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Cut eight times! Jets’ James Burgess: Busted…

7 min read
Cut eight times! Jets' James Burgess: Busted...

FLORHAM PARK, N.J. — The first time it happened was Sept. 3, 2016. James Burgess Jr. was cut by his hometown team, the Miami Dolphins. So began his remarkable journey on the margins of the NFL, a four-year whirlwind of practice squads, free-agent workouts, canceled flights, short hotel stays, cold shoulders and seemingly constant rejection.

Burgess, now a starting inside linebacker for the New York Jets, has been released eight times by six teams. Imagine being told that many times by an employer that you aren’t good enough. Would you pack it in? Would you look for another line of work? Burgess, 25, never thought that way because his only dream was to be like his father, James Burgess Sr., who played linebacker for the San Diego Chargers (1997-98).

On he went, waiting for the next call, much like an aspiring actor between auditions.

“It’s the ugly side of the NFL that people don’t really know about,” the younger Burgess said. “Everybody sees the glamour and everybody on film, but there’s also an ugly side, too.”

Say this for Burgess: He might be undersized at 6-foot, 230 pounds, but he can take a hit.

After his initial release from the Miami roster, he played musical practice squads, going from the Dolphins (nine days) to the Chargers (13 days) to the Baltimore Ravens (six days) to the Jacksonville Jaguars (nine days) to the Cleveland Browns, who eventually promoted him to the 53-man roster. He lasted nearly two years in Cleveland, where he got hurt and was waived in 2018.

From there, it was back to the Dolphins (six months) and then to the Jets, who waived him at the end of the preseason and re-signed him to the practice squad two weeks later. He got a call-up on Oct. 20, and over the past four games, he’s the Jets’ leading tackler — and one of the few feel-good stories in a lost season.

“How many times has he been cut?” defensive coordinator Gregg Williams marveled. “Those are fun guys to coach.”

One day in the spring, Williams pulled a picture off the wall in his office and brought it to a meeting. He told the players about Burgess and his story of perseverance. In the photo was a cracked Browns helmet, worn by Burgess on Nov. 19, 2017, the day he recorded 15 tackles, three tackles for loss and a sack against the Jaguars. Mind you, this show-and-tell session took place before Burgess was on the Jets.

“His helmet looked like back when I played. It was crushed and broken,” said Williams, so moved by the performance — and the fractured artifacts — that he made sure it was photographed and saved.

Perhaps fatefully, the Jets claimed Burgess on waivers from the Dolphins about a week later. Burgess played so well in the preseason that some players were disappointed that he didn’t make the team, but he was invited back after injuries to C.J. Mosley and Avery Williamson. He hopes to make this team his home because he’s tired of being an NFL nomad.

“It’s tough,” he said. “Every man can’t deal with it. Basically, you’re living out of a suitcase. Every week or two, I was getting cut. It’s tough. I wish that on no one. It’s a lonely stage, but I kept fighting and kept going.”

It was a crazy lifestyle. One day, he was in the Miami airport, waiting to fly out for a workout with the Indianapolis Colts. That was a few days after he was released by the Ravens. His agent called with the news that the Jaguars, who worked him out previously, wanted to sign him to the practice squad. He made a quick travel change and flew to Jacksonville. That turned out to be a short and bitter experience.

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