Undrafted NFL players never forget their first paycheck

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- Corey Grant opened the envelope that was stuck in his locker last week and eagerly looked at the sheet of paper inside.

The Jacksonville Jaguars' rookie running back had just received his first official game check as an NFL player and he was excited to see his pay stub to find out just how much was getting deposited into his bank account.

The thing that struck him the most? The fact that the amount included a comma that had more than one number to the left of it.

"That’s one thing that really caught my eye," Grant said. "Something nice, new, and hopefully I can continue to get for a while."

It was an emotional moment for the undrafted free agent out of Auburn. Like most undrafted free agents, he received only a small signing bonus ($5,000), so his first paycheck was the first time he’s been paid big money to play football. Jaguars linebacker Thurston Armbrister, cornerback Nick Marshall and other undrafted players across the NFL had a similar experience when they received their first check last week.

It’s a moment they will always remember.

“It was exciting,” said Grant, who, like Armbrister and Marshall, is making the rookie minimum ($435,000). “Kind of a motivator to keep working hard, just keep showing the coaches what I can do and to make plays.”

NFL players on the active roster are paid only during the regular season. Each game is worth 1/16 of their annual salary, and because they’re paid every two weeks, each check represents two games.

For draft picks, especially for players picked in the first couple rounds, receiving their first paycheck doesn’t carry the same weight. They were given signing bonuses, which in in some cases will be 10 times as much as a lot of players will make in their careers. First-round draft pick Dante Fowler Jr., for example, received a $15.3 million signing bonus as part of his fully guaranteed $23.5 million contract.

For undrafted players, their first paycheck can be life-changing as well. Defensive end Ryan Davis, who is in his third season, remembers how he felt when he got his first game check after being promoted from the practice squad in October 2012.

Practice squad players are paid $6,600 per week, significantly less than what they earn on the active roster. For comparison, a player making the rookie minimum would get $27,187.50 per game. And since each pay period covers two games, each check would be for $54,375. Before taxes, of course.

“Wow, I never saw a check with this much money. Never in my life," Davis said.

Davis signed with the Jaguars as an undrafted free agent out of Bethune-Cookman. He said he got a $20,000 signing bonus, but even that paled in comparison to the amount he received in his first game check, which was pro-rated based on a $390,000 minimum salary.

"I got the first half of [the signing bonus] and after taxes it came out to like six-something grand, and I was like, 'Man, I never saw a check that big,'" Davis said. "And when I finally got up on the active roster, I saw that after all the taxes taken out, it was still a pretty nice amount. I was like, ‘Yeah, this is nice.’

"It’s a good feeling. I think I took a picture of it. I think I showed my mama. It was pretty fun."

Receiver Bryan Walters did something similar. He took a photo of the signing-bonus check he received when he signed with San Diego as an undrafted free agent in 2010, which he said was just enough to pay for a trip from San Diego to his hometown of Seattle.

Then he got his first game check.

"I remember [the signing-bonus check] and I was like, ‘Dang, this isn’t what I thought,’" Walters said. "And then after the first two weeks of the regular season you get two games in one check and kind of, ‘Oh. All right, I can do this.’"

The NFL prepares players for dealing with their sudden financial boon by making it mandatory that rookies attend the league’s annual rookie symposium, where financial planning is among the topics covered. Vetted experts conduct breakout sessions and former players speak about their financial mistakes and advise the younger men to be wary about whom they trust with their money. Teams also have similar seminars.

Long snapper Carson Tinker, who signed with the Jaguars as an undrafted free agent out of Alabama in 2013, never will forget his first game check. Nor will his wife, Annie.

"I had to get student loans in college because I was a walk-on and I didn’t have time to get a job," Tinker said. "My income was getting $50 or $100 from my parents when I wanted to do something. It was totally different. I had a longtime girlfriend at the time, Annie, and as soon as I got the game check, I went and got a ring.

"That was my really and only big purchase I’ve had since I’ve been in the NFL. I really wanted to be able to tell our kids one day that I got this ring with my first game check in the NFL."

Grant didn’t do anything special with his first game check. He didn’t take a photo of it and he didn’t call his parents. He tried to be pretty quiet about the whole thing, but that didn’t work.

"I just had a couple friends from back home call me and they were like, ‘We know you got paid. How much was it?’" Grant said. "But I didn’t tell them."