Thunder Trim Roster After First Live Scrimmage
The Portland Thunder trimmed their roster to near regular season numbers only two days after a very successful energetic and occasionally hotly contested live scrimmage Saturday, May 1st. Playing in front of a large group of media and hundreds of season-ticket holders, players ranging from small college athletes to Division I stars, AFL veterans and former NFL players literally and figuratively threw themselves against the wall in a collective last-minute attempt to remain with the team.
The intensity level was extremely high, and in fact, at one point, members of the offensive and defensive lines engaged in some "friendly banter" that quickly became significantly more than talk. Cooler heads prevailed, and the wide-eyed onlookers had clearly received the message that this was for keeps and people's jobs were on the line.
A look inside a professional sports franchise is rarely afforded the layman, and one of the great things about the Arena Football League is the unprecedented access to players. Often we see monolithic sports figures from Peyton Manning to Ray Lewis and idolize them in such a fashion that we don't necessarily grasp the amount of work, dedication, and sacrifice it takes to become a professional athlete. We often assume that every work place is the same. In actuality, when it comes to roster spots on a professional football team, one week at a practice facility would show that the term "standing your ground" means just that. With this in mind, it should come as no surprise the people at Saturday's scrimmage witnessed excellent team spirit while also seeing in person that competing for positions at the pro level is no laughing matter.
Speaking to the entire team and media after the scrimmage coach Matt Sauk expressed a great deal of pride in each and every single player in camp, and it's fairly clear that these cuts and the final round coming before the first game are his least favorite part of the job. Though there may still be some roster moves to be made, the Thunder have placed OL Matt Hunt, DE Kayon Swanson, DB Isaac Madison, DB Jumanne Robertson, and FB/LB Wesley Mauia on reassignment. The final roster move was the reassignment of Justin Helwege, the big wide reciever from Central Washington University. Helwege spent time in and out of camp and OTA workouts with the Seattle Seahawks, and it was a bit of a surprise to see him released in the first round of cuts given the AFL's move towards bigger, more powerful possession type receivers. However, with the performance of 6'3" 205 lb Douglas McNeil III throughout camp and given his superior speed, it seems the coaching staff had to make the tough choice.
Helwege was a fairly impressive presence in camp and may not be without a team for long. I will be interested to see where he and some of these other athletes end up. My guess is that we have not seen the last of good number of them.