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Beware the Turk at cut-down time in NFL

Tampa Bay Buccaneers wide receiver Bernard Reedy (15) muscles his way into the end zone for a touchdown on a reception in the second half of a preseason game between the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Washington Redskins at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Fla., on Wednesday, Aug. 31, 2016.
Published Sep. 4, 2016

TAMPA — It was cut-down day at the end of the 1997 preseason, and linebacker LaCurtis Jones sat stone-like across the desk from Tony Dungy.

Every player summoned to the coach's office showed some, if not a lot, of emotion. Some cried when told they did not make the Buccaneers. Others at least shook their head.

"LaCurtis Jones was just kind of looking right through me," Dungy said. "He wasn't responding. He wasn't saying much."

Later that day, team security told Dungy that Jones was spotted at a Tampa pawn shop trying to buy a handgun.

"And he was looking for Lovie Smith," Dungy said. "I said, 'Wow.' "

Smith coached the linebackers that season.

Nothing materialized, Dungy said, but it made for one anxious cut-down day at One Buc Place.

Kevin Winston, the Bucs' director of player programs, found Jones and made sure he was on a flight that night to his native Texas.

"Until he was on that plane." Dungy said, "we were in a state of high alert."

• • •

This is the time of the season when low draft picks and free agents and players who believe they are on the roster bubble are on high alert, hoping to avoid hearing these words: "Coach wants to see you. Bring your playbook."

That message is delivered by the dreaded "Turk."

"That's a tough time," Dungy, the Hall of Fame former Bucs and Colts coach, said. "It's nerve-racking. It's something you don't enjoy from either side of it."

The Turk is busy these days as teams cut their roster to 53 players. The Bucs cut 22 on Friday.

"I'm not really looking forward to that part of the week," Bucs first-year coach Dirk Koetter said Tuesday.

For some, getting cut is the final moment of their NFL career. For young players, it's when the dream of playing in the NFL dies.

"Everybody gets fired, especially in this league," Bucs second-year receiver Evan Spencer said.

Spencer was cut by Washington last September after suffering a concussion during a preseason game.

"Tough day," he said.

He did re-sign with Washington but took an injury settlement. He signed with the Bucs later in the month.

"That was definitely an eye-opening experience, but I … grew from it as a person," he said.

This camp, Spencer did not receive a visit from the Turk.

•••

The Pro Football Hall of Fame website credits former L.A. Rams linebacker Don Paul for coining the phrase "the Turk."

Clark Shaughnessy, who coached the Rams in the late 1940s, cut his players in the middle of the night. He reasoned the bad news would be easier to stomach when the player was still trying to wake up. Shaughnessy would send someone to his dorm room to wake him and tell him to pack his bags and report to Shaughnessy's office. The player's absence would be noticed when the team gathered in the dining hall for breakfast.

"The Turk strikes at night," Paul would yell.

Some teams used a trainer or a low-level assistant to summon players. Former Giants coach Allie Sherman once used John Mara, the 11-year-old son of team co-owner Wellington Mara.

These days players are often called on their cellphones. Instead of playbooks, they're asked to return their Microsoft Service Tablet.

For years, Mark Dominik was the Turk at One Buc while working his way toward being the team's general manager.

"We used to call him the 'Grim Reaper,' " Dave Moore, the former Bucs tight end and current radio analyst, said. "You were always looking over your shoulder when you came into the facility."

Moore was never cut during his 15-year NFL career. But he did have some anxious moments during his first few seasons when he felt his roster spot wasn't secure.

"It's funny because there were times when (Dominik) would walk in the locker room this time of year and it would get real quiet, because everybody knew why he was coming into the locker room, because normally he wouldn't," Moore said. "He's not down there just to hang out. He's down there to find somebody."

•••

Defensive end Styles G. White was known as Greg White when he made the Bucs in 2007.

Signed as a free agent before camp after playing for Orlando in the Arena Football League, White recalled driving to practice one morning while listening to R. Kelly's The World's Greatest. He became emotional, he said, because the final cuts had been made and no one called him.

"I wasn't 100 percent sure until I actually suited up for the first game," White said. "That's how gut-wrenching it was."

Five years earlier, White was a seventh-round draft pick by the Texans who did not survive the final cut.

"That was devastating. I had never not been good enough for a team," White said. "So when they cut me, all my ego, my pride, that wonderful sensation that I'm 'that guy' was no more, and it hurt. I didn't talk to my family. It was crazy."

The sting would lessen over his career.

White was in camp with the Vikings in 2011 and figured he played well enough to make the team as a backup.

"Nope. Gone," he said. "They're like, 'We're sorry,' and I'm like, 'You don't have to say you're sorry. I'm good. Just give me my ticket out of here.' "

•••

Dungy said it's a gut-wrenching time for coaches.

"It's tough when you cut young guys and you see some dreams crushed right in front of you," he said. "But when you have to cut guys who have been with you for a couple of years and you've gone through some tough times, some great times, you don't ever get used to that."

Also, Dungy said, coaches in some cases second-guess their decision.

"It's a pretty cold time, and it's no fun. It's no fun at all," Dungy said. "I used to say you win a game and there's no greater feeling. You go out to dinner afterward and you say, 'I can't believe they are paying me to do this job.' You feel so good. And then on cut-down days, you just talked to a young man, he's crying and you're not even sure you did the right thing. This guy was close. Maybe he should be on the team. You see those emotions, and you say, 'I don't care what those guys are paying me, this job's not worth it.' "

Dungy made the Steelers as a rookie in 1977 after sweating through the last weekend of camp waiting for a call that never came. He had read in the newspaper that he would not make the team. Two years later, he was sitting in the training camp dorm room of Joe Greene and Mel Blount before practice. Rocky Bleier, Terry Bradshaw and Lynn Swann were also in the room.

There was a knock at the door.

"Well, I didn't have to wait to see what he needed," Dungy said. "He's not coming for these other guys."

Dungy wasn't cut, but he was traded to the 49ers. He packed his bags and quickly left.

"I remember driving to the airport and looking back at the practice field, and practice was going on without me just as usual," he said. "It's one of those tough things. You put everything you have into it and it doesn't work out, and you have to move on to the next stop."

Times news researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report.

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