the Gophers, Triplett questioned whether or not football was for him. He played sparingly and earned the bulk of his time on special teams.
As a junior he began to play more as a linebacker, and as a senior, he opened the season as a starter and had a breakout game against Air Force in which he notched 17 tackles as an outside linebacker.
But those around Triplett knew he could be a special player even when his confidence wavered.
“He was the best special teams player I’ve ever seen,” Lawrence said of his former teammate. “He could go to the NFL just off of that.”
The Minnesota Vikings drafted Triplett in the fifth round of the 2010 draft, reassuring his decision to stick with football despite being overlooked early in his college career.
Triplett grew up in Maple Plains, Minn., and after being drafted by his hometown team, he thought about all of his friends and family coming to watch him play. He said he planned on trying to get them tickets for games.
Then Triplett experienced one of the many growing pains of being a professional athlete, and he was cut on Sept. 2.
“All those things were going through my mind, and I never really stepped back and thought, ‘These guys could let me go,’” Triplett said. “When it happened I was a little bit disappointed because all those things now weren’t going to happen, and I had to try to find my way to another team.”
In the fourth week of the season, the San Diego Chargers picked him up.
“I kept telling myself ‘I was drafted for a reason,’” he said about his hiatus. “I was going to get picked up.”
Triplett stayed with San Diego for eight weeks, but never played. Then he was cut again.
Triplett’s next stop was in Indianapolis for the final five weeks of the season and a first-round playoff game. This time, Triplett actually saw the field against the Dallas Cowboys in Week 13 and made two tackles a week later in a win over the Tennessee Titans.
“My first thought was, ‘Wow, it’s been a little too long since I’ve done this,” Triplett said of making his first tackle. “I was too excited to remember who I tackled.” Both times Triplett brought down Marc Mariani, the Titans’ kick returner.
The Colts signed Triplett to a three-year deal, so he still has two years left. However, he knows his status is “less than permanent.”
In addition to proposing to his girlfriend Stephanie — she said yes — Triplett plans to use the off-season to take care of off-field issues like finances so he doesn’t have to worry about anything other than football come next season. He will spend a lot of time working out, too, as he hopes to avoid the shuffle once again.
A maturation process
Lawrence admits to not being mentally prepared for the NFL, but his journey had more stops than Triplett’s, including one in the United Football League.
The Gophers’ other 2009 starting outside linebacker also had aspirations of being drafted, especially after running a 4.62 40-yard dash at the NFL Combine, but Lawrence never heard his name called and signed as a free agent with the St. Louis Rams after the draft.
“When draft day came and I didn’t get drafted I was real upset,” Lawrence said. “[I] wasn’t talking to anybody, just hanging out … You’ve got to get in where you fit in.”
A month later, the Rams cut Lawrence and he landed with his hometown team, the Philadelphia Eagles. He played out training camp with the Eagles, but they released him after the preseason.
Knowing that he wanted to play football, Lawrence turned to the UFL and played for the Hartford Colonials after being drafted 22nd in the UFL draft.
“I think the UFL is great for young players, especially coming out of college,” Lawrence said. He signed with the Chicago Bears in December after the UFL season ended and finished the NFL season with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
Though he didn’t play in a game for either team, Lawrence was on the roster for the Bears’ game against the New York Jets (when he acted as if he knew Tomlinson, a future Hall of Fame running back) and the Buccaneers’ game against the New Orleans Saints.
“I was thinking if nobody was out there I probably would’ve asked for his autograph,” Lawrence said of the post-game meeting with Tomlinson.
Now, like Triplett, he must use the off-season to keep improving his game so he can stay with Tampa Bay, where they have pegged him as a young player with good leadership qualities. He and Campbell were both captains during the 2009 season with the Gophers.
“I think you’ve got to go there mentally and physically in great shape, just ready for the long haul,” Lawrence said. “I don’t think I was really prepared [last year]. Now that I’ve matured, I’m just ready for it.”
Not quite there yet
Among the many problems with the NFL’s labor dispute is that if the owners and the NFL Players Association can’t agree on a new collective bargaining agreement by March 3, there will be no free agency.
Teams won’t be able to sign veterans or untested young players like Campbell, a three-year starter for the Gophers who spent the 2010 season hoping to be picked back up by Detroit after the Lions made him one of their final cuts before the regular season.
“When the Lions cut me they truly had told me they had the intention of bringing me back,” said Campbell, who had previously been cut by the New York Giants.
Campbell worked out for teams week after week, but the middle linebacker couldn’t find a team in 2010. He must now hope to sign with a team during February to prevent being a victim of the CBA dispute, which could result in a lockout and thus no football.
One thing holding Campbell back is his speed. The 6-foot-3, 246-pound Naples, Fla. native ran a 4.92 40-yard dash at the NFL Combine. He said he’s brought his time down to 4.7, but in his experience “a lot of teams care more about running fast and jumping high” than passion and football savvy, two things that are tough to display in a one-day workout.
“All he needs is a chance just to show what he could do in the game,” Lawrence said about Campbell. “You look at Lee and it’s like, ‘he’s not this, he’s not that,’ but when it comes game time he just makes a whole bunch of plays.”
Watching NFL games at home is “torture,” Campbell said, because he has to watch players he played with and against in college who have already made it. He’s just waiting for his chance and will continue to work out seven days a week until it comes.
“I know that I want to play football, and I’ve been told by the teams that I’ve played for that I’m good enough to play in this league,” Campbell said. “I’ve just got to keep grinding and wait for my opportunity.”