If you’re an undersized white wide receiver in the NFL, how do you exist? This is one of the strangest characters in all sports, not just football. Distant relations prowl certain outfields and linger behind three-point lines, but really there’s nothing else like him. He lives, breathes, runs his routes and absorbs his head trauma in paradox: because he shouldn’t succeed it is assumed that he will. He’s the smallest guy on the field, the slowest under 330 lbs, he waited through hours of the NFL Draft to hear his name called if it were called at all, and because of all that, because of his shitheap birthright, the expectation isn’t just that he’ll overcome or defy but that he’ll conquer, win out, be great. No other character in team sports seems to have emerged so fully formed from a game’s self-written mythology.
There’s Dane Sanzenbacher on the Bears’ sideline. Number 18, an undrafted rookie from Ohio State. He’s second on the Bears with three touchdown catches. In the historical singularity of the Bears’ receiving corps, he seemed as the season began to be a meaningful addition. Not that any team wouldn’t be happy to have a competent route-runner with sure hands, which is what the Bears were supposed to be getting. And if there were any place where a determined, dutiful, terrier presence would be of particular value, Chicago was it. The existing structure begged for humble effort. There was Jay Cutler with his V2-class arm and Stage IV anomie, there was the unhinged Mike Martz calling plays. The highlight receiver signing was Roy Williams, who has been known to inspire disdain in the cells of organically dead tissue. There was room for Sanzenbacher, game-wise and spiritually, to inhabit a substantial role.
He was all-Big Ten at Ohio State his senior year but still wasn’t drafted. A man’s character may not be his fate, but his scouting report is. It’s like a sprinting autopsy, dissection at high speeds. The bads: “Slow to accelerate,” “undersized,” “easily outmuscled,” “very passive.” The goods: “Superb concentration, “good concentration,” “good concentration” (yes, it’s there twice), “intelligent.”
But it was kind of requisite that he wasn’t drafted. In the NFL’s house mythology, being unwanted is a good thing. Of course, that turns Exceptionalism into an expectation. Being overlooked in the draft and/or waived repeatedly and/or inheriting a starting position only by injury makes a player easier to root for, although it also allows storytelling to impinge awfully close to actual livelihoods. It’s like going to an unemployment office and picking your favorite. Powerhouse New England is practically a theocracy in this regard: Tom Brady (sixth round) handing off to BenJarvus Green-Ellis (undrafted) or passing to Wes Welker (undrafted), overseen by the mullah Bill Belichick (couldn’t win in Cleveland). Half the league runs on this. You can almost picture, by the time the last round comes up, Sanzenbacher’s agent quietly spreading misinformation to keep his client from being picked (“Dane Sanzenbacher wrote a lengthy screed against NATO in the margins of his Wonderlic exam.” “If Dane Sanzenbacher could take one movie with him to a desert island, it would be Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Salo.”). Not-picked-at-all trumps picked-late in a narrative economy that values neglect.
He signed a free agent contract with the Bears, choosing them over the Browns. In August his new quarterback goes on the radio and calls him “a mini-Wes Welker.” It’s worth noting that Sanzenbacher’s two inches taller than Welker. Never mind that Welker is the cleverest, route-runningest, most irrepressible receiver in football, and arguably the best not named Calvin Johnson. Welker’s on a pace this season to have a number of catches that will have to be expressed in scientific notation. He didn’t have any catches his rookie season. All he did, before he became indispensable, was return punts and kicks, and get waived once. [PS1]
"Comparisons to Wes Welker are understandable," the Chicago Sun-Times wrote back in August. "Both Dane Sanzenbacher and the New England Patriots three-time Pro Bowler play receiver, were undrafted free agents and rely on quickness more than size or speed."
The undersized white wide receiver always looks like he’s on the business end of a prolonged adolescence. That’s Sanzenbacher. His face doesn’t seem to have reached a point of adult hardness. His haircut is efficient. He’s maybe a little ptotic on the left side but that only helps the wider cause. His eyes are a boy’s, observant, inscrutable, disavowing any meaning because they aren’t sure how to translate. He’s got the scoured expression of a ticket taker on a train. Go ahead and look for yourself but there’s nothing there. And there’s the name. It fits. Wes. Jordy. Danny. Riley. Prolonged adolescents. The full name is a Hanseatic ejaculation, perfect for the Roman-Lutheran Midwest. It’s Sahn-zen-bacher, without the flattened A peculiar to this part of the country at the beginning, like St. Tropez instead of San Antonio.
The season started brightly for Sanzenbacher, or encouragingly, or in a way that made it seem like Cutler and/or Martz wanted to believe in him. The Bears’ first offensive drive of the season, at the Atlanta 24, they call an end around with Sanzenbacher. Carrying the ball. His 40 time is 4.56. Out of the backfield. (Welker’s a glacial 4.61.) Create space. Run smart. He loses yardage.
First quarter of game two against New Orleans, eight yards over the middle. Touchdown. Cutler never even looked at anyone else. It’s yours. Go and get it.
His three touchdowns happen to have come in the first three games the Bears lost. 13 of his 19 catches have come while the Bears have been behind. That doesn’t mean mop-up time. These are games that could have been won. Week 3 against Green Bay–Green Bay!–it’s goal-to-go nearing halftime down 17-7 and Cutler goes his way on consecutive plays. He’s already got one touchdown. Aaron Rogers can elbow the ball to Jordy Nelson and he’s gone. Cutler wants Sanzenbacher to be reliable, to be there for the ball. Brady throws passes covered in fire ants and Welker still grabs them. Cutler is going to make Sanzenbacher into what he knows he will be. Incomplete, incomplete, lose.
It cannot be easy for Dane Sanzenbacher, and it's easy to imagine the hard thrumming pressure on him, the sensation of letting down the cosmos with every drop or dead-end route. On the sideline he’s a phantasm presence, willingness with no outlet. He’s got his Gatorade and his receivers’ coach. He walks slowly but he walks nonetheless. He keeps watching the action.
Cutler looked in his direction again at the end of the first half of the Monday night win on November 7 against the Eagles. The Bears were deep in their own territory and Sanzenbacher ran a quick out. He was more or less by himself along the sideline when the ball arrived–there was going to be room to run, get up field, out of relative danger, who knows, maybe get a late drive started. But the pass was one of Cutler’s rocket-propelled salvos, a ball launched and guided by disdain. The pass went straight through Sanzenbacher’s hands. It wasn’t a case of running before he made the catch. He literally could not close his hands quickly enough. It was semi-mortifying. On the next play the Eagles returned a fumble for a touchdown.
I mean, you’re a slot receiver. You’re a possession guy. Ball assumed into body. Grit and scrum. That’s why you’re there. And the ball flew right by him.
Sanzenbacher hasn’t caught a pass since that drop against the Eagles; indeed, no catches at all since October. In part, that falling off had to do with the return of Earl Bennett, Cutler’s Vanderbilt chum, from a shattering chest injury (picture the inverse of John Hurt in Alien, helmet in place of creature) suffered against the Saints in Week 2. Bennett’s also a slot receiver, but he and Cutler happen to share a sub-cognitive bond that allows them to coordinate routes outside temporal space. Cutler completed nine passes against the Lions; six were to Bennett, and at least half of those appeared to travel through the solid bodies of Lion defenders. It seemed as if, by the end of the season, Cutler would be throwing strictly to Bennett and all of Bennet’s receptions would glide into existence as memories. Games would be partially completed before they began.
And then Cutler broke his thumb. Now it’s squirrely Caleb Hanie out there. Equally undrafted, Colorado State. Hanie’s a story himself, a story consisting of a single episode, a quick, snowy, coruscating moment in last season’s NFC Championship when it seemed like he could honestly go from Never-Taken-a-Snap to Leads-His-Team-to-the Super-Bowl, lore stopped just short. Now he’s back, inhabiting this partially worn character but throwing a great deal of interceptions. In an echo of Sanzenbacher’s doomed end around in Week 1, during Hanie’s first start, against the Raiders, Martz called for him to throw a needlessly tricky quasi-waggle screen to the tight end. The Bears were inside Oakland's 10-yard line, in position to take the lead before the half. Hanie was bothered by the pass rush; the awkwardly thrown pass scudded into the body of a defensive lineman, who returned it 73 yards. The Bears lost, and lost again the next week to the Chiefs. The only pass thrown toward Sanzenbacher in that game was on one of the 11 third downs the Bears failed to convert. The week after that it was the Broncos beating them. (See The 2011 NFL Encyclopedia of Lore, Chapter 13, “Thaumaturges, non-Manning.”)
Injuries tend to midwife the careers of undersized white wide receivers, and other unwanteds. Sanzenbacher still has just as many catches as Earl Bennett. Matt Forte, the team’s leading receiver, sprained his MCL and is using plasma injections and hyperbaric chambers to speed healing, but for now there’s another hole in the offense, another space that he could fill. The door hasn’t and can’t shut on Sanzenbacher. Every ricochet off of Roy Williams, every Hanie pass that one-hops Johnny Knox, every weird Martzian gadget-play abortion is a coded cry for help in the direction of the possession receiver, a plea for absent certainty. All we want is the sureness of hands, the willingness to get open. For Sanzenbacher the opportunity isn’t any less really than it was when the season began. Nor, sadly, is the expectation he inherited.
One catch, three catches, five catches, one catch, six catches. He’s either going to turn into this thing or. Maybe Hanie’s the difference. Maybe there’s a bond that comes from watching seven rounds of name-call and rapture that excludes you, and maybe that bond can work on turf. But there’s still a world. A system that demands his presence. Take this constricted man in that context, the undersized, the under-wanted, the under-tooled and underknown. What is he without his hands? What is he waiting in line, moving slowly, wondering? What is he in Lake Forest, Illinois and on airplanes? You come into the world fully formed and functional, an active presence, a reagent. Now what? There’s an answer, because there’s always an answer. Sanzenbacher has got superb concentration. Good concentration. The ball is going to be thrown. Good concentration. He’s a guy who catches a ball. So catch the ball.
You can see a bigger version of Antonio DePietro's excellent original illustration here.