The XFL’s inaugural season will kick off Saturday, marking the start of yet another professional football league in the United States.
To casual football fans, this league — like the now-defunct Alliance of American Football before it — might at first appear to be a novelty, with new teams, new logos and unfamiliar rules. But to the hundreds of players who make up the XFL, it represents one more — and perhaps one last — chance at pro football.
USA TODAY Sports spoke with four XFL players about their unique journeys to the league in an attempt to illustrate what the league means in the broader football ecosystem. For some players, the XFL will be a springboard. For others, it’s a last resort. And for one person, it has already provided an alternative to college football and possibly the beginning of a trend.
The well-traveled veteran
He is the journeyman of all journeyman quarterbacks.
Josh Johnson has suited up for 13 NFL teams since he was drafted by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 2008. He also spent time with the Sacramento Mountain Lions of the now-defunct United Football League and with the San Diego Fleet of the now-defunct Alliance of American Football, and the carousel has spun yet again.
Now Johnson is playing for the Los Angeles Wildcats and has been named the starting quarterback.
“I’ve just been kind of enjoying the ride and and learning a lot about myself,” Johnson, 33, told USA TODAY Sports. “I know one thing for sure, that I love this game.”
Johnson is listed as “tentatively out” for the Wildcats’ season opener Saturday against the Houston Roughnecks due to a hamstring injury. But it’s all but certain he will avoid an all-too-common experience during his NFL career.
During the past 11 years, Johnson has been released by the Cincinnati Bengals, San Francisco 49ers and New York Jets. And the Indianapolis Colts, Buffalo Bills and Baltimore Ravens. And the New York Giants, Houston Texans and Oakland Raiders. And, most recently, by the Detroit Lions.
He also played for the Buccaneers, Cleveland Browns and Washington Redskins.
“That’s a lot of coordinators and a lot of coaches,” said Norm Chow, who will be the latest.
Chow, 73, the former offensive coordinator for Southern California and UCLA, will now be in charge of the offense for the Wildcats and working closely with Johnson.
“What’s interesting about the young man is he has a lot of knowledge, he has a lot of background,” Chow said. “Every coordinator is different. And he’ll say, ‘Hey, we did it this way, but we’ll do it your way.’
“He wants it to happen the right way. Not the right way, but our way, if you will.”
Despite all of the jerseys he has worn, Johnson noted, “I don’t got a lot of mileage on my body.”
Indeed, he has played in only 33 NFL games, completing 148 of 268 passes (55.2%) and throwing for eight touchdowns and 14 interceptions.
“They haven’t always been the best situations that I get thrown in, but I thought I handled them well and I showed I can play this game,” Johnson said. “I’m trying to make the best out of this situation and open up as many doors as possible and then just try to go from there.”
The wide receiver on the fringes
Colby Pearson thought that maybe, just maybe, it was time. He’d walk away. He’d be done.
A few times, he thought this. He’d go back home, outside of Salt Lake City, and regroup with his wife, Malery, and his son, Cru, who is now 2 years old. Three-month-old Carter came later, but there was always an injury, always another rehab and always another setback. Pearson is a wide receiver who has been on the cusp, on the fringes.
Now, through the XFL, Pearson has one more shot.
“I take great pride in knowing that I was never given anything,” Pearson told USA TODAY Sports. “I earned every rep, every ball my way. I’ve earned it.”
Pearson has played football since he was 7. His dream was to play Division I, but he wasn’t heavily recruited out of high school. He earned one scholarship offer, to Idaho State, but coaches there wanted Pearson to play safety.
He joined BYU as a preferred walk-on. Within a year and a half he had earned a scholarship and was starting at receiver. But, in a trend Pearson has unfortunately become all too familiar with, injuries hindered his career.
Pearson’s first shot in the NFL came in 2017, at rookie minicamp with the Bears, but as a safety. Chicago was full at receiver at the time. He said the Bears were interested in bringing him back as a receiver, but Green Bay made him an offer first, so he took it.
Pearson thought he had a good camp, showed his ability and was growing. Then at an early August practice, he sprained his ankle while hauling in a back-shoulder pass.
The Packers released Pearson after the injury. He went home to rehab but was brought back onto the Packers’ practice squad, where he finished the 2017 season.
Pearson worked on his fitness throughout the offseason and said he was working his way up the depth chart when he suffered a torn hamstring during an organized team activity practice. The recovery would take too long. The Packers, again, released Pearson.
After he healed, the Falcons picked Pearson up for their 2018 training camp. In Week 2 of the preseason, Pearson tore his labrum.
“It has been this up and down thing,” Person said. “A lot of personal battles when I’m back home rehabbing. ‘Is this it?’ Seriously, ‘Is this it?’ I had times when I thought I was done.”
The XFL had its draft Oct. 15 and 16. Pearson was not selected. It was only until the New York Guardians picked him in the supplemental, open draft period that he joined a team. He was toward the bottom of the depth chart, but he slowly worked his way up in training camp, making plays and earning more playing time. He made the final roster and is set to make his debut for the Guardians on Sunday.
Pearson said he has two goals for the XFL: “No. 1, stay healthy, and No. 2, put some good film out there.”
The dream to play in the NFL, in the meantime, remains alive.
The shooting star
Five years ago, Scooby Wright was coming off a dominant sophomore season at the University of Arizona. The 164 total tackles (31 for a loss), 15 sacks and five forced fumbles he recorded all led the NCAA and earned him all sorts of accolades: Pac-12 defensive player of the year, the Chuck Bednarik Award and consensus All-America honors.
A successful NFL career beckoned, until it didn’t.
An injury cost Wright much of his junior season. A seventh-round draft pick, the 25-year-old bounced from the Cleveland Browns to the Arizona Cardinals to the New England Patriots, mostly spending time on their practice squads.
So if you ask Wright whether he planned on playing in the XFL season opener with the D.C. Defenders, he tells the truth.
“I thought I’d still be in the NFL, if we’re being honest,” the Santa Rosa, California, native said. “In this profession, you can’t always control your future as best as you want it to. You just kind of got to take the cards that are handed to you and run with it as best you can. I’m very thankful for this opportunity with the XFL.
“That’s the main reason why I’m playing this game, is to get back to the NFL.”
Selfish? Hardly so. The determination to sign that next NFL contract means Wright has to excel on the field. That’s only a positive for his Defenders teammates.
“I think if you take care of what you need to take care of, the rest of the stuff will work out,” Wright said. “The only way you’ll get back in the NFL is if you’re making plays and your team’s winning championships.”
Wright received an up-close view of a championship mentality during his time in New England last year. He was cut from the practice squad on Oct. 1, 2019 — “kind of unexpectedly,” Wright said — and, two weeks later, the Defenders drafted him. If the Patriots hadn’t released him when they did, he wouldn’t have an opportunity in the XFL.
“I can honestly count on one hand how many defensive snaps I got in the NFL,” Wright said. “Every time I was in there, I made plays. But I just never really got my opportunity.”
This could be the one.
The potential trailblazer
Kenny Robinson has been called a test case, and maybe even a trailblazer.
He’s warmed to those descriptors over time, but that’s not why he joined the XFL.
“It was more just the best decision for me and my family,” he told USA TODAY Sports.
Robinson is the first — and, so far, only — player to join the league with college eligibility remaining. After being expelled by West Virginia after his sophomore season for violating the school’s academic integrity policy, he could have tried to enroll at another school, sit out a year due to NCAA rules and continue down the traditional road to the NFL.
Instead the 21-year-old safety decided last fall to carve his own route — to use the XFL, rather than college football or the NFL combine, as his proving ground.
“When I was leaving school, I had just found out recently that my mom had cancer,” Robinson explained. “(So) the decision was either go back to school and sit out a year, and then wait until next year to be drafted, or go to the XFL and help provide for my family.”
Robinson said his time away from football took a mental toll on him. He owns the mistake he made at West Virginia and said he’s “doing the things I need to do to make everything right.” The XFL offered to pay for him to take online classes, he added, so he’s continuing to work toward a sports management degree as he plays.
A first-team all-Big 12 honoree in 2018, Robinson will be eligible for the NFL draft in April — just a few weeks after the XFL season concludes. He maintains that reaching the NFL is still his primary goal.
“I just want to prove that I belong here and that I deserve a chance at the next level,” Robinson said.
Fox Sports analyst Joel Klatt, who is part of the network’s lead XFL broadcasting team, believes Robinson will be the first of many college players to jump to the league for myriad reasons — whether it’s for an academic or disciplinary issue, or something as simple as being unhappy with a coach.
“I think that a lot of this will depend on how these players are viewed by the NFL in the future,” Klatt said. “If (Robinson) comes out and plays well and gets an opportunity, I think that’s only going to open up the doors.”
Although he’s still not used to the idea of being a “trailblazer,” Robinson agrees.
“I feel like it’s going to help a lot of people,” he said, “if this thing works out.”
If you love talking football, we have the perfect spot for you. Join our Facebook Group, The Ruling Off the Field, to engage in friendly debate and conversation with fellow football fans and our NFL insiders.
Having the apt skills to play with words to put forth various updates and news relating to the field of technology in an interesting way has made Adrian is a contributor in our organization. He is dedicated to writing articles related to all the up-to-the-minute inventions, launches, updates, and much more happening in the world of technology. In his free time, Adrian offers a guest lecture to kids about the latest inventions.