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The unique paths that brought these Vipers to the XFL

Most hope playing well with Tampa Bay will lead to the NFL, but many players already have well-traveled paths to arrive at Saturday’s 2 p.m. home opener against Houston.
A determination to play the position he loves has Tampa Bay Vipers defensive tackle Nikita Whitlock (49) still pushing at age 28. The Vipers play their home opener at 2 p.m. Saturday against Houston at Raymond James Stadium. [OCTAVIO JONES | Times]

PLANT CITY — Make no mistake, this isn’t the NFL.

As the Tampa Bay Vipers embark on their first XFL home game Saturday afternoon at Raymond James Stadium, it’s important to understand their roster is unique.

Some were the top college recruits in the nation. All of them had memorable college careers. Almost all have spent time in not only one, but several NFL camps. Some were able to latch on to practice squads, others had to follow their football dreams elsewhere, to the ill-fated Alliance of American Football, to Canada and the CFL, and some even further away.

Related: What’s different about a Vipers home opener at Raymond James

There are no seven-figure contracts here. Their payment comes in the opportunity they receive to put at least 10 games on film. For many, the hope is to show they deserve another NFL chance. Unlike the first iteration of the XFL, this league embraces that. Its motto is “For the Love of Football,” and that’s true.

“A few of them will go somewhere else," said Vipers head coach and general manager Marc Trestman, who coached the NFL’s Chicago Bears for two seasons but saw greater success coaching the CFL’s Montreal Alouettes and Toronto Argonauts to three Grey Cup titles. "That’s just the nature of their business because where they are in their careers. They need to put themselves in the position, not only to where they win football games and become the best football players they are, but so when they retire they’re not going necessarily to the country clubs or in the business world to the same degree as others.

"They’re going to have to work their way into business and some of them are already doing that.”

Here are three of those stories.

Spanning the globe to play ball

Tampa Bay Vipers wide receiver Reece Horn (18) runs through drills during practice at Plant City Stadium in Plant City, Florida on Wednesday, January 29, 2020. [OCTAVIO JONES | Times]

Reece Horn’s football path has taken him across the world.

The 27-year-old wide receiver put up big college numbers at NCAA Division II Indianapolis, and that was enough to get him an invite into the Tennessee Titans training camp, but he didn’t make the regular-season roster. Since then, he’s played in Italy and Austria, building a resume that eventually earned him an invitation to play back in the states.

In 2017, Horn played for the Milan Seamen, helping them to an Italian League championship, catching two touchdown passes in the title game. The following year, he played for the Dacia Vienna Vikings in Austria and caught 16 touchdown passes.

Horn compared the level of competition in Europe to Division-I college football. He played in front of roughly 7,000 fans a game. What they lacked in size they made up in noise, he said. Many of his teammates there had second jobs or were studying in a university.

“I had to take a step back because I’m just playing football and I’m tired at the end of the day and some of these guys have to go to work afterward or are coming from school before,” Horn said. “When I say it was a culture shock, it really humbled me a little bit."

He drew the interest of the AAF, and he played for the Memphis Express before the league folded last April. His time there was good enough to get an invitation to Dolphins camp, another NFL visit that left Horn just short of making the team.

At 6-foot-3, 227, he had the size to line up outside but the sure-handedness to also play in the slot.

“I just work wherever I’m at and that’s when you really put your best things on film," he said. "When you really don’t worry about anything else, that’s when the opportunities start rolling; when you really don’t care, you just work.”

A chance to bring out the unseen talent

Tampa Bay Vipers defensive tackle Nikita Whitlock (49) talks with defensive coordinator Jerry Glanville during a Jan. 29 practice. [OCTAVIO JONES | Times]

Nikita Whitlock’s dream isn’t to get back to the NFL. He’s been there, catching on with the New York Giants. He drew notice as a two-way player, on the side of the ball opposite of where he wants to be.

At 5-foot-10, Whitlock lines up in the middle of the Vipers defensive line next to players six inches taller. Coaches have always tried to move Whitlock from the defensive line because of his size. When his high school coach wanted to move him to linebacker, Whitlock said he ate six peanut butter and jelly sandwiches a day to put on the weight to stay. The Giants moved him to fullback. But he’s always found a way to make it back.

“My ultimate goal is not to get back to the league,” Whitlock said. “The simple fact is I’m looked at as a fullback in the (NFL). I don’t enjoy playing fullback. That’s not where my heart is in the game. My goal is to play the best I can play at the position I love and do that day in and day out.”

Related: What’s keeping the Vipers out of the end zone?

He’s learned that the game has a small fraternity, and connections help. Vipers defensive coordinator Jerry Glanville recruited Whitlock out of high school. So did defensive line coach Bert Hill. Offensive line coach Jonathan Himebauch on staff when Whitlock, 28, played at Wake Forest.

Last season, he played defense under Glanville with the Hamilton Tiger-Cats of the CFL. He said without Glanville, he probably would not be here.

“I had so many relationships and so many connections here and they understand my ability to play the position I love, which as an undersized D-lineman is sometimes hard to find,” Whitlock said. “For people to believe in a 5-10 defensive lineman, sometimes they have to see it to believe it, right? That’s what this league is, it’s about people seeing talent in you where they didn’t see it elsewhere.”

Keeping the meter going

Tampa Bay Vipers tight end Colin Thompson, shown here in April 2018 after signing as a free agent with the Chicago Bears. [AP]

Colin Thompson was one of the top recruits in the nation. Ranked as the consensus No. 2 tight end in the country, he played in the 2012 Under Armour All-American Game at Tropicana Field. Players from that game who went on to NFL careers include Bucs quarterback Jameis Winston and Lakewood High product Dante Fowler, Jr.

Thompson committed to Florida and left Gainesville having never caught a pass in two seasons. He broke his right foot twice, his left foot once and was medically disqualified. He found a second chance at Temple, closer to his home in suburban Philadelphia, and played three seasons there.

Related: How Colin Thompson befriended a boy with down syndrome

He spent time on practice squads with the Giants and Bears. The AAF came calling last year. But Thompson wanted to keep busy off the field too. He’s worked in finance and marketing, but he’s created a career for himself in broadcasting, doing sideline work and color commentary for Temple football games. He also has two sports-themed podcasts, including one on sports business.

“I’ll be all in on football until the wheels come off and the opportunity isn’t there anymore,” Campbell said. “I’ve committed my whole life to it. I’ve always tried to keep a bunch of burners going on off the field. I just started doing it for fun and to create a resume and do things while I was in and out of the NFL. And then before I knew it, I was without a team and it gave me the ability to push the limit a little bit..”

With the Vipers, he’s done a lot of grunt work as a blocking tight end. He’s still looking for his first catch. He’s only been targeted once. But he hopes putting his game on tape will help get him one more chance at the NFL.

The XFL championship game is April 26. The following day, NFL teams can begin signing XFL players.

“To play in a spring league, and then explore NFL opportunities hopefully, because that’s what the draw of this league is," Thompson said. “Let’s not kid ourselves, that’s what the opportunity is for. I’ll keep the meter going.”

Contact Eduardo A. Encina at Follow @EddieInTheYard.