Ricky Foley knows he has what it takes to play in the NFL: Speed, strength, mad heart and immeasurable charisma, for sure.
Yet the Canadian sack-master got a little lost in transition when he took his first OTA snap with Seattle and had a hand in his chest before he'd even taken a step.
The difference between playing one meter off the line of scrimmage in the CFL and being just a few inches off the line in the NFL threw Foley for a humbling loop.
"I knew going in I was gonna be kind of behind the 8-ball, kind of, you know, a guy on the verge of making the team," Foley said.
Foley is raw in countless respects, but his unbridled strengths are so captivating that a half-dozen NFL teams came calling this winter before he opted to try and make it with the Seahawks. The coaching change to Pete Carroll meant roster turnover, no prejudices and a shot to play a hybrid defensive end/linebacker position that Foley says is an ideal fit because, like him, it really has no definition.
At 6-foot-2 and 250 pounds, Foley is too small to play end full time in Seattle's 4-3 front, which means he will spend some time at outside linebacker.
"I'm just hoping with me they see, here's a guy who just ... he hasn't played much football, he's raw, but he keeps getting better every day, so you know, he's got no ceiling," Foley said.
If things don't materialize now, Foley might not have another chance to make it in the NFL. He's 28 and possibly at his physical peak. If he can somehow channel his freakish athleticism into sacks and special-teams havoc, this late-bloomer could be one of the surprise stories of the NFL this season. If not, it's back to the CFL, where he will be just another guy who couldn't make it south of the border.
How Foley got to this point is a story within itself, because, at first glance, he doesn't mesh with his upbringing. Foley is a rebel, which is why he's closer to making it in the NFL than his limited football résumé would lead on.
Everything starts on a dairy farm outside of Toronto, where Foley grew up feeding, milking and cleaning up after the livestock that brought his family a modest living. His father, Don, drove him hard from morning until night, every day. For Foley, school and his endeavors in track and field came second.
Foley didn't like the lifestyle and became even more disenchanted as he emerged as a star decathlete -- a sport that came naturally, at least in part, because of the strength and work ethic he begrudgingly acquired on the farm.
Foley said his dad had little interest in his athletics, and their relationship soured as he grew into his teens. Things at home completely fell apart when Foley was at the tail end of high school. His older brother was about to embark on his own, and his father decided to transition from dairy farming to raising cattle for beef.
"Just as we were ready to start, you know making a profit from all the cattle we had earlier, the mad-cow disease scare came, and it was pretty bad," Foley said. "That pretty much put us under."
-- Ricky Foley
With his relationship with his father strained to the limit, Foley left home when he was almost 18. Trouble was always near, and Foley said he was in jeopardy of ruining his life -- at least a few times. But he had other friends who steered him in the right direction. He also was focused in school just enough to get into York University in Toronto, with athletics being the primary motive. He still participated in track and field but also tried out for the football team, the equivalent to a Division III program in the United States.
Foley was lost. He had no idea what he was doing or what position to play. He didn't even know how to put on his pads. Special teams were his calling for a few years. Then, during a fateful practice when the top pass rusher was out, Foley stepped in and found his position -- and his calling. It didn't take long to develop into a dynamic player.
Foley also bridged his relationship with his father, which, in turn, enhanced his desire to become a football star. The ice was broken after a game in which Foley said he played poorly and his team played worse. It was one of the few sporting events his dad ever attended. At one point, Foley looked into the stands and saw his father shaking his head. Foley figured his father was right -- sports might not be a path to providing for a family.
Surprisingly, after the game, his dad hugged him for one of the few times in his life.
"Everything was forgiven," Foley said.
Foley was selected by the BC Lions in the first round of the 2006 CFL draft (fourth overall), but after attending a scouting combine for NFL teams, Foley received a tryout with the Baltimore Ravens.
"I probably only played less than 20 games of football my entire life," said Foley, who worked at outside linebacker. "I just wasn't used to the playbook. We probably ran like three, four blitzes my entire career at York. So then to go down there and during minicamp, you got like 70 plays in seven days, and I didn't know how to study terminology. I didn't know how to do word association stuff, so I was literally trying to memorize 70 different plays just based on name of the play.
"So, that was it. You go out there on the field, and you're not doing what you're supposed to do -- it's a pretty quick hook."
Foley wasn't just raw by NFL standards. When he played for BC, he was mainly a special teamer and a situational pass rusher for two seasons. As he was rounding into form, so was Cameron Wake, a big-time pass rusher who ended up taking most of Foley's reps before parlaying his big season into a job with the Miami Dolphins after the 2008 season.
Even in 2009, when Foley came into his own and led the CFL with 12.5 sacks, he was a situational player. His body of work is still developing. His potential is mouth watering. He'll be competing with several players to play the "Elephant" role that current Green Bay Packers linebacker Clay Matthews played at USC under Carroll. Foley's special teams play could ultimately determine if he emerges with a spot on the roster.
After a strong-showing in OTAs, things seem to be on the right track. Since the initial phases of struggling to convert from the metric system, the rebel farm boy is hardly lacking confidence.
"I'm sitting here right now and say I want to be an All-Pro, and I believe that I can be in a year or two, and people are gonna be saying, 'Well, this (series) is called 'On the Fringe.' How you gonna go from 'On the Fringe' to an All-Pro?' " Foley said. "Look back about eight years ago. People said I couldn't even make the CFL. So you really can't tell me anything that I can't do, because I'm here, off of nothing. I'm on my path. Other people don't see it that way. That's fine. But I know I'm getting better every day, and I know I'm real close right now."