Anthony Gray once worked as a baggage handler for Southwest Airlines.
He knows what it is like to labor in the 9-to-5 world. If he has to go back to it, he will. "And I'll enjoy life," Gray vowed Sunday.
For the past five weeks, Gray lived the fantasy-like existence of a professional football player. He had seemingly performed well enough to remain one with the Buffalo Bills even after the figurative midnight hour struck Sunday afternoon, when NFL teams cut their rosters to reach the league maximum of 53. Gray's 176 rushing yards in four preseason games not only led the Bills, but ranked third in the AFC and fourth in the NFL.
But there he was Sunday, trudging out of Ralph Wilson Stadium with his bags packed, preparing to head home to Oakland, Calif. Midnight had struck for Gray, who was among 13 players cut by the Bills.
"I gave it my best, I gave it a hundred and ten percent," he said. "I had a good time while it lasted."
The others released Sunday were fourth-year veteran safety Eric Smedley, safety and sixth-round draft choice Armon Hatcher, rookie free-agent wide receivers Jeremy McDaniel, Reginald Allen and Robert Scott; rookie free-agent defensive tackles Zach Carter and Pene Talamaivao; rookie free-agent running back Lennox Gordon, rookie free-agent fullback Brian Edwards, rookie free-agent tight end John Jennings, one-year free-agent offensive tackle David Mudge, and one-year free-agent punter Bill Kushner.
Gray had been one of bright stars of the Bills' preseason, ever since his eye-catching performance in the Aug. 14 opener in Seattle.
The former Western New Mexico standout carried 13 times for a game-high 74 yards, including a 24-yard touchdown run. He showed great explosiveness,
strong acceleration in the open field, good change of direction, and excellent natural instincts . . . albeit against the Seahawks' defensive scrubs.
With starter Antowain Smith struggling all summer with a troublesome groin muscle, Thurman Thomas having turned 33 in May and Jonathan Linton having fumbled three times against the Seahawks, it was widely assumed Gray had a good chance of overcoming his long-shot status.
And many Bills' observers considered him a lock to make the team after his 10-carry, 50-yard showing in Saturday night's preseason finale against Pittsburgh. Gray had a game-high 21-yard carry to help set up a field goal and had 36-yard run called back by a holding penalty.
"I went to bed (Saturday night) happy with myself," Gray said. "I woke up (Sunday) morning and spoke to some of my family (in Oakland). I told them, 'Whatever happens is going to happen. I have no control over it. I did the best that I could.'
"It's one thing to come into something like this knowing that you didn't give it your all or things didn't go as well as you wanted them to. But I can't say that. I can honestly say things went the way I wanted them to go. I've busted my tail ever since I've been here. There's nothing to be unhappy about. I'm healthy.
"If it's meant for me to have a 9-to-5 job, I'll have a 9-to-5 job. There's life after football."
The Bills coaches loved Gray's physical skills, but wanted him to pay greater attention to detail. They saw too many assignment mistakes to trust putting him on the field in a game that counted. As a result, they stuck with only four running backs -- Smith, Thomas, fullback Sam Gash and halfback/fullback Linton.
Gray and the others cut Sunday are eligible to be added to the Bills' five-man practice squad today. But first they must clear NFL-wide waivers.
Another rookie free agent who seemed to have a shot at making the team was McDaniel, who ranked fourth on the team in the preseason with eight receptions for 98 yards and a TD. The former University of Arizona player also was impressive on kickoff coverage.
But McDaniel said he wasn't the least bit disappointed, and was looking forward to being part of the Bills' practice squad.
"A lot of great players started on the practice squad," he said. "I just need to touch up on my routes, my work habits and work on my disadvantages, like my speed."
Bills offensive guard Joe Panos said Sunday that a bulging disc in his neck, which was discovered while he was lifting weights in mid-July, is pressing on a nerve and causing him to lose strength in his right shoulder and arm.
He is hoping an epidural he received Friday allows him to play in the Sept. 12 regular-season opener at Indianapolis. However, he said if he did not see progress through practice this week, he probably would not play and might have to undergo surgery.
"The question is, can I play with it?" Panos said. "Am I going to hurt the team or am I going to hurt myself, for that matter? I'm going day by day. They're going to test me every week for strength to see if it's progressing or regressing."
Panos said he could only receive three epidurals over a six-month span.
"If the epidural doesn't help and I get weaker, then I'll have to give serious consideration to getting put on a slab and getting cut open," he said.
The Bills' players had only meetings Sunday. They are off today, and are due to have a light, non-contact workout Tuesday before beginning full-scale preparation for the Colts.
If he doesn't get picked up by another team, Carter at least has something solid to fall back on with a degree from South Dakota State in construction management and a job with an engineering firm in Idaho.