From draft day to rookie camp, small-town player gets his chance
KANSAS CITY INTERNATIONAL AIRPORT: The rookie has two bags, an MP3 player and a ticket he's eyeballing like a straight-flush poker hand. He fetches a ride with his girlfriend, because his old green clunker died months ago. She tells him she loves him, and that she'll see him in three days.They know, as they say goodbye in a crowded hallway near the security gate, that his life is about to change. It's just the way Xavier Omon always wanted it. As a sophomore at Beatrice High School in southeastern Nebraska, he told a handful of people -- only the ones he trusted -- that someday he'd be an NFL running back. But life, for the first 23 years at least, has been far less hopeful. He was 8 when his brother was killed by a drunken driver; he was 14 when another brother committed suicide. Division I football snubbed him, recognition eluded him, but none of that matters now because Omon is holding a plane ticket to rookie camp. He's dressed in gray pants and an Ecko sweatshirt. He knows it's the fanciest outfit he'll need for his first week in the NFL.
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Everything else is a mystery. He fidgets in the terminal and pops his head up every time a flight announcement is made. He's nervous. He knows he's in good shape, but is it NFL shape?Omon's row is called, and he walks briskly to the door. His eyes do not turn back. "I'm 23 years old, and I've never even been to a wedding before," he says. "I've been to five funerals and no weddings. So much bad stuff has happened in my life, stuff that is so big, and then this comes along. Something really nice has finally happened." ADVENTURE GOLF CENTER, LINCOLN, NEB., SUNDAY OF NFL DRAFT WEEKEND: A black Honda rolls into the parking lot at 11 a.m., and Omon steps out with four casually-dressed fellows. On the car ride up from Beatrice to Lincoln, the men do a mock draft pool to predict where Omon will go. Xavier has the Packers at the top of his list, and he's handicapping with the benefit of insider information. For the past few weeks, Green Bay has done a decent amount of calling.
Truth is, no one knows when -- or if -- he'll be drafted. His agent, Joe Linta, is confident Omon will go somewhere from the fourth to the seventh round. "Be patient," Linta has told him. But many gurus don't even have Omon on their boards.
To take the edge off of the day, Omon decides he'll play miniature golf with his stepdad Anthony, brother Rafael, nephew Kieyn, and confidante Ben Essam. They'll go back to Beatrice later in the afternoon for a draft party. Omon struggles with the whole party idea. For months, he didn't want one. What does he say if his name isn't called?He'll get to that later. He walks into the clubhouse, and the woman at the counter asks if he wants the red or the blue course. Red has more hills; blue has more hazards. "Which one is harder?" he asks. Red, she says. "We'll go with red." Omon is quiet on the outside, but he's tight with those in his inner circle. Essam coached him in basketball at Beatrice, and at 31, doesn't look much older than Omon. Essam was the perfect combination of grown-up and peer when Omon struggled with his brother's suicide. They made this pact, probably eight years ago, that they'd spend draft day together. Rafael had to be there, too, because the brothers were always close. That's just the way they were brought up. Rafael pulls a few strokes ahead, and Xavier accuses him of cheating in mini golf. For more than an hour, the pink elephant hiding behind the bushes is hardly broached. Of course Omon can focus on something besides the draft. He's an athlete. At Northwest Missouri State, he became the first college football player to run for at least 1,500 yards in four straight seasons. He is a scout-salivating combination of size, speed and sure hands. He shanks his sixth-hole putt off the course. Meanwhile, back in Connecticut, Linta waits by the television. This ain't his first rodeo. The blue-collar agent with a Yale degree rattles off funny one-liners as fast as he can break down escalator clauses. He's a calming influence on a maddening day. Linta has 11 clients who may or may not make it in this draft. His marquee player, Delaware quarterback Joe Flacco, goes in the first round Saturday to the Ravens. If Omon isn't called, it means Linta's phone will be burning at roughly 6 p.m., when the cattle call starts for undrafted rookies. Linta, who's built a solid clientele on successful second-day picks, is still very hopeful.
"I believe in Omons," Linta says, "but not omens."
A BUDDY'S HOUSE IN SOUTH BEATRICE, LATE SUNDAY AFTERNOON: It's quiet in the Honda on the ride back home, and when Omon walks into a crowded basement full of family and friends, he's in desperate need for air.
Omon has grown up with these people, eaten dozens of meals at some of their houses, and they helped a young black teen feel at home in a predominantly white community of about 12,000. But now, Omon needs to escape.
The fifth round races by, and a TV draft guru lists the top five running backs still available. Omon's name isn't mentioned.
His girlfriend, Lauren Williams, suggests they go outside and shoot some hoops. He sinks the first shot, misses the second, then Ludacris bounces on his cell phone. It's a 716 area code, and Omon wonders if it's a prank. The man on the other end is an exec with the Buffalo Bills. Omon doesn't have time to think it's strange, that the Bills weren't at his pro day, and now they're calling. He falls to his knees. Within a couple of minutes, he'll start to cry.
He thinks about his brothers. Effiong was 18 when he committed suicide. The night before he died, he sat with Xavier in their living room, watching boxing, talking about football. As on many other nights, the kid was going on about the NFL and how he was going to play there someday. And in this one moment, after one short ringtone, his mind zooms back to everything he's been through and everywhere he'll go. He kept his word.
Down in the basement, the cheers have reached Saturday autumn decibels. The crowd runs outside to find Omon. He bolts past his girlfriend to grab one of his buddies.
Rafael cackles. He has Buffalo in his mock draft sheet, and has just won four bucks.
CENTRAL JUNIOR HIGH, LAWRENCE, KAN., TUESDAY: Rookie camp is two days away, and Omon wants to say goodbye to some old teachers and friends. He hasn't seen most of them for 10 years. His last day of school, before the family moved to Beatrice, Omon spent in ISS: in-school suspension.
He thinks he got into a fight with a kid, but can't really remember.
"I kind of had an attitude," Omon says. "I wasn't bad. I was young."
He dreamed of being a quarterback as a kid, and wanted to be Randall Cunningham.
"This is a stupid story," he says, "but my favorite color is green. I think the Jets and Eagles were playing each other, and I decided whoever won the game was going to be my favorite team."Maybe Mr. Winchester would remember some of this. He was Omon's football coach in junior high. Omon pops in to say hello, thanks, and tell him he made a difference. Then he goes home for another restless night.
"I just want to do a little reminiscing," he says. "See where I came from. People always forget where they came from."
NORTHWEST BAGGAGE CLAIM, BUFFALO, LATE THURSDAY AFTERNOON: Five large men step off a connecting flight from Detroit, and Kevin Meganck is holding a sheet of paper with 22 mug shots. Meganck is the Bills' pro player analyst, and he's been assigned to pick up the latest batch of newbies. He doesn't really need the sheet. After years of watching college football players, Meganck can easily spot them in a crowd.
It's a 15-minute drive to the Bills' training facility in Orchard Park, and sometimes, the Toyota Sequoia gets pretty quiet on these runs. Thursday is no exception. Derek Fine -- the tight end from Kansas -- finally breaks the ice with his homespun southern drawl.
One time, the Bills sent a video crew on the airport trip so fans could meet Roscoe Parrish, their first pick of the 2005 draft. Only Parrish was too shy to speak. Somebody finally got the wide receiver going with a discussion about movies. Parrish loves movies.
"Some guys you can't get to shut up," Meganck says. "Other guys don't say a word."
Like most rookie camps in the NFL, the Bills' is a hodgepodge of rare college talents, fringe players and young men trying to hold on. Ten of the rookies were drafted, four are trying out and the rest are free agents.
Because he was picked in the sixth round, Omon is guaranteed roughly $100,000 in bonus money that many of his undrafted counterparts will never see. But not much else is guaranteed.
The rookies sign paperwork shortly after arriving at the Bills' 95,000-square-foot training facility. The undrafted ones ink meager contracts; the drafted sign waivers in case they're seriously hurt.
A 320-pound offensive lineman, a big deal at his Division I university, wanders around the weight room with a lost look. A coach stops him.
"Welcome to Buffalo," he says. "You're not the only one nervous. Everybody's nervous. There's some fluttering nerves around here."
They'll drop their bags at the players' lounge, and get fitted for helmets in the equipment room. When Omon sees the shiny red helmet with the Bills' logo, he glances over to Fine.
"We just kind of looked at each other without saying a thing," Omon says. "We're here. We've made it."
They shoot headshots for the media guide, and are herded off to the weight room for body-composition tests. The Bod Pod looks like a giant egg, and Omon has to step into it and blow through a tube. He's claustrophobic. He measures in with 14 percent body fat. He's told NFL running backs should be around 9 percent.
"A little chubby, I guess," he says.
He's rooming with Fine for the weekend at the Millennium, a $160-a-night hotel near the mall. After dinner and a quick grip-and-grin session with some Bills supporters, Omon hunkers in with his mini-playbook and the Pistons-76ers game. He calls his old offensive coordinator from Northwest Missouri State to relate the Bills' offense to the Bearcats.
"He was a little confused on it," Omon says. "I have to figure it out on my own."
BILLS PRACTICE FACILITY, FRIDAY MORNING: The first thing the rookies learn is that everybody runs, from stations to the post-practice stretching, regardless of whether it's an early-May workout or Week 14.
They wake up at 5:30 this morning, and shuffle between classes and two practices. This, running backs coach Eric Studesville says, is precious time for the rookies because it's the most one-on-one interaction they'll have with the coaches, and it's that window NFL types like to call "laying the foundation."
Studesville and Omon, who initially met at the combine in February, hit it off right away. Studesville believes there are no dumb questions, and if a guy raises his hand in the classroom, it probably means three others were confused. Omon is always asking questions. He wants to get things right.
Two running backs and two fullbacks are in Buffalo this weekend. Omon gets most of the reps. Forty minutes into the first workout, he takes a handoff, and Studesville yells, "There we go!"
After the workout, roughly 15 media types flock to cornerback Leodis McKelvin, the Bills' first-round draft pick. McKelvin gets teased by the rooks because he got a ride to practice while the others walked. But Omon says he's cool. He walks off the field alone and gets ready for a 2 p.m. workout.
In college, people said Omon had a quiet confidence. He hated the fact that he had to redshirt as a freshman. Some nights, he'd clear his head by calling his buddy Essam in Beatrice. Most days, he just didn't understand why he wasn't playing.
Omon almost doesn't want to have the sit-down with Studesville over what the Bills expect of him. Because if they say it's special teams, or practice-squad fodder, it very well might clash with what Omon expects of himself.
By Saturday, after the morning workout, Omon lingers on the field to chat with his coach. He asks what he needs to do to get better.
Keep doing what you're doing, Studesville says.
"He's nervous, which is fine," he says. "They're all nervous. They should be nervous because it's a new experience, and they're not really sure. And they'll get comfortable here by tomorrow, and the next time we come back, the veterans will be here and they'll be 10 times more nervous because now they've got to deal with peer pressure in the locker room and dealing with older guys. They're trying to figure out how a bear goes through the woods."
KANSAS CITY, SUNDAY NIGHT: A big white jet crawls into Terminal 3 at the Kansas City airport, and Omon greets his girl. He has no playbook -- the rookies had to give those back before they grabbed fajita rollups for a late lunch and dashed off to the airport.
When the final horn goes off Sunday back in Buffalo, the rookies collectively exhale. They are exhausted and spinning. They come from entirely different backgrounds and draft-day stories, but in early May, they have so much in common.
"It's so much more mental [work]," he says. "We haven't even gotten into the physical part."
He knows his life will never be the same. But he goes to sleep Sunday night feeling comfortable and at peace, the first time he's slept well in a month.
Maybe, it's an omen.
Elizabeth Merrill is a senior writer for ESPN.com. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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