CHARLES, Mo. – They talk about team at this level, and most of the time they mean it, but there’s also reality. And at Kansas City Chiefs training camp on this day the reality is symbolized by a canopy tent, where a horde of media members and cameras have assembled. They’re waiting on Justin Houston, the $101 million man.
Practice ends, and Houston makes his way into the tent. The scrum begins.
As this goes on, out on the practice field Sanders Commings and a few teammates linger, getting in some extra work. This is what you do when you’re trying to ensure a job.
And just off the field stands Ramik Wilson, guzzling some water, breathing heavily, decompressing. This is how you act when you’re a rookie, still getting used to it all.
All three are former Georgia defensive players. They were standouts at the college level, important members of their team.
Now they exemplify three sides of the NFL: The dream fulfilled, the dream interrupted, the dream just started.
Houston remembers his final play at Sanford Stadium. That it was an interception with 35 seconds left, sealing a win over Georgia Tech, and that he took a knee, rather than extend the moment by trying to take it to the house.
“It was the right thing to do,” Houston said, smiling. “Time was running out so I took a knee, gave the offense the ball.”
Houston played one more game for Georgia, then embarked on what has turned out to be a spectacular pro career. He’s been to the Pro Bowl three times already, and led the NFL in sacks last year with 22, coming within a half-sack of breaking Michael Strahan’s single-season record.
It wasn’t completely smooth between Athens and Kansas City: Houston reportedly failed a marijuana test before the 2011 draft, helping him slide to the third round, where he turned out to be a steal for the Chiefs. Over the summer he signed the $101 million contract, $52.5 million of which is guaranteed.
Houston says he benefited from his one year with Todd Grantham, the former Georgia defensive coordinator whose first year at Georgia was Houston’s last. Grantham’s 3-4 defense featured Houston in the blitzing, outside linebacker role, a similar role in which the Chiefs use him. But it wasn’t just that.
“I felt like when we switched defenses it helped me learn the whole scheme,” Houston said. “A 3-4 scheme helped me learn every position, not only what I had to do but what everybody else was doing. So when I learned the 3-4 scheme it made it easier for me. And coach Grantham did a great job of explaining it in an easy way so I could understand it.”
Houston held a camp back home this summer. He stays in touch with former high school and college classmate DeAngelo Tyson, a defensive lineman entering his third year with the Baltimore Ravens.
“When I go home I don’t really see anybody but family,” he said. “I just stay at the house. I’ve got a big family so I just love being around them, laughing.”
He was asked if he ever reflects on how far he’s come, from Statesboro to Athens to this.
“I haven’t looked back,” he said. “I’ll think about it one day. I’m still focused on (here), I’ve still got more to do, I just want to get better and continue to improve.”
“If anything, I want the guys from back home to see – a lot of guys know me from when I first started until now, so they see how hard I worked, and how much effort I put into this. I want other kids to see that too, so it can help motivate them.”
Sanders Commings never suffered any major injuries in college. He started 35 games during his career, the quiet but dependable mainstay of a talented secondary.
Basically everyone Commings played beside made the NFL: Bacarri Rambo is now with Buffalo, Shawn Williams in Cincinnati, Brandon Boykin in Pittsburgh, Damian Swann in New Orleans.
And never mind the linebackers (first-round picks Jarvis Jones and Alec Ogletree) and defensive linemen John Jenkins and Kwame Geathers (both in the pros now too.)
“We had a lot of studs down there. I was just one of the guys who was quiet and went along with the ride,” Commings said. “I didn’t really care to be praised or put in the spotlight. My goal was to get here. And I’m here.”
But not on the field. In two seasons since the Chiefs used a fifth-round draft choice on him Commings has played just two games. His first season ended because of a clavicle injury. Then last year he was ready to return, only to break a bone in his foot in practice when tailback Jamaal Charles put what the Kansas City Star called “a devilish juke” on Commings.
“Just two freak injuries,” Commings said earlier this month. “Not like a hamstring or a sprain or anything like that. Just two freak season-ending injuries. But those are behind me now.”
Unfortunately another injury was ahead of him: Commings missed this past weekend’s exhibition game with left knee inflammation. It’s bad timing, as he’s fighting for a spot on the roster.
Every practice is vitally important, and every practice rep. Commings was hoping his versatility would help – he’s been working mostly at safety for Kansas City, after being mostly a cornerback at Georgia. He’s also worked on special teams, including one of the three up-men on the punt team.
“I’m glad at Georgia that I was flip-flopped back and forth. Because it gave me versatility that I have today, being able to play both,” Commings said. “I think it helped me more than anything. It’s probably the reason that I’m in the NFL today.”
But he knew his spot was tenuous. He’s still renting a place in the Kansas City area, putting off his hope of buying.
“Hopefully I’ll be able to make a decision on a house soon,” he said. “See how the season goes.”
Ramik Wilson spent the first half of his Georgia career on the bench. The start to his pro career might be much better.
The Chiefs see a lot they like in Wilson, their inside linebacker and fourth-round draft choice. While he’s mostly been running second team, when one inside linebacker gets hurt Wilson has been the first guy in. During an early August practiced, which featured a lot of 11-on-11, Wilson finished near the play a lot, just like at Georgia, when he racked up 243 tackles over his final two years.
The Chiefs and Georgia defenses are “100 percent” similar, Wilson said, so the main adjustment has just been to the talent and speed level.
“These dudes are much faster,” Wilson said. “You’ve got Jeremy Maclin, and D’Anthony Thomas, Jamaal Charles. But other than that, I’m doing pretty good.”
Where Wilson says he’s improved is his pass coverage. It was at times a weak point for Wilson at Georgia, though sometimes it wasn’t his fault. A safety would make the wrong switch and Wilson would be caught deep downfield. Sometimes Wilson was just in the right place, but against a speedy receiver, the offense finding a weak point.
Here in Kansas City, Wilson believes he’s doing well not to make that a weakness.
“My coverage got a whole lot better. A lot more aggressive in the coverage, making more plays, batted balls and interceptions. So the scheme is kind of like ours (at Georgia), but it’s simplistic for me and my coverage, so I can make a lot of plays and break on the ball. So it’s going great.”
Wilson’s career at Georgia was broken into three parts:
– Freshman and sophomore year, when he rarely played and shuttled between positions, literally going from inside to outside linebacker during practice drills. Wilson struggled to know his role and whether he’d ever see the field.
– Junior year, when he was finally put at inside linebacker and became an instant star, making first-team All-SEC.
– Senior year, when the new defensive staff refused to hand him back his starting position, leading to some preseason tension. But Wilson earned the spot back, and while he didn’t have the same stats as his junior year, he still was a critical part of an improved defense.
“It just shows that hard work can get you a long way,” Wilson said. “Everything that happened happened for a reason. It all made me a better player.”
How does he look back on his Georgia career?
“It was great,” he said. “I sat behind great dudes, played behind great dudes. The talent that came through at Georgia, man it’s crazy. I got to learn everything from them, and they’re great role models. You could say it was a dream, not many people could do that, go through what I did.”
KANSAS CITY BULLDOGS
Houston was the first Georgia player the Chiefs had ever drafted. Since then they’ve picked four more, including Aaron Murray last year and Chris Conley this year.
“I thought it was great,” Houston said. “I’m a Dawg so I always watch the Dawgs play every Saturday, whenever they play. The guys they picked, I know they could help us go a long way.”
Several of the ex-Bulldogs will go out to eat barbecue around Kansas City, and swap old Georgia stories. Commings is the only one who was a teammate of the other four.
The average NFL career lasts 3.3 years, according to stats provided by the NFL Players Association, which counts everyone who is drafted. The league office puts it at six years, as it counts everyone who makes an opening day roster. Either way, it’s not long.
Houston looks to be one of those headed for a career that will last as long as he wants. Commings has two years under his belt, and needs two more to at least qualify for a pension.
Willson is just getting started. So far, he feels like he was put in just the right place.
“I feel comfortable,” he said. “We’ve got a lot of Georgia guys here, we’re always hanging out. Still in the red and white, so I feel like I’m back at Georgia. It’s hot too, just like at Georgia. Same defensive scheme, still with Murray, so shoot, it’s like I’m back at home.”