This past summer, former Hofstra running back Kareem Huggins kept a gym bag packed with cleats and workout clothes near the front door of his East Orange, N.J., home, just in case an NFL team called and needed him right away. Now, almost three years since his last NFL carry, Huggins is finally back. The Jets signed the former Hofstra running back to their practice squad on Tuesday, giving them a player who knows a thing or two about adversity.
His promising career almost ended just as it was getting started. It was Oct. 17, 2010, and the Buccaneers were in the heat of a divisional battle at home with the Saints. Huggins was coming off a preseason where he was Tampa Bay's leading rusher and had earned the No. 2 spot on the depth chart behind Carnell Williams. Lined up in the slot on third down, Huggins took a pass from quaterback Josh Freeman and made a 7-yard gain for a first down. In the process he was hit below his right knee by Saints linebacker Marvin Mitchell. Huggins got up and limped to the sideline where he sat down on the bench. It wasn't until he sat down that he began to feel the pain.
It turned out to be a torn ACL.
"That was a trying time. I didn't know why it happened or why it happened to me. It seems like things were going so good. They were giving me more carries. I was doing well," Huggins told Metro. "[It] seemed like I was going to be a part of the offense. Then that happens and the pain, it hurt — yes it did — but for awhile it hurt me too because it seemed like everything was coming together."
But for the young player, an undrafted rookie free agent who hadn't played the year before and was cut by the Jets following rookie minicamp, it seemed like it had all fallen apart in a matter of seconds. Surgery followed for Huggins, then extensive rehab. With each passing day out of the league, conventional wisdom held that his NFL chances would draw dimmer.
For the past two years, Huggins has trained like a call would come at anytime. He's had a handful of workouts with NFL teams, but no one ever offered him a contract. But for two years he would go every day to Joe DeFranco's gym in Wyckoff, N.J., for workouts. During the offseason, he'd train at the facility with the likes of the Giants' David Diehl and the Texans' Brian Cushing. Five times a week, sometimes twice a day, he would lift to get stronger and sprint to get faster. Each workout, he hoped, would get him closer to that phone call. He believed in that call, even if few others around him did.
When he arrived at DeFranco's gym in December 2011, it wasn't all systems go. Due to the surgery and rehab, his right knee still hurt and had limited motion, so DeFranco's training staff focused on improving the soft tissue around his knee. After that, time was spent on his flexibility and mobility, to the point that he progressed into specific strength training exercises to bolster the knee. The end result, DeFranco says, is a "freak of nature."
"And even when it looked like there wasn't one NFL team that would give him a chance, he remained super positive. I mean, the kid hasn't been on an NFL field in three years, yet he continued to believe he would get a shot," DeFranco told Metro. "Everyday, when our workout was over and I'd say, 'See you tomorrow, Kareem,' he'd say, 'No, I won't be here tomorrow. I know I'm gonna get a call from a team tonight.' This has gone on for two years. And finally, this past Tuesday, he wasn't at the gym because he did get the call. I've never been so happy to not see someone in my life."
Huggins hasn't been on an NFL field since 2010 and there are only a handful of players still on the Jets when he was originally with the team. Wednesday's practice represented the first time he's carried the ball in a live practice since the injury. It has been 1,076 days, and Huggins is finally back.
He never got down he says, and never thought about quitting. He credits his mother with giving him a positive attitude and encouraging him to continue his dream and stay solid in his faith. DeFranco marvels at his work ethic and integrity and now Huggins hopes the Jets will see the same thing. In his words, he says, "I hope they will see that I'm relentless and hardworking and will never quit on them. I didn't quit before, and I won't quit now."
When the Jets called him though, there was no bag filled with cleats and workout clothes waiting at the front door for him to take to his tryout. But it wasn't because he had given up or lacked faith.
"I had to move it," Huggins said with a laugh. "I needed some stuff inside."
Follow Jets beat writer Kristian Dyer on Twitter @KristianRDyer.