Challenging the dream
In both high school and college, he was the big man on campus. He was the player who started every game he played. He typically led the team in tackles each time he stepped onto the field. And by the end of each football season, it seemed Spencer Havner was handed every honor or award under the sun.
But now things are much different.
Now he’s a nobody trying to be somebody. Just as he did while trying out for the Nevada Union High School football team so many years ago, he’s simply hoping to catch the eye of a coach.
After having his future fumbled around in the hands of National Football League executives over the past year, Havner is fighting for his football life. He doesn’t talk of becoming a superstar linebacker in the league. In fact, he doesn’t talk much at all about someday even starting at the position he’s played nearly half his life.
He speaks of special teams and of earning a spot on the roster. But even after a season of serving on the Green Bay Packers’ practice squad, Havner has already learned the hard way that there’s no sure thing in the big business of the NFL – which, as Jerry Glanville once said, actually “stands for Not For Long.”
“The business side of it? It’s definitely a business,” Havner said. “It’s not really a cliché at all.
“It can be a pretty cold deal.”
Free agency free fall
Twelve months ago, Havner had the world on a string – or so he was told. The NFL Draft, for which he once considered skipping his senior season at UCLA in 2005, was finally just weeks away.
All the mock drafts, projecting him to be selected as high as the second or third rounds, could be tossed aside. All the inside information he’d gather through his agent would soon no longer have much relevance to his life.
But he had no idea that when the day finally rolled around, all those reports wouldn’t be worth the paper on which they were printed. Havner, joined by family and friends in front of the TV, never heard his name called among the 255 announced over the course of the two-day, seven-round draft.
Havner was suddenly a player without a team, saying immediately after the draft that he felt as though he was “lost” on how the day he had so long dreamt about became such a nightmare.
It had seemed a sure thing. He had built an impressive résumé as a four-year starter in Westwood. As a freshman, he racked up the second-most tackles ever by a Bruin rookie and was named first-team freshman All-America and Pac-10 Defensive Player of the Year by the Sporting News. As a sophomore, he was an honorable mention selection for the All-Pac 10 team.
By his junior and senior seasons, he had garnered nationwide attention. He finished his career at UCLA ranked third on the career list for both tackles and tackles for a loss. He was named a semifinalist for the Butkus and Lombardi awards and the NFL Draft “experts” had him pegged as a first-day pick.
And now he’s hoping to simply keep his name on the roster when his team breaks camp next fall and kicks off the 2007 season.
Thanks, but no thanks
After not being drafted, Havner fielded calls from teams around the league looking to land him as a free agent. He signed with the Washington Redskins and had what seemed to be a promising training camp. But on the preseason’s final day, when final rosters were filed, Havner was among the 21 players who didn’t make the cut.
“It’s all business,” Havner recently said in a phone interview while working out in Wisconsin to prepare for the upcoming season. “And I understand that. But the problem is that it messes with peoples lives. It’s just like getting fired every year. Then you go halfway across the country for another job.
“How do you have a family? How do you have friends? And then you have people calling you up – mostly friends – asking you why you got fired or why you got cut.”
He said that harsh reality doesn’t deter him from his goal; it simply serves as more motivation. And when you’re a practice squad player, sacrificing your body for the good of the team without even suiting up on Sundays, motivation of any form is a good thing.
“It was tough,” Havner said. “There were a couple of times where a linebacker got hurt, or two of them got hurt, and Coach (Mike) McCarthy told me he thought I might get activated and play. But it just didn’t happen.”
“It was all right. It made me practice harder. I just took it out on practice. I definitely feel like I could play up here. And when you’re not getting the opportunity, it’s tough. It feels like I haven’t gotten a chance to prove anything.”
Back with the Pack
Life in Green Bay, especially when the Packers aren’t playing, is quite a contrast to Los Angeles, where Havner spent the past five years prior to arriving in Titletown.
“There’s not much happening up here,” he said. “The only thing that seems to happen is the home games. A lot of people camp in their motor homes the night before. It’s pretty wild. The fan support is great. The whole town is definitely all for the Packers.
“But I wouldn’t mind a little something going on here … maybe a shopping mall?”
Havner said the drastic difference between Wisconsin and Southern California doesn’t really matter much at the moment, though. He’s busy working out every day in preparation for minicamp in May, training camp in July and – if all goes well – his first full season with the Packers this fall.
He’s living with Tony Moll, a second-year offensive lineman, while working out in town this spring. Moll, who played at Nevada, is a former teammate of Havner’s former NU teammate, Logan Carter. Havner and Moll now work out together most mornings at Lambeau Field.
After the 2006 season ended, the Packers signed Havner to a two-year contract that stands to pay him the league minimum of $275,000 for the first year and $355,000 for the second year. But the contract, like those draft reports last spring, isn’t worth anything at the moment. NFL contracts are not guaranteed.
“I’ve got to make the team,” Havner said. “All the contract means right now is that no other teams can pick me up. I’ll be with the Packers, but they could cut me in the end.”
The prospect of that happening is an unknown. Green Bay drafted two linebackers last spring – Ohio State standout A.J. Hawk. and Iowa’s Abdul Hodge – and has nine linebackers currently on the roster.
“Right now, it’s not about starting on defense,” Havner said. “It’s all about getting on the field. And the best chance of that is special teams. It’s a third of the game and they take a lot of pride in it.
“A lot of guys in this league, who you’ve never heard of, have made eight- or nine-year careers out of special teams and being a back-up linebacker. When the opportunity comes I’ll play defense, but right now it’s special teams.
“That’s been the way I’ve seen things ever since the draft turned out the way it did.”
On the horizon
Though he would have much rather found himself on the field, Havner says there were several positives about his stint on the practice squad. He became familiar with the Packers and their playbook, he’s healthier than he’s been since early in his college career, and he made about $90,000 for nearly four months on the squad.
In short, he says, it’s good work if you can get it.
“There’s really only two days a week of tough practices,” he said.
Having studied history at UCLA, he’s considered a career in teaching and coaching, but he says he’s more interested in a career as a custom home builder, which his father, Rhett, does in the Sacramento area.
Havner was back home in western Nevada County after the Packers’ season came to a close at the first of the year and spent time with friends and family – including a trip to Montana for some powder skiing – before returning to Los Angeles for a short stay and then heading back to Green Bay a few weeks ago.
He’s paid about $120 a day to work out four times a week, although he says he’s typically in the gym five to six days a week, preparing for minicamp with most of his teammates.
“Everyone’s here,” he said. “Well, some of the top players aren’t here, but probably 70 to 80 percent of us are here. We start working out at 7:30 (a.m.), running and lifting every day. It’s just to get prepared. You have to be prepared when you get your chance.”
He said he hasn’t really thought much about how long he would pursue his dream of playing in the league. Frankly, he said, it’s really not up to him at this point. He loves the game, and if there’s a chance to play, he said, he’ll continue taking teams up on the offer.
“As long as they keep putting me on the team, I’m not going to walk away from it,” he said. “If I don’t make it, and no one else picks me up … then it’s over and I’ll start my real life.”
Contact Sports Editor Brian Hamilton via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at 477-4240.
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