IOWA CITY, Ia. — James Ferentz chuckles when the topic of his working at a carpet store comes up. He says that the often-told, warehouse-to-Super Bowl story is a bit overblown.
It’s true, he was doing manual labor at Randy’s Carpets in Coralville to make a few bucks 5½ years ago, with a wedding on the way and his football career seemingly on the fast track to nowhere.
But the real essence of the story wasn’t the mundane hoisting of rugs into a truck while waiting for a long-shot NFL chance. It was the decision to keep trying for that chance. And that stems from a piece of advice his father gave him, after his Iowa playing days ended in 2012 and he went undrafted and unsigned in the NFL.
You might have heard of his dad, Kirk Ferentz.
“You’re in your 20s, what are you in a rush to go do?” James remembers the (now) winningest football coach in Hawkeye history telling him. “You’re only going to have this one opportunity to play.”
Now that we know how it turned out — that James would not only win one Super Bowl ring with the 2015 Denver Broncos, but a second earlier this month with the New England Patriots — it’s easy to look back and say that was an obvious decision, to keep on chasing the NFL dream.
But imagine the real dilemma James was facing. He was already told by the NFL he wasn’t good enough. Why keep at it when there's little chance the phone will ring with an opportunity? The rigors the body goes through to play football at the highest level are a gauntlet, both physically and mentally. Plus, a life with his high school sweetheart was waiting.
“Sometimes you need to follow advice blindly. As long as it is coming from a good person — I should probably add that in there,” James says in an endearing way that mimics his father’s self-deprecating humor. “And I trust my dad a lot. He hinted at me, the journey wasn’t quite over.
“So, I kept training, kept being ready.”
A phone call from Bill O’Brien with the Houston Texans got his foot in the door, and he took advantage of that opportunity to earn an NFL practice-squad spot in 2014. Then Ferentz spent two years with the Broncos, mostly as part of the (more financially lucrative) 53-man roster, as a backup offensive lineman and occasional fullback. The last two years, he’s been learning under arguably the NFL’s greatest coach ever, Bill Belichick, on the Patriots’ practice squad.
Ferentz credits the disciplines he learned at Iowa for making him a reliable NFL backup — and right-place, right-time luck to have now won Super Bowls alongside Peyton Manning and Tom Brady.
“There’s value in coming to work, being on time,” Ferentz says simply. “That’s something that really gets overlooked, because it’s so simple and so given. You would expect that to be just a standard. But it’s hard for some guys. Coming to Iowa, it’s where no small detail like that gets overlooked.”
Of course, he’d love to be playing on Sundays. Being on the practice squad isn’t too glamorous. As the job title indicates, you primarily … practice.
Yeah, there’s a chance a practice-squad player gets called to suit up and play — as he did for two games last season with the Patriots. But it's rare. And now, under the NFL’s collective-bargaining agreement, Ferentz's practice-squad eligibility (three total years) has expired. To keep his NFL career alive, he'll again need to make a 53-man roster.
That's the next goal.
“There’s something about an offense scoring a touchdown and everyone going out there celebrating,” he says. “That’s a feeling that’s hard to beat.”
So, he’s in Iowa City, plugging away. He and wife Skylar live in a starter home on Iowa City's west side with their two young sons — Forest and newborn Lincoln, who arrived at nearly 11 pounds (!) between the AFC Championship Game and Super Bowl.
Ferentz says training with hungry, young Hawkeye players keeps him motivated. Listed at 6-foot-2, 300 pounds, he’s happy to report continued weight-room gains. He will turn 30 in June and is under (a non-guaranteed) contract with the Patriots for one more year. They could cut him at any time.
One would imagine that coaching will one day be in Ferentz's future — and he doesn't dismiss that, considering his lineage and love for football. He fervently keeps up with the Hawkeyes and remains close with older brother, Brian, Iowa’s offensive coordinator.
As we continue our interview inside the Hansen Football Performance Center, Brian pops in to say hello, then heads back into his office. James chuckles at how busy his brother is. He likes playing football and isn't ready for that lifestyle yet.
A day of training is in the books, and it's time to hang out with the family.
Tomorrow, he'll get back at it again.
“I’m always trying to fight to be on a 53-man roster,” James says. “By no means have I ever been on a practice squad and been like, ‘Wow, I’ve really made it.’ It’s always a disappointment to get cut and told you’re not good enough. But it’s just the reality of the business.
“Hopefully I can keep improving and show the coaching staff at New England that there’s still some sort of value in me. We’ll see.”
Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 24 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.