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Bucs players on bubble sacrifice for dream

TAMPA — The first thing James Ruffin learned about life on the NFL bubble is to stop worrying about whether it will pop.

"That's what got me in trouble my rookie year," he said.

That was in 2010, when he was an undrafted defensive end from Northern Iowa trying to figure out how he could survive the Bucs' final cuts. He didn't.

Four years later, Ruffin quit his day job to join 47 other players fighting for the final spots on Tampa Bay's roster. In nine days, 36 of them will be unemployed.

That's the cold reality of the NFL, where players travel across the country and put their careers and families on hold for a few thousand dollars, a double room at the Renaissance Tampa International Plaza Hotel and a monthlong tryout for a lifelong dream.

"You can't turn down offers like this," Ruffin said.

A 1-in-4 shot is better than no shot at all.

•••

Players know the numbers, even if they try to ignore them.

The Bucs must trim their 90-player roster to 75 by Tuesday. Four days later, they'll be down to 53. Some spots are set, but others are fluid, based on versatility, special teams and good players.

"You have a couple wild cards that could go either way," coach Lovie Smith said.

There's also another number that every player understands: 31.

"It's not just this team I'm auditioning for," defensive end Ryne Giddins, 24, said. "It's 31 other teams."

Players trained to focus on team goals have to think about themselves, too.

After his rookie tryout in May, Giddins, a USF and Armwood High product, was on the phone every day, checking in with Bucs coaches and other teams. The Bucs signed him two weeks ago after injuries piled up on the defensive line, and he has been so busy studying and practicing that he has hardly seen his family across town since.

Giddins' 32 snaps this preseason are his resume for the Bucs and any other team that needs a defensive end, now or later in the season. The snaps have to be perfect.

"That's what the whole preseason's about, is to get a job," said Lonnie Pryor, one of three fullbacks competing on a team that might not carry one next month.

Ruffin, 27, has already had to make choices about what he would sacrifice to stick with the Bucs.

He had just finished an 18-game season with the Arena Football League's Spokane Shock this month when the Bucs called his agent. The problem: Ruffin used up all his vacation time from his day job as a mortgage banker to travel for AFL road games.

So he quit.

By 6:30 the next morning, Ruffin was 3,000 miles away at One Buc Place to start a 15-hour day. When he got back to the hotel, he planned to study plays and film until midnight.

•••

After a while, players learn to accept the bubble's uncertainty and how to live without feeling settled.

"I've just kind of tuned it out," said third-string quarterback Mike Kafka, 27, who is on his fourth team since 2010.

But there are signs they can't ignore.

The fourth-string quarterback lines up in practice as a scout-team safety. While stars such as Gerald McCoy have their names etched above their lockers, other players' lockers are blank. When training camp ends and the veterans move back to their homes, the others continue to live out of a suitcase at the hotel.

"I might be stressed out staying at a hotel," offensive tackle J.B. Shugarts said, "but when you look at the bigger picture, it's a four-star hotel."

The pay isn't bad — $925 a week for rookies, $1,700 for veterans — and the Bucs cover room and board. But it's hard to explain to friends and family who watch on TV but don't understand the business.

"They think you made it," said Pryor, 24, a former Florida State standout, "but it's not like that."

Some of them might never make it.

Shugarts has been cut four times since coming out of Ohio State in 2012. He was hurt during part of training camp. Eventually, he knows, his football career will end.

Until then, Shugarts figures the lessons he's learning in the NFL will help him with wherever he lands after the bubble pops.

"If you have a dream, you've got to keep following it until your time's up with it," Shugarts, 24, said. "Then you've got to make another goal, have another dream and keep living."

Contact Matt Baker at mbaker@tampabay.com. Follow @MBakerTBTimes.

Bucs players on bubble sacrifice for dream 08/20/14 [Last modified: Wednesday, August 20, 2014 10:19pm]
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