The news hit Twitter as many were still basking in the glow of the US men’s thrilling 1-0 victory over Algeria in the World Cup:
All at once, all the gibbering soccerheads in my follow list snapped back into Rams fandom, celebrating not one but two victories on the day. But for those who wonder why this deal took so long to complete, it’s that Atogwe and his agent chose to take the “Hero’s Journey” — a necessarily long wandering to reach the NFL player’s promised land: a guaranteed multi-year contract.
It all started, as Nick Waggoner at stlouisrams.com says, on February 19, 2009.
The Journey, Part One: “The Call of Destiny”
That was the day when Atogwe, a new unrestricted free-agent, and the Rams sat down to talk contract terms. Instead of lowballing their defensive star, the Rams opened the gates to seemingly unparalleled riches, bestowing the franchise tag on Atogwe. This guaranteed to pay him salary commensurate with the top five safeties in football, more than doubling his career earnings in a single paycheck. Of course, that salary is only guaranteed for one year, making it a devil’s bargain. But promises were made, hands were shaken, that negotiations on a long-term deal would continue in earnest.
This put Atogwe and the Rams on a seemingly parallel path — to earn riches and glory in service to the rebuilding team. But soon, the player and team would begin to be pulled in two separate directions.
Atogwe showed nothing but loyalty to the Rams in the early going, never complaining about the franchise tag, which other notable figures around the league have compared to “high-paid slavery,” and showing up to all minicamps, OTAs, workouts voluntary and involuntary, and training camp during the 2009 offseason. More than just show up, Atogwe demonstrated a buy-in to the new coaching staff, even as they began shifting his responsibilities from that of a pure free safety to one who would be called upon to play the run. His leadership by example helped create locker room harmony, despite the early exits of several other notable veterans such as Chris Draft and Tye Hill.
However, the unraveling of the NFL’s collective bargaining agreement was shifting the ground underneath Atogwe, generating a rift between player and team.
The Journey, Part Two: “Entering the Unknown”
The collapse of the CBA led to speculation of a lockout in 2011, and for a while the outcry against robbing the American people of the one true football fogged the blogosphere. But then, the more subtle ramifications became slowly unveiled. A limited subset of players, including Atogwe, would suddenly be robbed of the benefits of four years’ service in the league — namely, the right to unrestricted free agency.
This had never happened before, and it thrust Atogwe and the Rams into an uncomfortable position. Atogwe was now looking ahead to a year as a restricted free agent, subject again to a one-year tender, and one year further away from long term riches. And in the injury-prone world of the NFL, one year carries a staggering amount of risk to potential future earnings.
Then, lightning struck. Despite playing his career in the House of Horrors, the nimble-footed Atogwe had avoided the turf treachery to tender ligaments in knees and toes that felled so many of his fellow Rams. But he couldn’t avoid the cold and terrible sod of Chicago’s Soldier Field in late November. In a seemingly harmless cloud of dust that ended every Bears running play, Atogwe’s shoulder subluxed and gave way, forcing him from the field for the first time in four years.
His offseason began painfully early, but his ability to learn his fate would not come any sooner for it.
The Journey, Part 3: “The Temptation of Free Agency”
Having lost significant bargaining leverage, Atogwe’s agent made clear their intentions — to seek top dollar, whether from the Rams or from some other team. Billy Devaney, a stone sober poker player when it comes to negotiations, a veritable Jack Donaghy, countered by openly inviting other teams into the conversation.
The Rams handed Atogwe the lowest possible tender, asking only for “the right of first refusal” of any other team’s contract offer. Not even a 3rd round draft pick required to bargain with. This was the equivalent to inviting 31 expert players into a no-limit game, with not even a courtesy buy-in. No one bit.
Despite the knowledge that accepting the tender meant a nearly $7 million dollar payday, that money was still a fraction of the potential riches out there — riches made all too plain when the unrestricted Antrelle Rolle signed for huge money with the New York Giants.
In contract limbo and fully intending to test the market, Atogwe reversed course from the year before and sat out the Rams offseason activities. He waited patiently for the June deadline for restricted free agents, then politely but firmly declined the offer.
Atogwe had stepped into the belly of the beast, leaving the known world fully behind.
The Journey, Part 4: “Rejection.”
— National Football Post: “Spagnuolo on Atogwe’s Departure“
On the days leading up to Atogwe’s free agency, fans of the Dolphins, Vikings, Bears, Lions, and 49ers jousted with each other and with various football pundits about the merits of adding Atogwe. Then one by one, these teams publicly removed themselves from the conversation. The Vikings flatly denied any interest. The 49ers, despite a well-publicized romantic connection between coach Singletary’s daughter and the former Ram, stepped aside. The Dolphins played it cool. The Lions kicked the tires but didn’t make an offer. The Bears … did whatever it is that the Bears do in the slumbering hibernation of the offseason, which wasn’t much of anything.
Then came the absolute low point, the abyss of Atogwe’s short-lived venture into free agency. He was rejected even by the miserable Seattle Seahawks. Not even for a visit. Not even for a donut run with Golden Tate.
Atogwe had run smack up against another emerging trend of this weird and turbulent uncapped offseason — NFL owners zipping up their wallets, enjoying their own brand of financial freedom by largely eschewing the big expenditures. Not only was there no salary cap, there’s no salary floor, nor is there guarantee of football in 2011. So why take a risk?
The Journey, Part 5: “A Humble and Triumphant Return.”
Those that say “you can never go home again” have clearly never read the Odyssey. Or the Iliad, the New Testament, Candide, Star Wars, or any other story that follows this archetypal path of the hero. Going home, whether wiser, richer, or poorer for their experiences, is the way these heroes’ stories are supposed to end.
And in this story’s end, Atogwe comes back to Rams Park with a five-year contract and nothing but warm words for the teammates and coaches that he had so willingly walked away from just weeks before. He even gave a respectful nod to Billy Devaney, the man across the table who never flinched while this story wandered its way toward this now-inevitable conclusion.
The structure for this post is taken directly from the idea of the “monomyth” or “Hero’s Journey,” first suggested in the book “Hero with a Thousand Faces” by Joesph Campbell. A brilliant read and well recommended.