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Tight-Knit Community Helps Team's Fringe Players


Running back Chris Thompson called it "the hood" — the island of gray metal lockers that sits in the middle of the Redskins' locker room.

The name is a joke, but nobody mocks the rotating cast of practice squad players that uses this dressing space. If anything, those on the active roster, whose lockers line the room's perimeter, respect and sympathize with them and their perpetually uncertain situations.

"I think I speak for everybody that's at the bottom of the 53, or on the practice squad trying to make it," linebacker Steve Beauharnais said. "Stay mentally ready, keep yourself mentally strong, don't be negative about anything, and continue to work hard."

Beauharnais just finished his second NFL season but he speaks like a wise and weary veteran.

He helped represent the Redskins' population of players this year that spent significant time on the practice squad, jumped around the roster and eventually were rewarded late in the season with an opportunity to compete on Sundays, like in the season finale against the Cowboys.

The road is rarely that linear, however. For Beauharnais, it's taken many turns and even more faith.

"It's been hectic," he admitted. "When I first got cut, I kind of moved all of my stuff back to [New] Jersey, and then they called me that Monday morning, and I had to come all the way here to stay in the hotel. It could be mentally, physically taxing on whoever is going through the same thing that I'm going through. Some guys have it worse than I do."

Beauharnais keeps things in perspective like that. A graduate from Rutgers University and semifinalist for the Dick Butkus Award, he was drafted by the New England Patriots in 2013 but was used infrequently.

He signed with the Redskins' practice squad in early October and then got promoted to the active roster in late November. He was waived in December, re-signed a week later and then promoted again three days later. It's tested his mental endurance.

"I'm human. I feel things, too," Beauharnais said. "I felt like I shouldn't have been cut in the first place, but I was. I feel emotional about a lot of things. You've got to stay mentally strong."

One of the ways Beauharnais achieved mental stability was through a tight-knit community. He, along with players that similarly fluctuated on the roster, shared stories and fears about their job security, which could evaporate with one injury or one play.

"We grew together," said Thompson, who was activated for the first time in 2014 against the Giants on Dec. 14. "We all had some rough times. It kind of hit that wall where we all just got a little frustrated. The fact that we could all sit around and talk to each other and everything it was really helpful. I've built some strong relationships with those guys."

Safety Phillip Thomas also found motivation in those conversations.

"Just talk to each other and be like, 'Man I don't want to be here on practice squad for too much longer,'" he recalled. "So we've got to go after it."

Thomas spent his 2013 rookie season on the injured/reserve list with a foot injury. He was waived and signed with the practice squad this year and in November was promoted to the active roster. Last Sunday against Dallas was his fourth straight start in place of injured safety Brandon Meriweather.

Thomas knows other teams now have tape on him — about 250 snaps worth — and that his finish to the season was paramount to his personal success.

"Every time you step on the field, it's not even just your team watching, it's 31 other teams watching," Thomas said. "The tape is an audition for here and 31 other teams so to [speak]. I'm just going out to execute my plan, just going out to say they can trust me to be in a situation to play the game."

For players who stuck with the practice squad for multiple months, it was particularly validating getting that promotion, switching lockers and turning Sundays from depressing voids into meaningful platforms.

It's gave linebackers Jackson Jeffcoat and Trevardo Williams some confidence heading into their offseasons. It gave Thomas and Thompson a résumé of work to promote and develop.

As head coach Jay Gruden noted Friday before the season finale, "they are going to come in here and play against the Dallas Cowboys at our home stadium and really try to put themselves on the NFL map."

"The cool thing about this place is that they trust everybody," Beauharnais said. "They'll pull you up. If someone's hurt in your position, they'll bring you up and you will play. That's a cool thing."

Thomas, like his peers, benefited from that this season. It's allowed him to be part of offseason evaluations when he might not have otherwise.

Still, he knows how easily luck can change and that next year there will always someone in "the hood" waiting for his chance. It might even be him again.

"You've got to come to work every day to get better," Thomas said. "Nobody is safe. It's a constant grind. You've got to make a name for yourself, make plays, and every opportunity you get, you've got to take it, because opportunity doesn't come too often."




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