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'Hard Knocks' recap: Jayson DiManche lives the dream

Jayson DiManche and Bruce Taylor both were undrafted rookies, both linebackers, both chasing the same dream.

Now they were sharing a quiet car ride on the way to the Cincinnati Bengals' final preseason game.

"This might be our last ride, bro," DiManche told Taylor. "This might be our last ride."

For Taylor, it was. He was cut three days later, a victim of the NFL's cruel numbers game. Now the "Hard Knocks" crew had set up shop in DiManche's hotel room as he waited for the call that would change his life ... for better or worse.

DiManche survived rookie camp, OTAs, minicamp, training camp, and finally, an entire preseason. Now Bengals coach Marvin Lewis was on the other end of the line, telling the rookie he had survived once more.

"I wanted to let you know that you've made the football team," Lewis said, a huge smile creeping across his face. "You've made the 53-man squad, so congratulations."

DiManche hung up with Lewis, jumped onto his bed and screamed into the comforter. After composing himself, he called his mother. You gotta call Mom. In two minutes of air time, "Hard Knocks" had captured the two happiest moments of Jayson DiManche's life.

Let's just say we were one Explosions In The Sky guitar shimmer away from waterworks at Hanzus Manor.

Here's what else stood out in Episode 5, the season finale of "Hard Knocks" ...

The Sad Ballad Of John Conner

John Conner has been the star of two of the last three seasons of "Hard Knocks." By all accounts, he is very good at his job. So why can't he keep a job?

That's what Conner wanted to know when Lewis called him into his office to tell him he'd been cut.

"I just want to know the reasoning," Conner said. "Honestly, in my mind, I felt like I did everything to earn a spot on this team. I just want to know if I did something wrong."

Conner didn't do anything wrong. He's simply a man trying to make a living off a dying profession. The fullback is an endangered species. Like a hippie born after Woodstock, Conner and his contemporaries simply came up in the wrong era.

Unexpected John Mayer Poignance Alert!

Not every "Hard Knocks" story has a happy ending. Likable defensive tackle Terrence Stephens was cut at the end of the episode. Before that, Stephens channeled his frosh dorm days at Stanford, singing John Mayer's "Gravity" with the help of two guys on acoustic guitar.

Gravity, stay the hell away from me
Oh gravity has taken better men than me (now how can that be?)
Just keep me where the light is
Just keep me where the light is
Just keep me where the light is

Isn't that basically what "Hard Knocks" is all about? Isn't that what training camp is all about? Um, thanks for boiling down the National Football League to its very essence, Grammy®-winning singer-songwriter JOHN MAYER.


More inspirational words from Jay Gruden

Gruden had the coaching rant of the season in Episode 4. In the finale, he offered a final pep talk for the 53-man roster in which he used the word "love" eight times in 20 seconds.

"You gotta love what you do. You gotta love football. You gotta love to come to work. You gotta love to prepare to work. You gotta love to train, you gotta love to practice. You gotta love to lift weights. Love the s--- out of what you do, because this is the greatest job in the world right here what you guys have just accomplished."

Love that guy. And while we're here ...

'Hard Knocks' Season 8 Coach Power Rankings

1. Jay Gruden: One day, this man will be a head coach. And it will be a great day. A great f------ day.

2. Hue Jackson: Ol' Hue got off to a fast start this season before fading down the stretch. Sounds like his 2011 season with the Oakland Raiders. Too soon?

3. Mike Zimmer: Zimmer might have been higher on the list if that massive deer head wasn't hanging over his desk. That deer had a family, you know.

4. Marvin Lewis: No offense to Lewis, but 10 episodes is enough of a "Hard Knocks" spotlight. Fresh meat please. (Put down your crossbow, Zimm.)

We'll miss you, Margus

If Gruden is the Coach of the Year in "Hard Knocks," then Rookie of the Year goes to defensive end Margus Hunt, who was a steady source of comedy throughout the season.

Time and time again, Hunt used his sense of humor to combat the playful barbs of teammates who had fun with the 6-foot-8, 277-pound Estonian giant.

Terence Newman: We're talking about Drago.

(Note: Bengals players had fun all summer likening Hunt to Ivan Drago, the steroid-addled super villain in "Rocky IV.")

Margus Hunt: What about Ivan? He was Russian, actually. (two beats) That's how I grew up, I was all hooked up to machines. I carried friggin' logs.

Hunt, perhaps because he was negative 2 when "Rocky IV" was released, is cross-pollinating the training methods of Drago (who relied on cutting edge technology and synthetic drugs) and Balboa (who used barn equipment, logs, mountains and a beard) as the two men prepared for their Christmas Day fight in Moscow. On a related note, I was alone for a long time before I met my wife.


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Back to DiManche

This won't go down as the best season in "Hard Knocks" history. There weren't enough compelling front-line stars, and it lacked the "Wow!" moment like we saw last season when Chad Johnson was sent packing following his arrest. That said, the entire sequence involving DiManche was brilliant.

It's just fantastic visual storytelling that transported the viewer into the shoes of an NFL rookie waiting for a potentially life-changing phone call. The show never tipped its hand until we saw Lewis on the other end of the line, ready to deliver the good news.

Great, great television.

Stray thoughts

» Nice touch giving us one last look at James Harrison and his antagonistic relationship with "Hard Knocks" cameras. Harrison will be the character everyone remembers most from this season. It was fitting his was the last face we saw.

» So who wins in a Charisma-Off between Andy Dalton and John Skelton? Can we get Joe Flacco on the line and turn this into a three-man quarterback competition?

» I'm still surprised "Hard Knocks" didn't make a bigger deal of A.J. Green not showing up for training camp. Wait, you're saying Green was there? Oh.

» How about that awkward exchange between Geno Atkins and Bengals owner Mike Brown in the seconds after the star defensive tackle signed his huge new contract extension. It reminded me of running into the boss you barely know in the bathroom. Just crazy awkward.

» We're not sure it was such a good idea for Aaron Maybin to tell America, during a time in which he's looking for a job, that football is not his first love. That said, he seems like a man at peace as an artist.

» Kind of mind-blowing that Adam "Pacman" Jones connected the name of teammate Dane Sanzenbacher to Henry Rowengartner, the fictional kid pitcher in the largely forgotten 1993 baseball film "Rookie Of The Year." This almost makes me think Pacman and I could be friends. Almost.

» On a personal note, it was great getting to watch this show and handle the write-ups on NFL.com for a second straight year. Thanks for reading. I'll be back in 2014, unless James Harrison decides otherwise.

Follow Dan Hanzus on Twitter @DanHanzus.

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