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The Highs And Lows Of An NFL Rookie

There are several highs and lows being a rookie in the National Football League. Just ask Tennessee Titans kick returner Marc Mariani. The seventh round draft pick out of the University of Montana went from hero to goat within minutes yesterday against the Denver Broncos.

Early in the third quarter, Greg Prater drilled a 36-yard field goal to give the Broncos a 13-10 lead against the Titans. That advantage didn’t last long, because Mariani took the ensuing kickoff 98-yards for a Tennessee touchdown, giving the Titans a 17-13 advantage. It was the first touchdown of his professional career.

Mariani wasn’t as fortunate later in the game. Denver’s Kyle Orton dumped off a short touchdown pass to Correll Buckhalter for a 23-20 lead with just a 1:33 left in the game. The Titans needed good field position for a chance to either tie or win it. The Broncos, trying to avoid Mariani because of his earlier touchdown, used a short kick. It looked like the rookie was going to play it off the hop, but the ball bounced high into the air. Mariani couldn’t get to the jump ball in time, instead Denver recovered the loose ball in great field position (watch the play by clicking here). The rest is history. The Broncos added a field goal and the Titans lost, 26-20. It was the worst moment of Miriani’s professional career.

“”[It's] just a helpless feeling watching that ball roll away,” Mariani told The Huntsville Times after the game.

Just like any other infamous moment, there are other plays you can point to as reasons for the Titans loss. Tennessee still had :28 left in the game after Prater kicked the field goal to make it a six-point lead. The Titans launched the ball deep down field twice during the final drive, but both passes were dropped by wide receiver Kenny Britt (one pass literally slipped right between his arms). Unfortunately for Mariani, Tennessee fans will remember his muffed kicked return before they remember anything else.

I always envision NFL rookies living an amazing life, and I’m sure many early round draft picks do. They get tons of money and they get plenty of opportunities from the organization to prove themselves. Late round draft picks and undrafted free agents, live a much different life. They get paid the league minimum (which is still a comfortable living for most of us) and they’re also constantly looking over their shoulder to see who the team signs/drafts next. Their careers are always on the line. One mistake like Mariani’s could mean the end. Luckily, he had a shining moment earlier in the game. That might have saved his job.

I don’t know why I felt the urge to write about this. I was watching the game yesterday, and I saw the whole thing unfold. The camera kept coming back to Mariani on the sideline after he botched the kick return. He looked like he was going to cry. I felt bad for the kid. It was also a reminder of how fragile an NFL career can be. One minute you return a kick for a touchdown in front of 70,000 screaming fans, the next minute you make a mistake in a key moment of a game on national television, and the next minute you’re an insurance salesman, never to play football again. It’s pretty wild when you think about it.

I would love to hear from you about anything and everything. I’m looking for questions for my October mailbag right now. Feel free to leave a question or comment below, connect with me on Facebook, follow me on Twitter @lewissports, or email me at tim@timlewissports.com. Have an awesome day!

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