WHEN YOU DREAM like Garrett Chisolm, not much stands in your way.
He dreamed of a college football career, so he played one season at Pikeville (Ky.) College. He dreamed of making the roster at South Carolina, so he first became a student at the school for one year, then walked on to the football team. He dreamed of being a starter on the offensive line, so he worked tirelessly in the offseason before his senior year.
Now Chisolm dreams of wearing the jersey of an NFL team, so he is experiencing the vagabond lifestyle of a practice team player. Three teams in one calendar year. Six weeks on non-active, practice squads. It was just enough for Chisolm to recognize he will realize his dream, once again.
Do not count Chisolm out.
“My mom gave birth to two winners, me and my brother,” Chisolm said this week by telephone from Fort Lauderdale, Fla., where he is training before attending a San Francisco 49ers mini-camp in April. “We’ve got to keep on proving that to people.”
His younger brother, Cedric, played one season at Louisburg (N.C.) College and recently signed to play the next three at Southern Mississippi.
You might recall the Chisolm story at USC. An unknown in August of 2009, Chisolm caught the eye of defensive coordinator Lorenzo Ward. He started two games that season and 12 the next. Over those two seasons he lost both parents to cancer.
Yet Chisolm plowed forward, earning the Harold White Award for highest GPA on the USC offense in the spring of 2009. His senior season was cut short by a knee injury, yet he still graduated.
He immediately went to work rehabilitating his knee. His intent was to play in the NFL, no matter that he sat in the Columbia home of his high school coach and waited last April for a telephone call he never received.
“It was a difficult time,” Chisolm said of not being drafted. “When you work so hard for something and you don’t accomplish it, it seems like it’s all for naught.”
Not for Chisolm.
Through his agent, Christina Phillips of Precision Sports, and connections with former USC assistant coach Dave DeGuglielmo, Chisolm began taking steps to playing in the NFL by working with Bommarito Performance Systems in Fort Lauderdale.
“Garrett from Day 1 was into the program and a hard worker, determined to get signed somewhere,” said Mike Alessi, director of pro performance for Bommarito. “He was a hard worker, period.”
The combination of January knee surgery and an NFL lockout this past offseason prevented Chisolm from landing a tryout with the Miami Dolphins. So, he kept working and waiting for a call from an NFL team.
Finally, the Carolina Panthers signed Chisolm to their practice squad on Nov. 30. For the final five weeks of the regular season, Chisolm was on the roster of an NFL team — yet few outside his family knew it.
Most NFL fans know the lavish lifestyle of the players who earn an average annual salary of $1.9 million. Few know the existence of the practice team player, who works week to week, stands in street clothes on the sideline for home games and whose name never appears in the game program.
Most practice team players rent a hotel room from week to week. Chisolm was fortunate to live rent free with his cousin, April Robinson, in Charlotte. She also happened to be an excellent cook, which saved Chisolm on food expenses.
Chisolm was paid $5,700 per week, which would be a hefty salary if projected over an entire season. For his first pro season, which later included one week on the practice squad with the Baltimore Ravens, Chisolm’s annual income was $34,200.
“You’ve just got to manage your money well. You’re not a big contract guy,” Chisolm said. “You’re just making enough where you can live comfortably for right now. You’ve got to think ahead because you’re not going to get paid in January, February and March. You’ve got to really spend your money wisely.”
On the field, Chisolm mostly served on Carolina’s scout team. He was presented a play package every Monday. The plan was to run plays of Carolina’s next opponent while continuing to study and learn the Panthers’ playbook.
For Chisolm, the mental aspect of the game was both challenging and exciting.
“Football is going to be football but with different terminology,” Chisolm said. “If a linebacker moves to one gap, it can change the whole call for the offensive line. It could change everything for the quarterback, who sees something different. It’s a real mind game. It’s chess on checkers.
“These guys are bigger, stronger, faster, and they understand it. The bigger, stronger, faster part is not the part that gets you. It’s the knowledge of the game. That part is the most important and will keep you in the league longer.”
Chisolm stood on the Bank of America Stadium sideline in Charlotte for Carolina’s home games against Atlanta and Tampa Bay. Then the regular season ended, and after a three-week wait, Chisolm landed a spot on the Baltimore practice squad for the week leading up to the Ravens’ AFC championship game.
For that week, the Ravens provided lodging and a chance for Chisolm to pick the brains of Baltimore’s offensive linemen. When the Ravens lost to New England, Chisolm was out of a job.
Nine days later, on the last day of January, he signed with the San Francisco 49ers. So, it was back to Fort Lauderdale and continued training for mini-camps.
Chisolm realizes his odds are long to make the San Francisco roster, which will expand to 90 players after the upcoming draft. Yet he sees this year as his first time out, his first preseason camp and his first tryout in good health.
In Chisolm’s world, those are good odds. Do not bet against him playing in the NFL next season.