Five hours before kickoff of the Eagles' preseason game Thursday night, Josh Adams' final opportunity to show that he deserved a spot on their 53-man roster, Tom Hetrick drove a golf cart from the front of Central Bucks High School South to a steep, grassy hill behind the school. Below the hill was C.B. South's football stadium. Atop the hill was the freshman football field.
Adams was a ninth grader in the fall of 2011; Hetrick, a varsity assistant coach. The freshman team played every Thursday afternoon, each of its home games overlapping with the varsity's 3.to 5 p.m. practice. Parents and other onlookers would line the field on the hill, many of them there to see Adams.
"We get a pretty good crowd for our freshman games," said Hetrick, who became South's head coach in 2014, before Adams' senior year.
The cart trundled up the hill, and Hetrick parked it and crossed his arms to lean against the steering wheel, his eyes hidden by sunglasses. Whenever Adams had taken a handoff and broken free for another long touchdown, Hetrick said, it was always easy to tell. Four or five times each Thursday afternoon, the same sound would distract the varsity players and catch the attention of the varsity coaches.
"You'd hear the roar, and you'd look up, and you'd see somebody running," he said. "It was a thing. It was an everyday thing, an every-game thing. He was a man among boys. He really was."
Would Hetrick be watching Thursday night's game?
Would he be nervous for Adams?
"Yep. He's like my kid."
Every NFL player has an origin story like this. Every player who didn't quite make it to the NFL does, too. Out of that hard-on-the-eyes 10-9 Eagles victory over the Jets on Thursday night, Josh Adams couldn't be certain which player he would be. A free-agent rookie, he carried the ball 13 times for 27 yards, and he lamented to reporters afterward that he could have played better on special teams, too. "It's in God's hands," he said, "and it always has been." That's the irony of the fourth game of the NFL preseason: The sport is supposed to be an entertainment product, and no game is less entertaining. Yet for the competitors, for the men hoping to earn a living at football's highest level, no game matters more.
Adams is one of hundreds to have reached that crossroad, and his journey there had more twists than most. Having missed his sophomore season at C.B. South because of a torn ACL, he saw several Division I programs lose interest in recruiting him. Notre Dame didn't, and he rushed for 835 yards there in 2015, a school record for a freshman. Last year, early in Adams' senior season at Notre Dame, it appeared not only that he would be a shoo-in to make an NFL team, but that he might win college football's most prestigious individual honor.
Through his first eight games, he had rushed for 1,169 yards and nine touchdowns, and because the Fighting Irish had not had a bona fide Heisman Trophy candidate since Manti Te'o in 2012, the university's marketing machinery started cranking. Notre Dame unfurled the "33 Trucking" campaign, a play on Adams' uniform number, complete with a website, Twitter and Instagram accounts, and a trucker's hat (available for a cool $26).
But Adams' production, and his draft stock, plummeted thereafter. He averaged 3.5 yards a carry over his final five games, surpassing 100 yards in a game just once, and couldn't work out at the NFL combine after learning there that he had a hairline fracture in his right foot.
The Eagles contacted him immediately after the draft, Doug Pederson calling to tell him that, even though the team already had a full running-back room, they wanted to find a place for him in it, too. They signed him to a three-year contract that, according to the database OverTheCap.com, could be worth as much as $1.7 million, no handful of peanuts for an undrafted player at a position that is regarded as the most fungible in the NFL.
"You might get three words out of him," Duce Staley, the Eagles' assistant head coach and running backs coach, said before training camp began. "He comes in the room and says, 'Hey, Coach.' After that, if you don't call his name, you won't know he's there. He's very quiet. But hey, there's been a bunch of quiet assassins now.'"
It was clear that the Eagles liked him, and Wendell Smallwood had two years to distinguish himself and really hadn't, and Matt Jones kept dropping the football throughout camp. But Adams missed time early in camp as his foot healed, then sat out a preseason game because of an ankle injury, then didn't do much against the Jets. Then came Saturday. You never know about these things.
In an email sent at 4:28 p.m. Saturday, the Eagles announced that they had waived 28 players. Adams was the first name on the list.
The hardest day of the NFL season had, for him, a hard result. "No matter what level he goes to, it seems like it's the same thing," Hetrick said. "I hope he can. I hope he can. I hope he can. He does."