The NFL is back in full swing, which means that for 99% of the nation the time for writing about practice squads and preseason depth charts and roster shuffling has ended. Yet on Sept. 9 the Lions made one more move to the practice squad and brought in Kendrick Ings. The story of his road to the NFL is, mildly, rather expansive and bewildering.
Ings played quarterback in high school at Miller Grove High School in Lithonia, Georgia, a small town of just under two thousand people. For those who know Georgia and its fascination with county identity, Lithonia is in DeKalb County; for everyone else, Lithonia is on the eastern fringes of Atlanta's vast sprawling metropolitan area. What I could find of his high school metrics showed he benched 260 lbs., squatted 405, had a 37 inch vertical, and ran a 4.45 second 40-yard. He drew interest from Boston College, Georgia Tech, Mississippi State, North Carolina and UCF, although he received offers from none of them.
In fact, he never played a down of college football. He never even saw the sidelines.
That's because everything that could work against him did. Health: he tore his ACL. Grades: they weren't that good and his SAT scores were low. Attempt to work through junior college and move him up to NCAA football later: botched paperwork. Ings moved 113 miles down to Fort Valley State University, a Division II HBCU just south of Macon. He wasn't going to play football there either; doctors would not let him after they found a heart murmur. He dropped out of college.
The traditional route - really about the only route - to the NFL is by college football. Rules stipulate that anyone wishing to play in the League must be three years removed from high school. College football has been -- and always will be -- the best way for exposure and development. The alternatives are grim. The alternatives are such a long-shot that these options defy any rational logic. The alternatives are all that Ings had left.
The three-letter leagues of professional football, top leagues in North America, are the NFL, the CFL, and the AFL. Ings was not going to make any of those (he tried out for the BC Lions of the CFL and was rejected). Instead, the second tier of professional and semi-professional outdoor and indoor football leagues awaited him.
These leagues are all across the nation; your average sports fan might not know of these leagues lest he encounters them on a first-hand basis or finds himself staring down the rabbit hole of Wikipedia on a given night. These are the frontiers of American football, played at various multipurpose arenas and high school fields across the nation. Teams and leagues are set up and disappear practically overnight; few, if any, exist for a decade of continuous operation.
The leagues are known by various alphabet soups: the UIFL, the GLIFL, the UFFOA. The teams in these leagues bear names you'd expect to find as placeholders for real NFL teams in bad paperback novels. The players are nameless and faceless; they are the desperate men who refuse any notion that logic or reason might offer them that perhaps, just perhaps, a viable future in professional football will not happen. Many only know football and cannot envision a future without it. Nearly all of them will never see the NFL or even the CFL. This is the end; everyone knows it but them.
This is the grim meathook reality that Ings thrust himself into. He was looking to be in the less than one percent that made their way out of the Sisyphean landscape. He played football for free for the Atlanta Chiefs, a member of the GDFL. Their Facebook page is all that exists of the team; both their websites redirect to squatter sites. The Chiefs themselves are hoping to resume operations for 2015-2016, and the latest entries on their timeline are all related to Ings.
Somehow, Ings got another opportunity on a slightly higher level. He moved on to the middle of the country to play wide receiver for the newly-formed Dodge City Law of the CPIFL, his first opportunity to play football for money at the age of 23. The CPIFL has now merged with the LSFL to create the CIF (more alphabet soup). All that remains of the CPIFL's webpage is a squatter page with a strange blog entry about surviving toxic chemical spills. Ings played in the heart of Real America in a multipurpose arena that housed 5,500 people at max capacity and probably never reached that number.
Again, Ings moved on. A year later he found himself in the Arena Football League. Although we know the AFL the best of these various minor leagues, that league is not unknown to the same volatility that plagues its brethren. Nothing illustrates that better in this scenario, where the AFL team that signed Ings, the Pittsburgh Power, suddenly ceased operations before the 2014-15 season. More than a few players would not be reshuffled into another AFL lineup. Ings was. He landed in Tampa Bay and played for the Storm.
You might miss something of interest if you don't visit the video above on Youtube - this was uploaded by none other than Ings himself. Like a budding rapper putting together his first mixtape, Ings rose the way he did by meticulously collecting his best film and sending it out to whoever would listen. This is perhaps the only way a minor league football player has to get others to know his worth. The tape is his lifeblood in an age where there is more scouting than ever but that is not often enough for the various minor leagues of football.
It might also help if you make the SportsCenter Top 10. AFL doesn't usually find its way up on that esteemed list lest it happens on a slow sports week, but Ings managed it. His kickoff return for the Tampa Bay Storm against the Jacksonville Sharks made No. 9.
That brings us to September, where Ings tried out for the Lions - his first ever NFL tryout. He flew in Monday. He practiced for the team on Tuesday morning. He ran a 4.37 on the 40-yard dash. The Lions had to get official word from the NFL that he was past draft eligibility. Tension built and then there was a reprieve; Ings was asked to pass medical exams. He had made it.
Ings, who once played for free in Buckhead, who had only played the wide receiver position for two years of an erratic football career, was now on a NFL practice squad.
Some guys emerge from the indoor football and developmental circuits to make the NFL and CFL; they nearly always have at least some college football experience. Andre Hardy Jr., who emerged from the PDFL in 2014, played at least one year at Cal State Fullerton and previously worked out with the Raiders in 2012. Even Kurt Warner, Patron Saint of the Undiscovered Football Athlete Bagging Groceries, played at a Division 1 FCS school, Northern Iowa. This isn't professional basketball; there aren't supposed to be viable alternatives that aren't based on a college.
This story isn't over. Ings can bask in this light now, but the practice squad is still a volatile place to be. By the time I'm done writing this story, Ings might be off the roster altogether (I suppose this won't get published if that's the case). By the time you are done reading this story, he might be gone. He could be gone next week, or the week following that. There are still severe limitations on where tape and scouting will get you. Ings just might not be able to move farther than practice squad-level. He may never make a difference for the Detroit Lions on Sundays. He might not even last on the practice squad and could find himself quickly back down in the AFL; even that would be light-years ahead of where he had started. Or perhaps the insanity will continue and he'll somehow find his way onto a starting roster, with the Lions or someone else.
Either way, no one can fault Ings for a little time to reflect on all this. No one can fault him if he sees this as major milestone for a career that shouldn't be. Ings has folded through the insanities of football's underbellies, outlived one league's lifespan and survived the implosion of a team elsewhere. He's found a precious space as a Detroit Lion, for however long that might last.
Ings, who never played college football, said he cried last night. He has an interesting story.— Tim Twentyman (@ttwentyman) September 9, 2015