GREEN BAY – Justin McCray tried everything to avoid waiting around Saturday to hear whether he’d made the Packers’ 53-man roster.
The first-year offensive lineman stayed up as late as he could Friday night, but still was rustling in his bed by 9 a.m. He got something to eat and tried to see a movie, but nothing good was showing until after 4 p.m.
So McCray spent most of his afternoon driving around the area and talking with his twin brother, Jordan, back in Florida. Anything to get his mind off the biggest day of his football career.
After sweating through the 3 p.m. CT deadline without a call from the Packers, the 6-foot-3, 317-pound offensive lineman slowly came to the realization he had made the roster despite the heaviest of odds.
His first call was to Jordan, who went to camp with the Packers in 2014. He and their older brother, Cliff, had just returned to Florida after watching Justin play in the Packers’ final preseason game.
“He was actually riding back from Orlando to Miami and he pulled the car over and was just yelling,” Justin said. “It was awesome. Then, I called my mom. My mom was in Walgreens and she started crying. It was a really good day.”
Most undrafted free agents have to wage an uphill battle to make an NFL roster, but Justin faced perhaps the longest odds of anybody on the Packers’ 90-man roster this summer.
Justin had been out of the NFL for two full seasons prior to signing with Green Bay as a street free agent in March. He entered the league with Tennessee as an undrafted rookie in 2014 and spent his rookie year on the Titans’ practice squad before being cut in the 2015 preseason.
Justin participated in a few CFL tryouts and NFL minicamps for the next year without an offer. It was only after receiving a call from Orlando Predators general manager Michael DiJulio that Justin and Jordan both decided to try their luck in the Arena Football League, reuniting the twins for the first time since playing together at the University of Central Florida from 2010-13.
Working at a hotel owned by the Predators owner after the season, the McCrays talked the UCF coaching staff into letting them participate in the school’s pro day. That platform gave Justin a chance to work out in front of Packers senior personnel executive Alonzo Highsmith.
Justin took a pre-draft visit with the Packers in 2014, but he opted to sign with Tennessee once Jordan agreed to terms with Green Bay to avoid competing against each other for a roster spot.
With Highsmith’s recommendation, the Packers agreed to take a look at Justin.
“As I was praying and working, I said if I ever got the chance to play in the NFL again, I’m going to give it my all,” McCray said. “Be the first one in here and the last one out. Try to do everything right and be nice to everybody in the building. Just make the most out of everything – every meeting, every practice, every play.”
Getting on the 90-man offseason roster was only the first step for McCray. He’d been in that position before. This time, he had to do whatever it took to convince the Packers to keep him for the long haul.
A natural guard, McCray worked tirelessly with Jordan to pick up the center position, spending hours snapping to each other. Offensive line coach James Campen, a center by trade, then taught McCray the finer aspects of the position during the offseason program and training camp.
McCray’s guard-to-center versatility allowed him to stay on the field throughout the preseason, especially after injuries to veteran Don Barclay (ankle) and practice-squad holdover Lucas Patrick (concussion).
So McCray took a team-high 215 offensive snaps over the four preseason games, including all 68 reps during last Thursday’s 24-10 win over Los Angeles in front of his two brothers at Lambeau Field.
With Barclay slated to be placed on injured reserve with the possibility of return midseason, the Packers opted to keep both McCray and Patrick as their interior reserves during Saturday’s final cuts.
“They played very well,” Head Coach Mike McCarthy said on Monday of McCray and Patrick. “If you look at the video, you see two young players ascending. Two young guys who earned those roster spots. You take your hat off to them. When training camp started, you knew it was going to be a big challenge for those two to make the 53 and they got it done.”
McCray, 25, isn’t taking any victory laps. He knows as quickly as he was given this opportunity it can be taken away.
At the same time, it’s evident his name plate in the Packers’ main locker room holds meaning – for both him and his brother, who played with the AFL’s Cleveland Gladiators last year in hopes of getting another shot at the NFL.
“I haven’t looked back on it too much because there’s so much more I want to do,” McCray said. “I don’t want to pat myself on the back yet. I still have a lot of goals I want to accomplish. This is a really good start to it. At the end of my career, I’ll do all of that.
“Right now, I still have my head down and trying to learn from all these older guys and find a way to keep playing and actually getting on the field now.”