The most feared man in the NFL isnt a dirty player, a perfectionist coach, or even a mercurial owner.
IT'S ONE WEEK before the start of the NFL season, and the transactions column on a newspaper’s sports page reads like an oversize obituary. The names of hundreds of players who didn’t make the final cut for one of the 32 teams run together like a giant inkblot. Sometimes a notable name will stand out — a former Heisman Trophy winner, perhaps, or a veteran with a couple of Super Bowl rings. But to the casual observer, most of the names are as noteworthy as those in the newlyweds page a few sections over. Still, behind every name, there is a person whose NFL career has taken a punch to the gut. And behind every coach’s decision to release a player, there is one person in the organization whose responsibility it is to send a player on his way to the chopping block. He is commonly known as the Turk — the grim reaper — and for the two weeks leading up to the regular season, he is the most feared man in the league.
As the player personnel assistant for the Denver Broncos, Mike Mascenik spends most of his time scouting free agents. He is an easy person to talk to over the phone, the kind of guy who can make you feel like a friend five minutes into a conversation. But as the NFL regular season approaches and the Broncos finalize their roster, Mascenik is anything but a friendly face to the players trying to make the team. To them, he is simply the Turk, and players avoid him, like … well, death.
“You have the guys who’ll go through a different door, or they’ll walk out a different way, just hoping to avoid you,” Mascenik says. “They don’t look you in the eye. They don’t want to see you coming.”
Mascenik is merely a messenger. He doesn’t make the decision, nor does he officially tell somebody he’s no longer on the team. In Denver, that’s general manager Ted Sundquist’s job. Sundquist informs the player he’s been cut from the team, sets up a checkout physical for him, and makes the necessary travel arrangements for the trip home.
“Get your playbook and go see Ted” is generally the extent of Mascenik’s conversations. Yet every player knows what that one simple imperative really means: It is the beginning of the end.
“I’ve had guys actually say to me, ‘Stay away from me. Don’t talk to me. I don’t want to see you. Get away!’?” Mascenik says.
Mascenik, who’s in his fifth season as the Turk for the Broncos, admits that releasing a player is a sensitive subject that many teams don’t like to talk about. But it’s a reality for every organization. The NFL sets two deadlines by which every team must make cuts. The first requires teams to have trimmed their rosters to 75 players. Generally, the first is the lesser of two evils. And typically, the cuts come as no surprise. They are the fourth-stringers — the backups for the backups and for the potential practice-squad players. Mascenik gets a list of names and pulls the phone numbers. This part of the process is relatively easy for him because there is no face-to-face interaction. But in 2006, there was one call he knew was going to be particularly tough.
Dwayne Carswell, who spent 12 years of his career with the Broncos, was one of the few remaining players from Denver’s two Super Bowl teams of the 1990s. The 35-year-old, who was involved in a 2005 car accident that nearly took his life, had shown remarkable progress in his return to the field. Less than a year removed from broken ribs, a ruptured diaphragm, and a ruptured spleen, he expected to make the team as a backup offensive lineman. But Carswell’s name was on Mascenik’s list. Just like that, the man they call House was no longer a Bronco.
“It was tough,” Mascenik says. “Ted’s secretary was crying. I think House got a little emotional. He is a very laid-back guy, so he can be tough to read sometimes. But I think I saw him well up a bit. All I heard from people around the organization was that they couldn’t believe he was gone.”
THERE’S A LITTLE over a week before the Broncos’ 2006 opener with the St. Louis Rams, and the second NFL deadline is here. Teams trim their rosters down to the final 53 players. Denver coaches reach a decision and deliver the list of names to Mascenik. All players are required to meet at the training facility to run and lift. It is here that Mascenik drops the last hammer on 22 players. With a clipboard bearing the list of those who didn’t make the cut, Mascenik marks off each of their names as he confronts them. High-profile players, the ones who aren’t worried about getting cut, try to lighten the mood for him.
“Guys like Champ Bailey joke around with you,” he says. “They come up to you and ask, ‘Am I safe?’?”
The Broncos make notable moves. Ron Dayne, former Heisman Trophy–winning running back from Wisconsin and a first-round pick of the New York Giants eight years ago, is on Mascenik’s list. Going into training camp, the Broncos considered Dayne their top running back, but a turf toe injury caused him to miss 12 practices and the final three preseason games. Because of that, Dayne fell to fourth on the depth chart and didn’t make the final cut.
“That’s the kind of move we’re faced with every year,” Mascenik says. “We have to make a couple of very difficult decisions.”
By noon, Mascenik has all but one name crossed off his list. Wide receiver Darius Watts, the second-round pick for the Broncos in 2004, is nowhere to be found. The Turk had called Watts earlier, but no one answered. As the team reports to a mandatory meeting, Mascenik waits outside the facility for Watts to show up. A few minutes before the meeting, Watts pulls into the parking lot. He gets out of his car and runs to make it to the meeting on time. Mascenik makes his final move of the day.
“I was standing outside, waiting for him, and I had to slow him down and tell him to go see Ted,” Mascenik says. “Talk about a guy being confident.”
Watts, once considered the future star of the Broncos’ receiving corps, is out, despite a good off-season.
“Guys roll in and out all the time,” former NFL lineman Ryan Young says. “That’s the nature of the game.”
Young, who played for three NFL teams during his career, says dealing with the Turk is never easy.
“I remember I was a rookie, and a bunch of fellow rookies were walking out with their luggage, but they looked as if someone had just died,” says Young, who was drafted in the seventh round by the New York Jets in 1999. “I was naive, because training camp was over, and I thought that we had all made it. A veteran had to tell me that those guys had just gotten cut. From then, I began having nightmares about the Turk, or, as we called him in New York, the White Buffalo.”
Young believes a player’s fear of getting cut can paralyze his ability to function during training camp and the preseason.
“I saw a player who was making every play in training camp have a bad preseason game,” Young says. “And then, he was so nervous that the Turk was going to come for him that he couldn’t do anything right. He eventually got released.
“Another time, we were told we would get a call in our dorm rooms if we didn’t make the team. My roommate’s mom called early in the morning. He was so freaked out — he actually cursed his mom out.”
It’s that type of paranoia that runs rampant during training camp and the preseason. Even when things are going well, one encounter with the Turk can cause a player’s mind to start playing tricks on him.
“It’s tough,” Mascenik says, “because it’s just one aspect of your job, but it’s all the players see you as during that time of year.”
IT WAS PARANOIA that led Mike Bell to believe he was going to be cut by Denver early on during training camp. The undrafted rookie free agent from the University of Arizona headed to head coach Mike Shanahan’s office for a meeting, shaking the entire way. Shanahan didn’t cut the Denver native, who since childhood had dreamed about playing for the Broncos and idolized Denver running back Terrell Davis. Instead, he promoted Bell to the top of the depth chart for last year’s first preseason game.
“You bring a guy like Mike in here to compete, and sometimes the guy fits your system really well,” Mascenik says. “That doesn’t mean he’ll fit everyone’s system well. It’s all about filling a need.”
Sometimes the stars align for a player. The Broncos had rated Bell as a fourth-round draft pick, but in the end, they didn’t draft him because of their depth at running-back. Bell happened to fall through the cracks of the draft, but the Broncos, who lost a running back to free agency, gave Bell a chance. He made the most of the opportunity.
Tight end Chad Mustard moved up the Broncos’ depth chart because of other players’ injuries. Mustard, who became a substitute teacher in Omaha after not making an NFL team in the 2005 season, made Denver’s 53-man roster for 2006.
Still, fate usually sides against such occurrences. Mascenik says that for every Mike Bell and Chad Mustard, there are at least six others who don’t make the cut.
“It’s a nice surprise when something like that happens, but we don’t count on it,” Mascenik says. “I’ve seen guys who’ve had outstanding preseasons not make the team because we had a more pressing issue at another position. It’s just the way it plays out.”
Once the regular season begins and the dust settles, teams field their finalized rosters and players who didn’t make the cut look for another line of work. Turk season is over, and Mascenik shelves that responsibility for another year. He shifts his attention to his other player-personnel duties and focuses on the regular season.
“I’m not a cold person,” he says. “To me, it’s a sign of moving forward. The season is approaching, and it’s time to start playing. You hope the best for the player. They may not be able to help us out, but you’re giving them a shot to help themselves with another team. It’s not personal … it’s business.”