There’s an NFL version of musical chairs most people have never heard of. It’s a place where a player is not technically on an NFL roster but he’s not entirely out of the league either. It’s called the practice squad, and there’s a guy in Nashville who can tell you all about it. Cooper Wallace worked his way through an NFL practice squad in 2006 and the Tennessee Titans were never the same. Since then, practice squads have changed quite a bit, but one thing hasn’t: once a player ends up on a practice squad, it’s his Hail Mary, last-shot chance to keep his NFL hopes alive.
Cooper Wallace’s cleats are finally dry. They got really wet in 2006. It was Wallace’s first year in the NFL, and he was on his hometown team. Wallace played high school football for Christ Presbyterian Academy in Nashville before starring at Auburn where he was part of the 2004 undefeated team. In 2006, Wallace’s journey came full circle when he landed back in Nashville on the Tennessee Titans practice squad as a 255-pound tight end. This Titans unit was particularly average (8-8 record), but their team facility was certainly not. The Titans practice facility is a peninsula; it is almost completely surrounded by water. So on a cold, late November day out on the practice field, a few of the Titans started daring one another to jump into the water and take a swim.
Titans head coach Jeff Fisher remembers how cold it was that day. “I didn’t know what the temperature of the water was. It was probably as cold as it could get before water freezes.” As the practice continued to drag on and the temperature continued to drop, many of the players offered money to anyone who would take the plunge. No one volunteered but at least a dull day of practice now had the potential to turn into something exciting. While the practice continued to wind down the pot continued to grow until it leveled off at $3,000. Finally, the guy on the field with the least amount of money could take it no more.
“I’ll do it,” said Wallace. Those three words were met with cheers and pats on the back. In order for Wallace to earn the money, he had to jump in, swim to the other side, stand up on the opposite bank of the lake, then return the same way. The portion of the lake that was selected was appropriate as it was about 100 yards from bank to bank. That’s two football fields, round trip.
When practice ended, players, coaches, and staff all joined Wallace on the bank. All of the big-name Titans players of that era were there: Keith Bulluck, Vince Young, Kyle Vanden Bosch, Adam “Pacman” Jones, Albert Haynesworth, and the rest. Fisher headed inside, thinking that players usually have more fun in those situations when the boss isn’t around. “I did not actually witness it but heard all about it shortly thereafter,” says Fisher.
Wallace stripped down to his t-shirt, shorts, and cleats. His footwear was glued to his feet by the trainers who taped up his cleats to his ankles at the beginning of practice. There was no time to remove his size 13s. The gathering crowd of players was awash with anticipation and testosterone as they screamed their encouragement to a practice squad player that was in the middle of working his way up from the bottom rung of the NFL. No turning back now.
Fueled by adrenaline, Wallace took a running start and dove into the water. It was cold – shockingly cold, but the temperature of the water was quickly discarded because Wallace’s biggest problem turned out to be his cleats which prevented him from having his full range of motion. “It’s really hard to swim in football cleats,” says Wallace. “I didn’t think that one through.”
Wallace pressed on and when he finally made it to the other side and stood on the bank, he became aware of the cheers coming from the opposite end of the water. For this fleeting moment in time, every member of an NFL team was looking across the water at a conquering hero in cleats. Wallace raised his arms in victory. More cheers from across the moat. Are you not entertained?
Wallace made the return trip across the water and that day he went home with $3,000 in his pocket. This was Cooper Wallace’s NFL.
Life on the Practice Squad
While practice squad players are not eligible to appear in games, their role is obvious from the name. They bring depth to the team by adding more players for practice. When Wallace was with the Titans, there were only eight guys on each NFL team’s practice squad. A few years ago, that number increased to 10, and now, because of the uncertainty of COVID, the NFL allows 16 players on a practice squad. The league wants a deep bench in the Age of Corona.
While NFL starters make millions, Wallace made around $4,700 a week back in his day. “Eighty-thousand dollars a year; right out of college,” remembers Wallace. “That’s pretty good.” Too bad Wallace isn’t playing in today’s NFL. Those figures have almost doubled. Practice squad players now make $8,400 a week or $142,800 if they make it through the entire season. Some of that money goes towards hotels because that’s where practice squad players typically live. There’s no reason for a practice squad player to sign a lease on an apartment. He might only be with the team for a few weeks.
While with a team, a practice squad player must play his assigned position as well as a position on the opposite end of the line of scrimmage. In Wallace’s case, he played as a tight end as well as defensive end for the Titans. That meant, if the Titans were playing Kansas City, Wallace had to study film on Chiefs All-Pro tight end Tony Gonzalez and mimic him all week in practice. Doing that helped the Titans' defense get ready for Sunday. That also meant that Wallace had to play defensive end all week to prepare the offensive starters.
“Coop was ideal for practice,” remembers Fisher. “He was athletic. He could do everything: offensive side of the ball, defensive side of the ball. He was just one of those guys.” From Wallace’s perspective, he was working twice as hard for a fraction of the pay and none of the glory, but during a typical week of practice, it was hard to tell the practice squad players from the starters. “I was a part of the team,” says Wallace. “I wasn’t in a different locker room, I got there at the same time, and I left at the same time. I earned it.”
Other than pay, the most noticeable difference between practice squad players and the guys on the roster is game day. For home games, practice squad players walk around the sidelines in team gear. Ever notice those big guys on the sidelines that aren’t in uniform? Most of us probably think they’re just injured players who need a few weeks to heal. Chances are, that’s a practice squad player. On weekends when the team is on the road, the practice squad players don’t make the trip. They get the whole weekend off — all but two hours. They show up at the team facility on Saturday morning at 6 a.m. and lift for two hours. If they don’t, they could get fined or even cut.
Practice Makes Perfect
Alex Bars knows a thing or two about the weight room. He’s a 6-foot-5, 314-pound offensive lineman for the Chicago Bears. Bars went to Montgomery Bell Academy in Nashville and was an undrafted lineman out of Notre Dame in 2019. A leg injury while at Notre Dame most likely haunted Bars’ draft status that year. The Chicago Bears cut him in training camp but signed him to their practice squad shortly thereafter.
Bars paid his dues on the practice squad in Chicago that year and waited his turn. Before the 2019 season ended, the team elevated Bars to the active roster and gave him action in five games during his rookie season. He held his own during those five games and came out of training camp in 2020 on the Bears 53-man roster. Now all Bars had to do was work his way into the starting rotation. Unfortunately, it happened in a way no one expected when the Bears ran out of centers before a November game in Bars’ hometown against the Titans. Bears offensive line coach Juan Castillo remembers that day well. “Our center got COVID, and we didn’t have any other centers,” says the coach. The Bears coaching staff looked down the bench and Castillo called Bars’ number. “He had never played center in a game — high school or college,” says Castillo. That’s like a first baseman playing shortstop — yeah, it’s still the infield, but it’s a lot different.
Bars played all 77 offensive snaps for the Bears that day and did a great job. “We didn’t win, but for a guy who’s never played center before, just to pick it up and do a great job in an NFL game tells you all you need to know about Alex as a person,” says Castillo. “He’s a really good football player.”
No one knows when Bars’ NFL playing career will be over, but the practice squad seems to be a thing of the past for him.
Down, But Not Out
Nashville native Ryan Carrethers prepped at Brentwood Academy and might have the most compelling practice squad story yet. Unlike Wallace and Bars, Carrethers was drafted out of Arkansas State by the San Diego Chargers in 2014. His salary was nearly $600,000, including a signing bonus of $178,532. Cooper Wallace never lived in that neighborhood.
Carrethers was a big, 337-pound run-stopper for the Chargers’ defense and was starting by his second year. However, by his third year, the team changed their coaching staff and Carrethers was out. The Chargers cut him early in the season but later signed him to their practice squad. That meant he had to sign an $8,000-a-week contract, a far cry from his $36,000 weekly salary he had become accustomed to. His name was removed from the Chargers roster. “That life is so unpredictable,” says Carrethers. “You earn your keep on the practice squad. That’s for sure.”
Just like that, Carrethers became the guy lifting weights on Saturday mornings at 6 a.m. while the rest of the team boarded a plane. He was reduced to secretly hoping one of the starters would get hurt or traded away, freeing up a spot for him on the roster. It’s an uncertain life. “A lot of guys that end up on the practice squad never make it back,” Carrethers remembers thinking. However, he did make it back to the Chargers’ active roster before the season ended in 2016. As far as Carrethers was concerned, the practice squad served its purpose — full speed ahead in 2017.
Carrethers went into training camp in 2017 with something to prove but was cut again. However, this time he didn’t land on the practice squad either. He was working his way through an Achilles injury, and the Chargers didn’t have time to wait around for him to heal.
Since then, Carrethers hasn’t made it back to the NFL, but COVID has changed the way practice squads operate. The virus has left a possible opening for Carrethers, and he and his agent are taking calls. The pre-COVID NFL rules stated that if a player had three accrued seasons on a roster, he would be ineligible for the practice squad. That might have kept Carrethers off of a lot of teams’ radars. Now that rule has been waived, and Carrethers is hoping to get another opportunity. Since he’s been out of the league for a few years, he figures that the practice squad is his only shot. He has been working out faithfully in both Nashville and Southern California. “I am stronger now than I ever was when I played for the Chargers,” Carrethers says. He’s a proven NFL veteran — on sale.
Wallace’s New Squad
As for Wallace, he won’t be getting any more NFL offers, but he is considered a practice squad success story. After spending nearly a full season on the Titans practice squad in 2006, he was called up to the active roster at the end of the year. “You’re only an injury or two away from having a practice squad player participate in a game,” says Fisher. That’s exactly what happened in Wallace’s case, and he took advantage. He started against the Jacksonville
Jaguars late in the season and caught a six-yard pass from Vince Young. It was only a couple of weeks after his $3,000 swim. After the season ended, the Titans asked him to gain more weight before their next training camp in 2007, and Wallace ballooned up to 270 pounds and found that he could no longer move like he once did. The Titans cut him, and Wallace eventually ended up with the Cincinnati Bengals practice squad later in 2007 — more hotels and Saturday morning weights. Wallace never made it to the Bengals active roster or swim laps for money in the Ohio River that year but was on the sidelines when the Titans played in Cincinnati. Titans All-Pro linebacker and team leader Keith Bulluck made a point to seek Wallace out on the Bengals sideline in between plays to let him know how much the guys missed him in Nashville. “Coop, we miss you,” Bullock yelled past some confused Bengals players. “I still have your seat saved in the meeting room.” Wallace never did find that seat back in Nashville but did finish up 2007 with the Bengals practice squad. After one more NFL training camp in 2008, this time with the San Francisco 49ers, Wallace was cut and decided to call it a career. “It’s hard to finally tell yourself, you’re done,” remembers Wallace.
These days, Wallace is approaching 40 and lives in Nashville where he has traded the practice squad for a new squad. He and his wife, Kaley, have two children: a daughter named McKay and a son named Batten. Wallace is in the medical field which means he talks to people all day. Every now and then folks ask him about his playing days with the Titans, which always ends with confusion when he tells them about his time on the practice squad. They always ask the same question: What’s a practice squad? It never fails.
Looking back, Wallace’s tenure on the practice squad was a small part of a larger journey that he’ll never forget. Not many guys get to wear the jersey of their hometown team in a real-life NFL game, and even fewer have swum the icy waters outside of Titans headquarters in cleats and lived to talk about it. Exhaustive research has revealed Wallace as the only one. When asked to sum up his playing days with the Titans and their practice squad, Wallace chuckles without knowing it and says, “It was nuts.” Don’t worry, we believe you.
— Written by Edward Cronin, a Nashville, Tennessee, native who covers sports and writes for D-2 Magazine and teaches and studies history.