How the XFL kept hope alive for a few Vikings trying to make it in the NFL

Mention the song “Humble And Kind” to quarterback Jordan Ta’amu, running back Abram Smith and receiver Lucky Jackson and they’ll all smile.

The country music ballad by singer/songwriter Tim McGraw served as the soundtrack of the spring for the trio as they continued to chase their dream of playing professional football.

After they had been passed over by the NFL, Ta’amu, Smith and Jackson joined forces with the DC Defenders of the XFL. That provided them a platform to prove themselves, and that’s exactly what they did, leading the league’s most prolific offense.

All the while Defenders head coach Reggie Barlow consistently started team meetings with the song “Humble And Kind” as a way to make sure his players never got too far ahead of themselves even when they started to have some success.

“It’s human nature for guys to start feeling themselves,” Barlow said. “Let’s calm ourselves down by listening to some Tim McGraw.”

The wholesomeness of that message has followed Ta’amu, Smith and Jackson to the NFL where they recently wrapped up training camp with the Vikings. They have all carried themselves with a sense of humbleness around TCO Performance Center, grateful for the opportunity in front of them, yet confident enough to know they belong.

“It’s amazing to be able to work with those guys again,” said Ta’amu, who signed with the Vikings last week to join Smith and Jackson, who already were in training camp. “It’s always good thing to have some familiar faces, and it’s made the transition to a new team a lot easier.”

The fact that Ta’amu, Smith and Jackson have all latched on with the Vikings is a testament to their hard work with the Defenders. They were all among the best players at their respective positions, with Ta’amu being named XFL’s Offensive Player of the Year, Smith ending up as the XFL’s leading rusher by a wide margin, and Jackson grading out as the XFL’s best receiver, per Pro Football Focus.

“It’s a nice little trifecta,” Smith said. “We did our thing there, and now we’re here.”

That’s the thesis of the XFL on a macro scale, according to Doug Whaley, the league’s senior vice president of player personnel. As the former general manager of the Buffalo Bills, Whaley has a very good understanding of the NFL, and emphasized the importance of giving players an alternative if they don’t make it right out of college.

“Some players may have fallen through the cracks,” Whaley said. “Now they have a chance to develop in the XFL and potentially contribute in the NFL.”

Though the XFL can often be a springboard for some players on the path toward their ultimate goal, Whaley noted that it can also be a soft landing for some players who still want to compete at the professional ranks. There are benefits to both.

“It’s something that is desperately needed in the football ecosystem,” Whaley said. “It’s only going to benefit everybody involved and anybody that loves football.”

The XFL lifestyle was unique, which Ta’amu, Smith and Jackson all talked about when recounting their experience. All eight teams functioned most days every week out of Arlington, Texas, lived in nearby hotels, and hosted practices at different stadiums in the surrounding area. They would then fly out to their respective home cities for games, with both teams flying on the same plane.

As competitive as the games were throughout the 10-game regular season, the most intense part of the XFL as a whole might have been the training camps across the league.

“There were fights left and right,” Ta’amu said. “We would be going through walkthroughs and guys would be going full speed. You put people in that position where they know this might be their last chance, they’re going to do everything they can to make it. We grew together and created a good team out of it.”

The process of getting everybody on the same page happened slowly and then all at once for the Defenders. The coaching staff resorted to throwing players out of practice for fighting, holding them accountable, while hammering home the idea that they won’t succeed in public if they don’t succeed in private.

“It was a beautiful thing to see,” said Barlow, who played receiver for the Jacksonville Jaguars in the late 1990s. “Our coaching staff took the message and Paul Revere’d it to the players, and to their credit, they took it and ran with it.”

The success spoke for itself as the Defenders emerged as the best team in the league, finishing the regular season with a 9-1 record before being upset by the Arlington Renegades in the XFL Championship.

“We were the winningest team in the XFL,” Smith said. “That alone speaks to what we can do on the field.”

Maybe the biggest issue the XFL is going to face in the future exists in the fabric of the league itself. If a player stars in the XFL at any point, he is probably going to get a shot in the NFL.

“We look at it the opposite way,” Whaley said. “If we have the best players in our league show that it is a pathway to the ultimate goal, we’ll be able to recruit even more players in the next cycle. It proves to players that the XFL can be a good option. There is something about it that can lead them to where they want to go.”

That’s something Ta’amu, Smith and Jackson can all say definitively after playing in the XFL.

“Everybody knew if they went there and took care of business, they might have a shot at the next level,” Jackson said. “We all took advantage of that, put some good things on tape, and this is where it landed us.”

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