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Beware the Turk: Cutdown day is never easy

As each NFL team must make its final cuts to reach the roster limit of 53, some players learned their fate on Friday. All will know by 6 p.m. ET on Saturday. It can be a time for NFL teams to take cover.

"When I was coach in Tampa," recalls Indianapolis coach Tony Dungy, "we had a player we let go. We get a call from a pawn shop owner who recognized the player and said that he was in the shop upset and wanting to purchase a gun. He wasn't coming after me. He was coming after his position coach."

That position coach was then-Bucs linebackers coach Lovie Smith.

"He was my player," said Smith, now the Bears coach. "I heard the guy was at the pawn shop. We had security in my yard that night. It was serious. Once you've been through a situation like that ..."

You understand that this is a gut-wrenching experience for 704 players who will be cut by Saturday night. That many of them for the first time will experience football "failure." That some veteran players go from earning millions to zilch. That these players are being told, in essence, says Smith: "Your dream is not going to work here with us. It's not going to happen here."

It is not an easy talk to have on either end, though a handful will land new jobs with new teams.

"I talk to some of them about the practice squad," Dungy said. "About things to work on. For veteran guys, especially, what their future looks like. The toughest for me was after our Super Bowl when I had to let people go who had helped us win a championship. August 30th is one of those days that everyone knows is coming. It is not a day you look forward to. It's been 13 times for me as a head coach. It does not get any easier."

The process used to be simpler and less personable.

Back when camps featured as many as 120 or so players, guys were simply cut and told to go home. Now the cuts trickle throughout the summer, with this last one the biggest whack. On Tuesday, each team was mandated to cut from 80 to 75 players.

Most teams use someone from their personnel department to go into the locker room and ask players to report to the head coach or general manager and bring their playbooks. This messenger is called the "Turk."

Scott Pioli, the Patriots' vice president of player personnel, has performed every duty associated with final cuts. From 1992-'95, when he was a Cleveland Browns scouting assistant, he was the team's Turk. Later in his career, he would sit in with coaches as they cut players. Now he and coach Bill Belichick visit with each Patriots player cut in Pioli's office.

"I found that job of going to get the player a very tough job," Pioli said. "When they see you around that time, they know why you are coming. You have to handle the situation with care. In that role, you can sometimes feel the impact of their situation before anyone. It is a delicate balance. One veteran player in Cleveland was angry and dog-cursing me and was coming after me. I just said the head coach wants to talk to you. I became the object of his anger and frustration.

"I've seen every range of emotion. I've seen guys cry. Anger. Sad. Relieved. Indifferent. I've seen it all in this. Heard it all. You have to be professional yet carry a delicate balance. If you are a person with any degree of compassion, it's a tough job."

A Cal receiver in the 1980s was cut by the Colts and reportedly poured a milkshake over then-head coach Frank Kush. A league personnel executive shared this story, requesting anonymity:

"We told a guy he was cut. He started screaming and hollering. We took him to the airport. He took his time. He took so long that he missed his flight. He called us and told us we had better get him a room or he was going to come and kick the coach's you-know-what. We got him a room."

Another, also requesting anonymity, offered: "One of my saddest experiences was when we had two young backs in camp who had really worked hard. Each one knew only one was going to make it. They sat next to each other in the locker room. So, I have to go down and get the one we are cutting. I walk in and both are looking at me. Who's going to the gallows and who's going to the castle? I tell him. The other kid works hard to control himself. The kid that walks with me is devastated. That is a tough one when they are side-by-side like that."

Dungy remembers that when he was a Pittsburgh Steelers safety in the '70s, he read a newspaper article that predicted which players would be cut. Dungy was on the list. He said he remained in his hotel room the entire weekend, waiting for that fateful knock. It never came. So, on that Monday morning he went into the facility. His gear was still at his locker. I must be okay, he thought.

"But two seasons later I was in Mel Blount's and Joe Greene's room during camp," recalls Dungy. "Terry Bradshaw and Franco Harris were also in there. We were sitting there talking about the team and who would make it. There was a knock on the door. It was the Turk. I figured this much out -- he wasn't there for any of them. Sometimes, you just know. Fortunately in that situation, I was not cut but I was traded to the 49ers.

"That knock on the door for us is now a cell phone call to come in. And I learned from spending a whole weekend in a hotel waiting to be cut how unfair it is to have the players just twisting. I tell them all that there is a one-hour window of time on Saturday where they will be informed if they are cut. If you don't get a call in that hour, you're okay. I think that is something important to do with the players.''

Four new NFL head coaches will experience final roster cuts for the first time. Among them is Baltimore's John Harbaugh.

"I talk to most if not all of the cuts," Harbaugh said. "This final cutdown day is going to be new for me. I don't have a strategy. These guys you are cutting have busted their tails. I'll be honest, for sure. So much is at stake. Put yourself in that guy's shoes.

"But you know what, this is also an exciting time -- you get to tell 53 guys they made it, they earned it."

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