Editor's note: NFL.com is following five players who enter their respective training camps hoping to be one of their team's 53. Here are their stories as they strive to hold on to their NFL dreams.
ATLANTA -- Coy Wire could be cast as the villain -- or the good guy -- in Quentin Tarantino's next flick.
With his bald head, light brown eyes, barrel chest and glare that says half crazy/half saint, Wire looks the parts. He is deeply spiritual and speaks with the intellect of a professor and the eloquence of a political leader. His goal in life, however, is to smash someone's face -- with his. He has had his neck sliced open, his esophagus pulled to one side and other muscles and veins pulled to the other side to open up space for a piece of his hip to be grafted into his spine with a titanium plate with four screws.
"I feel kind of like Robocop," Wire said.
Wire, though, is a linebacker/special teams ace with the Atlanta Falcons.
He's prototypical of a lot of players who, for whatever reason, have been cast as too small or too limited or too fragile at some point of their NFL careers. He trains harder than most, treasures things most of us don't think about -- like walking -- and he'll sacrifice anything, including the potential of paralysis, to simply run downfield on a kickoff, absorb a forearm to the ribs and launch himself into a 200-pound return man who's hoping for glory at Wire's expense.
"Part of my purpose here in life is through football and the challenges it presents," Wire said. "Being able to help others and show others what they are capable of because, it's through this game, that I learned so much about the human mind, about faith, about belief. We are more capable than we know. We are capable of so much more than we think is humanly possible.
"I think of the opportunities I had this past season, to be able to start in a playoff game as a little, part-Asian kid from a small town in Pennsylvania in the NFL playing linebacker against the best athletes in the world at 209 pounds ... it's part of my purpose. It's part of my destiny to tell the story."
Wire's place among players who have to annually prove themselves to earn a roster spot is somewhat common. His story, though, is one of triumph. He has been tested and challenged for years. Once again, he is facing a climb that has forced him to step outside of himself to forge his worth.
Wire enters Atlanta's training camp as the incumbent special-teams captain and backup weakside linebacker, having surprisingly earned those roles last season. It's his eighth season, so he already has beaten the odds of even the most talented NFL players, in terms of longevity. And while he is one of the more respected and inspiring players on the team, a tweaked ankle or poor stretch of play could leave him on the outside looking in -- a vantage point he learned about before receiving an 11th-hour shot from the Falcons last season.
It's a vantage point Wire almost voluntarily opted to take.
Wire was available to the Falcons last summer because he had been released by the Buffalo Bills, whom he played with for six seasons. Wire was told it was too risky for the team to keep him after he had undergone surgery to repair spinal damage that caused nerve issues in his right arm. A big hit from an offensive lineman and ensuing blows did the damage that left Wire on injured reserve. The Bills were dealing with the paralysis of tight end Kevin Everett, who was injured just a few weeks before Wire, and the risk of a similar fate to any more of their players was too taxing.
"I knew teams were going to have a red flag on me because of the surgery," Wire said. "I started thinking, maybe this is it."
But the Falcons called Wire the day before training camp started. He passed the physical and began to think of playing football again. He had been given a second chance. Then reality set it. The night before the first practice, Wire panicked.
"I didn't sleep," he said. "I just kept visualizing the first hit and my neck and my health. This was my spine. I remembered not feeling my hand (from his previous injury). I couldn't get those thoughts out of my head."
Making matters worse, Wire reflected on the father of a youth camper he had worked with weeks earlier and whose right arm had to be amputated after a four-wheel accident. The father also had suffered the same injury Wire had to his fifth and sixth vertebrae.
"I got nauseous, and it came to the point where I said, 'It's not worth it,'" Wire said.
Wire packed his bags and planned to meet with Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff at 6:30 a.m. to thank him for the opportunity. Wire called his parents to tell him his plans. They understood, but Wire's father told him to go through the first day of non-contact drills and make a decision after that. His risk would be minimal in helmets and shorts, but if he still felt unsure, then walk away, his dad told him.
Wire's confidence returned after a few practices. The true test came on Day 3 of training camp.
"I've always lived my life as a man of faith, and for me to doubt and not trust in God now, who had gotten me this far ... would be an insult to Him," Wire said.
Wire took on a pulling guard in 9-on-7 drills. He also had taken on a pulling guard when he suffered his spinal injury with Buffalo. They collided at full speed.
"I threw my face into him, punched him as hard as I could," Wire said. "I looked around. I looked down at my arms. I had feeling. I turned my neck around a little bit, and I just remember getting a big smile on my face because I knew at that moment, everything was going to be OK."
Wire played a vital role on special teams and even started five games at weakside linebacker. It was a feel-good story for sure. Yet, this offseason, upstart Stephen Nicholas was promoted to the starter. Robert James, who was drafted last season to play the role that Wire assumed but landed on injured reserve with a concussion, is healthy. The Falcons also drafted outside linebacker Spencer Adkins from Miami.
Wire's spot isn't secure. That is why he put himself through some of the most punishing workouts of any player in the league.
"Coy is an intelligent football player," Dimitroff said. "He can contribute to a team in a number of ways, from special teams to playing linebacker. Coy's work ethic is unmatched, and his willingness to do whatever it takes has to be commended."
What Wire does to himself is avant-garde torture. Several players declined Wire's offer to train with him. Those who did at a session two weeks before the start of training camp almost wished they hadn't.
After a morning session of kettle bell and plyometric upper-body training that looked like something Superman would do to perfect his flying form, Wire, Falcons teammates Verron Haynes and Thomas Brown and Tampa Bay Buccaneers linebacker Jermaine Phillips went to scenic Chastain Park in Atlanta to take on a 65-yard hill with about a 35-degree slope.
For 40 minutes, they went through explosive, short-burst drills that had their calves searing and thighs inflamed. They spend half that workout doubled over, wondering what they were doing to themselves. Then they sprinted up the hill in timed segments for another 35 minutes. All told, they trained on the hill for an hour and 15 minutes, with maybe 10 minutes of breaks.
It was nothing short of brutal. They surpassed exhaustion halfway through the workout. For Wire, it also was nothing different than what he has done all summer to make sure he gets another shot to put himself at risk.
"Bruce Lee said the greatest hindrance to the proper execution of all physical action is the consciousness of self," Wire said, referencing the legendary martial arts actor. "We just totally obliterated consciousness or concept of ourselves. We just tortured our bodies. All that's left when the body is gone is what? Spirit. And we trained with our spirit right there. We strengthened our spirit by beating up our bodies. And anytime you can strengthen your soul or your spirit, that's what separates you from everyone else out there."