By Chris Emma–
CHICAGO (CBS) — Long after most Bears and Dolphins had vacated the fresh sod of Soldier Field on Thursday night, A.J. Cruz slowly made his way to the northwest tunnel.
Cruz took time to absorb Chicago’s historic stadium after the Bears’ 27-10 preseason win over the Miami Dolphins. He offered high-fives to fans and gestured to the crowd. This was a night he had longed for.
The Brown graduate turned down a job at a securities trading firm to pursue a career in football, then got a shot with the Bears after two years in the Arena Football League. Fighting for a future in the NFL is something Cruz cherishes.
“I can’t overlook what I did to get here,” the 24-year-old receiver said, “and just continue to strive to give everything I have.”
Preseason football gets a bad reputation from outside the locker room and away from those white lines. To many, these games are glorified exhibitions and false football excitement built around players who won’t make the roster.
Frankly, the preseason can become a laughingstock to countless observers. But to a player like Cruz, it’s a shot at that dream. When he took the field — in what may have seemed meaningless to the casual fan — the game seemed to be moving at a million miles per hour. The same goes for anyone else whose hopes ride on these games, reps and split seconds of the preseason.
“A lot of it is nerves,” Cruz said. “This stage can psychologically effect people, and you can’t let that come into play.”
The Bears’ game against the Dolphins brought Cruz a chance to impress and the platform to make a name for himself. There are so many like him, too.
Anyone who would argue the preseason is pointless must understand what it means to rookie tackle Tayo Fabuluje. Because when he dropped out of football in 2013 to work three jobs and support himself and his sister, a night like Thursday at Soldier Field didn’t seem possible.
Fabuluje had the big block to open up Senorise Perry’s backside cut that led to the game’s biggest play, a 54-yard touchdown run. When asked about that play, he offered deeper perspective.
“It’s amazing,” Fabuluje said. “Every day is a surreal day for me, because there were times where I never thought I’d be here.”
There he was, wearing No. 73 across the Bears jersey that represents his place — that he belongs. A sixth-round pick out of TCU, Fabuluje endured quite a bit to even suit up for a preseason game.
It seems as if Fabuluje will earn a roster spot, due to the Bears’ thin offensive line depth and investment in him as a project. There’s talent in that large frame, one which ballooned up to 400 pounds two years ago. But Fabuluje is getting closer to his potential each day.
“I wouldn’t trade it for anything,” he said. “It’s the best feeling in the world.”
Many suiting up for meaningful minutes are simply vying for better in their careers. Sherrick McManis has enjoyed five years as a special teams standout but wants to be more than that.
Given a golden opportunity Thursday, McManis forced a fumble and bolted 10 yards downfield for the recovery. Bears coach John Fox singled out the Northwestern alum’s efforts. For McManis, it’s all about proving he can be a cornerback, not just a reserve role player.
“I’m very determined,” McManis said. “I’m determined like this every year, honestly.”
As for Cruz — and so many others battling for job in the NFL — it will be a tough task. Marc Mariani seems to be in better jockeying position as a reserve receiver and return specialist. Cruz has more to prove.
But that’s nothing new for an Ivy Leaguer who turned down the corporate world to play in the Arena League.
“I’m going to give everything that I have,” Cruz said.
Being a longshot means having a chance. That’s what the preseason is all about.
Follow Chris on Twitter @CEmma670.