For many lesser known players around the National Football League--the second-string linemen, the practice-squad quarterbacks--the NFL Europe League is a proving ground.
Football’s version of winter baseball offers valuable game experience to players on the cusp.
“This is their chance to prove they belong in the NFL,” says Jack Bicknell, a veteran of the overseas league who coaches the Barcelona Dragons. “Maybe their last chance.”
But, for the hopefuls on his Dragons, the gravity of the situation can become lost in the surroundings. Their proving ground happens to be a proving beach.
The team stays in a hotel on the Mediterranean Sea. Most days, the squad practices right on the sand.
So please excuse Isaiah Mustafa for sounding lighthearted. After spending last season as a rookie on the Tennessee Oilers’ practice squad, Mustafa talks more like a tourist than a young man trying to forge a career at wide receiver.
“I’m in Spain and the weather is beautiful,” he says. “It could double as a vacation.”
The unusual circumstances befit Mustafa’s unusual history with the sport. A basketball and track star at Santa Clara High, he did not play school football until he got to Moorpark College.
But at 6-foot-3 and 208 pounds, Mustafa has the physical attributes that coaches crave, not to mention the intelligence to learn on the fly.
He started at safety in 1993, then switched to offense and set a Moorpark single-season record with 66 receptions for 1,086 yards. That was impressive enough to earn a scholarship to Arizona State and a chance to play with Jake Plummer, one of the top young quarterbacks in the nation.
It seemed as if Mustafa was headed in the right direction after catching 18 passes for 233 yards and two touchdowns and making Academic All-Pacific 10 Conference honorable mention his junior season.
But something happened the summer before his senior year. Mustafa says only that he had “a confrontation” with one of the Sun Devil assistant coaches.
“My nerves got shot at a certain point,” he said. “It was kind of depressing.”
The incident landed him on the bench. With his team marching toward the 1997 Rose Bowl, he caught only five passes for 56 yards, resigning himself to playing special teams and preparing for a career as a high school teacher.
“This is like a heartbreak story,” he said.
Then an agent approached him to ask if he would like to take a shot at the NFL. A number of teams were interested.
Bicknell thinks he knows why.
“He’s got good speed, good size,” the coach said. “And very bright. I really like this kid.”
Tennessee invited Mustafa to camp, where he beat out several draft picks to make the practice squad. It was an unexpected breath of life for his career. And he would not make the same mistakes that had cost him so dearly in college.
“I learned who not to [irritate],” he said. “There are two people, the equipment manager and the trainer. Those are the guys who can make your life hell. And then, of course, the coaches.”
When the season ended, the Oilers allocated Mustafa and three other players to Barcelona.
“We felt like this was a great opportunity for him to get some playing experience,” said Floyd Reese, Tennessee general manager. “That game experience is what makes you a better player.”
The NFL Europe League--formerly the World League--has undergone a face lift this season. Earlier this month, six teams began a 10-week schedule with games being played in four new cities, Birmingham and Bristol, England; Glasgow, Scotland and Pamplona, Spain.
Those gaudy, soccer-style jerseys are gone. The league has launched a million-dollar project to operate clinics and in-school programs. And, under a television contract with Fox Sports Net and DirecTV, several games are broadcast in the U.S. each week.
Mustafa was only too happy to play a role in this rebirth.
“I was kind of jazzed because I wanted to go to Spain,” he said.
First, he had to go to camp in Atlanta and convince Bicknell.
“When I first saw him, I thought ‘Geez, I wonder if this kid is going to be any good,’ ” the coach recalled. “He’s such a sincere, hard-working kid but he was nervous, dropping balls.”
Mustafa had the advantage of playing with quarterback Jim Ritchey, who also spent the 1997 NFL season on the Oiler practice squad. He soon showed progress.
“You can see it in the way he runs routes,” Bicknell said. “In the beginning, he would just run a straight line and make a cut. Now he knows he’s got to shake a little bit, shake the guy to get open.”
Mustafa had five catches for 81 yards against the England Monarchs in an exhibition game.
Things have not gone as well in the regular season. The team is 2-0 but Ritchey has completed fewer than 50% of his passes.
In the opener against the Scottish Claymores, Mustafa caught two passes early. Against the Frankfurt Galaxy last week, he had another two receptions.
“It wasn’t [his fault],” Bicknell said. “There weren’t that many opportunities for him.”
Mustafa can console himself with some time off--he returns to the U.S. this week to get married in a ceremony that was planned well before he was allocated to Barcelona. Then it’s back to the team and a routine that can hardly be considered a grindstone.
Because dozens of NFL players in this league must report to camp in July, the Europe League practices are light. No pads. Plenty of walk-throughs on the sand.
“This is the best part,” Mustafa said. “We get up in the morning, have practice and meetings, then we get back here at 12:30 and we get the rest of the day off.”
That leaves time for walks on the beach, sight-seeing and otherwise soaking up the local culture.
“I was talking to my agent the other day,” he said. “I told him that if things don’t work out [in the NFL], he can send me back here next summer.”