Watching the 2014 St. Louis Rams conduct drills in OTAs, I’m reminded of how I broke into the NFL as an undrafted rookie. I couldn’t think of anything else during my first sessions with the Los Angeles Rams in 1994. It wasn’t about achieving some a childhood dream of playing in the pros or making a million dollars. I was thinking solely of fixing my mom’s refrigerator or getting a brand-new one for her. That was my motivation, and I carried that intensity to training camp.
The most significant day of my football life came when I was matched against a former University of Washington teammate, Jeff Pahukoa, in a one-on-one pass rush drill. That day, I turned from Husky to a Ram.
Jeff was a 1990 Pac-10 All Conference first-team offensive tackle, a 12th-round selection by the Rams in 1991. He had played three seasons and made five starts at left guard for the Rams going into training camp. As I’m lining up across from him and getting in my three-point stance, I thought, Jeff Paukoa, teammate, friend, respect.
Then, my mind flashed to that broken handle on the refrigerator. I could see the marks from the crazy glue from where we tried to repair it. Jeff ceased to be a teammate and became my opportunity. I took off and won the rep. It was a clean, quick win for me and an embarrassing loss for Jeff.
Jim Erkenbeck, the Rams’ offensive line coach, was stunned. Jeff called me out for a second rep. It was a personal challenge. He couldn’t believe he was beaten so quickly by an undrafted rookie. Neither could Erkenbeck. I was making noise out there.
We lined up again for our second go-round. I beat Jeff again. This win was even faster and prettier than the first. My rare double-beat day one turned heads – toward me and, unfortunately, away from Jeff. I may have helped to end his tenure with Rams, but I gave birth to my career in the process. The high fives and helmet slaps felt great, a better feeling than I could’ve ever imagined as a child.
I never thought what reviewing the film must’ve been like him for Jeff in the O-line meeting. I didn’t care. It was my first kill. I became hardened to sympathetic impulses.
A broken refrigerator door and my desire to correct it was stronger than friendship that day.