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Sundays with Sacco: Cut-down days

The best shots from the second half against the 49ers.

For over nearly four decades in the National Football League, one theme that is universal through the years is that no coach enjoys cut-down days.

No one enjoys telling a young man who has become part of the family bond that he now has to leave.

With the Denver Broncos' Saturday-night win over the San Francisco 49ers in the first home game of the 2015 season, we are inching closer to that time when the rosters are pared.

All NFL teams must reduce their rosters to 75 players by 4:00 p.m. EDT on Sept. 1 and to the regular season 53-player roster limit by 4:00 p.m. EDT on Sept. 5.

Some teams will choose to make cuts on Sunday before the Sept. 1 deadline, so that they can begin with a "clean" week as they have Monday practices.

Either way, it is a tough process, and it is not a game.

It is part of the business, and as such, it is accepted by the young players and coaches involved, but it is not like losing a space on a board game, resurrected as easily as with one more roll of the dice.

Unlike baseball, hockey and basketball, there is no minor league system or structure in pro football.

Rather than players being developed in the minors as in baseball and hockey, players come to the NFL from the training ground of college football, where they have had the benefit of working toward a valuable college degree while honing their playing skills.

The San Francisco 49ers closed their time at the UCHealth Thursday for their second of two intense practices hosted by the Broncos. (All photos by Eric Bakke)

If and when a player does not make the MLB or NHL team, he is sent down to the minors, where he can continue to play and earn at least some money while waiting for that much anticipated call up.

In basketball, many young players who do not make it in the NBA choose to play in the NBA's developmental league, and many others opt to play in Europe or elsewhere overseas.

But not so in the NFL.

Bronco alum Wade Manning, who had his choice of the NFL or major league baseball when drafted by both sports out of Ohio State many years ago, once said that he "liked the idea that when you make it in the NFL, you are already in the majors--no bus rides, no years of improving your talents in the minor leagues. You are already here."

On the other hand, however, those who do not make it have a hard time playing football at all. Both the Canadian Football League and the Arena Football League are stand-alone leagues that are not designed to work as developmental programs for the NFL.

So very often, these young players who will leave NFL teams this week--around 500 players over the entire league--have few options besides heading to the gym to lift while staying in daily contact with their agents to see if any teams are calling for tryouts.

It is a tough part of the game little recognized by the multitudes of fans who watch weekly.

Not much focus is given to those who just miss the final rosters.

So these final preseason games--all of them, in fact--are huge to the multitudes of young players hoping for their first opportunity, but also to veteran players who for whatever reasons--injury, age, or a talent level that is borderline--every play is a chance to impress coaches both in person and on tape.

Many times fans and the press drop their attention level when the presumed starters leave the game.

But sometimes that means people stop paying attention just when they should pay the greatest attention.

These players are putting their bodies and hearts on the line to fulfill their dreams, whether the roster spot represents that first moment or a chance to hang on for one more year, and there is a huge dignity to the process either way.

A week ago on the game telecast from Houston, former world champion Broncos defensive end Alfred Williams, in his role as color commentator, noted that "A lot of folks are leaving the stadium just when they should be watching most closely. These are the young guys fighting for jobs."

The San Francisco 49ers arrived at UCHealth Training Center on Wednesday for their first of two intense practices hosted by the Broncos. (All photos by Eric Bakke)

And indeed they are, in every game.

A common error is that of presumed awareness. Fans or media sometimes assume that due to their great interest in the game they know the levels of all the players, and if they have not heard of someone, it suggests something negative about the player. Actually, it says less about the player than it does about the observer.

No one is famous until they become so.

And it happens on the field, when the young man desperately gives everything he has to take an available job, which of course also means taking someone else's job--someone else who is trying just as hard, just as desperately.

Denver Broncos Hall of Fame candidate safety John Lynch put it well when he said, "These games don't count, but they sure do matter."

Yes, they matter a great deal to the coaches and personnel people who are putting rosters together, and to the players who are trying so hard to make those rosters.

I am sad for every player whose dreams do not come true this week, and I hope that for many of them, they get another chance down the road.

But every single player, whether he makes it or not, wears the crown of effort, and of the nobility of effort.

No one can ever take that away.

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