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Waiting for the phone to ring

On Sports
by: Slade Norris

The phone may ring. Or it won't.

If it does, Slade Norris, Keaton Kristick, Roy Schuening and Joey LaRocque will be ready to hop on a plane to play some football.

If it doesn't, they'll continue to work out and hope a call is coming.

All of the former Oregon State standouts were with NFL teams during the preseason. Each was waived before opening day of the regular season.

For now, as the pages of the calendar go by, each remains in his hometown - Norris in Camas, Wash., Kristick in Phoenix, Schuening in Pendleton and LaRocque in Los Angeles - waiting for an alert from his agent that a spot has opened up.

It's not nice to pray for an injury. But you can't blame them for wishing that on someone at their position, can you?

'It's a waiting game, and I'm sure it's frustrating,' says Steve Preece, the OSU television analyst who played nine years in the secondary in the NFL. 'They're at the mercy of the NFL teams, and they have to hope somebody calls.

'Their agents are on top of the wires every day. When somebody gets injured, the agent is on the phone to that team, trying to sell his client. What it comes down to at this point is, they have to get lucky.'

• Norris, a former walk-on from Portland's Jesuit High, started two seasons at defensive end for Oregon State and was among the nation's sack leaders. He was a fourth-round draft choice as an outside linebacker prospect by Oakland in 2009. He was active for seven games as a rookie, playing mostly special teams.

In 2010, Norris was released after the third game of the regular season. He was acquired by Seattle and spent five weeks on the Seahawks' practice squad before being waived. Jacksonville picked him up the following week, and he played special teams for the Jaguars the final five weeks of the season.

Norris returned to Jacksonville for training camp this summer and was released the third week of the preseason. Since then, he has been at his parents' home in Camas, working out with his younger brother, Zane, 'and trying to keep my head up. It's been disappointing.'

All three NFL teams Norris has been with employ a 4-3 defense, featuring three linebackers. The other D-end during Norris' time at OSU, Victor Butler, has found a home in Dallas with the Cowboys' 3-4 set.

'That has really hurt me,' Norris says. 'I'd fit better with a 3-4 team. I'd love to have been the situation Vic is in. I think I could have come along in similar fashion in a 3-4 system.'

• Linebacker Keaton Kristick went undrafted despite being named all-Pac-10 as a senior in 2009. He made the San Francisco 49ers as a free agent last season, playing mostly special teams in seven regular-season games.

Kristick played quite a bit in the preseason before suffering strained tendons and a bone bruise on his ankle in the last preseason game. The 49ers waived him as an injured player and are unable to reclaim him until week seven of the regular season, Kristick says. Since being released, he has been living with his parents in Phoenix.

'I've been working out the past couple of weeks,' Kristick says. 'I'm in a lot better place with the ankle than I was. I could hardly walk when I first hurt it.'

Kristick remains optimistic he'll get a chance with an NFL club at some point this season. He figures his experience with the 49ers will count for something.

'It's really competitive, but it's a lot better to have one foot in than zero,' Kristick says. 'Between the four of us, we're in a lot better spot than other guys. At least we have some games under our belt.

'But you have to make the most of any opportunity. Here I am, hoping one pops up again for me.'

• After starting a record 50 straight games at guard and earning all-Pac-10 honors at OSU, Schuening was a fifth-round draft pick by St. Louis in 2008. He spent his entire rookie season on the Rams' active roster, playing one game.

In 2009, Schuening was cut in the preseason and picked up by Oakland. He spent 10 weeks on the practice squad and was active for one game with the Raiders before being waived and acquired by Detroit. He spent the last four games of the regular season with the Lions.

In 2010, Schuening suffered a partially torn triceps tendon the second week of the preseason. The Lions entered into an injury settlement and released him, and he was out the entire season.

In January, Schuening was signed by Oakland. The third week of the season, he broke a bone in his left hand. The Raiders entered into an injury settlement and released him. Now he is back in Pendleton, coaching the O-line for the high school Buckaroos and hoping for a shot to play again this season.

'It's been quite the journey,' Schuening says. 'There have been some trying times, but what can you do? You have to go with it and keep giving her a chance.

'Really, you have to find the right situation. That's a lot of what NFL is - getting with the right coaches, who believe in what you do.'

Schuening was dominant in college, but just another of a run of very good players at the pro level.

'It's a whole different ballgame up here,' he says. 'There are so many guys who can play. You're on such a short leash. Screw up once, they'll go find another guy. You have to have the right mindset and the ability to fight and put up with everything that goes on.

'A lot of it is mental. Especially for guys like Joey, Keaton, Slade and myself, who had really good college careers and played a ton, and now getting into the NFL. It's a shock to you when you're not playing as much and you have to really fight for it.'

• A two-year starter at linebacker for the Beavers, Joey LaRocque was a seventh-round pick by Chicago in 2008. He was a regular on special teams as a rookie, playing in 14 of the Bears' 16 games.

LaRocque suffered a herniated disk and was released by the Bears just before training camp began in 2009. While recovering from surgery, LaRocque was involved in an auto accident on Interstate 5 in Southern California. A car flew over the center divider and sideswiped his car, necessitating a second back surgery in January 2010.

He recovered well enough to play special teams for the Omaha Nighthawks of the United Football League last year. Before training camp this year, he signed a free-agent contract with the New York Jets, 'but the lockout hurt me,' LaRocque says. 'I didn't get to spend any time with the team before camp.'

LaRocque played mostly special teams in the preseason and was waived in the Jets' final cut.

'They kept four 'backers,' LaRocque says. 'I was the fifth.'

LaRocque laments the injury that struck after a solid rookie season with Chicago.

'Had I not had the back issues, I know I would have stuck with the Bears,' he says. 'I felt like I had a bright future in Chicago. You can't get injured in the NFL.

'With what I've dealt with off the field, I'm surprised I got another opportunity to prove I'm OK. I'm healthy now - that's the important part.'

LaRocque thinks the Jets and Cleveland are on a 'short list' of teams interested in signing him should a spot open. 'I'll just wait and see what comes,' he says.

• Preece, who made the NFL as a free agent with New Orleans in 1969 and was a starting cornerback and safety through most of his career, says the round a player is drafted matters.

'I'd say Slade and Roy are in a little different situation than Keaton and Joey,' Preece says. 'When you're not a high draft choice, the team doesn't have a lot of money invested in you. The higher you're drafted, the better look you get, and other teams know about you.

'That usually gives you a better chance to catch on somewhere else, even after two or three years, if you have the measurables: size, speed, etc. I would be surprised if Slade and Roy aren't picked up by somebody before the end of the season.'

Kristick and LaRocque - the latter taken in the final round of the draft - fit into a different slot.

'You start out, you're lucky to get a decent chance to make a team,' Preece says. 'After you make it, you're looking over your shoulder at guys trying to take your job. I know - I fought that battle through my whole career.

'They can pay younger kids less to do your job. If you're marginal, you're expendable, which is kind of sad.'

Preece says all four ex-Beavers are at the mercy of NFL teams' needs as the season progresses.

'There is probably a better chance to go back to where they've been, because the team knows there is no learning curve,' Preece says. 'You just have to stay in shape and hope.'

Time is ticking. Come on, phone. Ring. It's the way of life for NFL players on the fringe. Nobody knows better than Norris, Schuening, Kristick and LaRocque.