They stand just a few yards from where they once practiced for the Jets, each man scribbling notes on a pad as they watch the current team go through 11-on-11 drills during a training camp session.
They blended in with the rest of the coaches and players watching from the sidelines, and you wouldn’t have known they once starred for the Jets and were mainstays of the team’s last two playoff runs to the AFC Championship Game.
But D’Brickashaw Ferguson and Calvin Pace take their current mission as seriously as they did when they were the ones on the practice field. The former Pro Bowl left tackle and outside linebacker took part in the Nunn-Wooten Scouting Fellowship, a program named in honor of former Steelers personnel director Bill Nunn and former NFL player and front-office executive John Wooten.
Ferguson and Pace no longer play, but their involvement with the Jets over the summer could pave the way toward increased opportunities in football. Pace is especially looking forward to life as an NFL scout.
“I want to do it,” Pace said. “I’ve had a number of former players and coaches recommend that I get back in the game, so I think I’m going to pursue it. I am interested in the business.”
Ferguson called the internship “an exploration, getting a chance to learn about the different departments, but specifically scouting. You know as a player that there’s a front office and a general manager, but until you work in that space, you don’t have a concept of what it is. You’re exposed to some of the decisions being made in real time.”
Ferguson isn’t as committed as Pace to pursuing another scouting opportunity, but he hasn’t shut the door.
“I will need more time to process everything I’m experiencing,” the 35-year-old former tackle said. “But I want to continue that process, whether that’s sitting down and shadowing scouts or understanding different position groups.”
Regardless of what happens next – the internship concludes Tuesday – both former players have enjoyed the chance to see the inner workings of the football operation under recently hired general manager Joe Douglas, as well as new head coach Adam Gase. It has also given them a chance to reconnect with football after what both admit is a challenging time in their post-NFL lives.
“This is the happiest I’ve been going to training camp in forever,” said Pace, 38, who played for the Jets from 2008-15. “I started playing football when I was 9, and I stopped playing when I was 35. To not have it any more was a big void in my life. As a former player, you’re not ever going to get the camaraderie. I played here eight years, and there’s a natural bond and a natural friendship you develop. It’s hard to go out in the real world and find those relationships.”
Ferguson, who played his entire NFL career with the Jets from 2006-15, was surprised by the challenge of adjusting to life after football.
“I don’t think you realize how much you’ve gone through and the relationships you’ve made,” he said. “When you hear that, it’s a cold turkey stop. It’s just over. Even being back in the building, having the opportunity to walk the halls, it’s helpful. I was happy that Calvin decided to do the internship, too. We got a chance to talk about our experiences. Working in sports is a big help as well, given that you get to apply some of the knowledge that you have. Many [former] players have chosen to work outside that space.”
Pace and Ferguson are mindful of staying fit, and they continue to work out regularly. Ferguson has shed more than 60 pounds from his playing weight of 310 and has competed in a sprint triathlon and a half marathon.
“I feel different,” Ferguson said. “I look in the mirror and I’m like, who is that guy? I stopped playing football, but I’m still an athlete. Sports has been a part of our lives for a number of years, and it’s unrealistic to think it will go away completely. I enjoy doing something that I’m challenged by and can get better than that. I’m always going to see myself as an athlete.”
Both players come away from the internship with a greater appreciation of all that goes into building a football team, something they couldn’t grasp as players.
“When you’re playing,” Pace said, “you don’t see those things. You worry about what you do. This has allowed us to be able to see things from a broader view.”
“It’s learning the nuances of different position groups,” Ferguson said. “Offensive line, defensive play. Why is this wide receiver good? What are the small things that you wouldn’t normally recognize? As a fan, you might say, ‘He’s very fast and he caught the ball.’ As a scout, you have to figure out what the small details are that really define a player. It is instinct? How he catches the ball? All those things matter in completing the profile of that player.”
Pace and Ferguson have gotten to see the inner workings of the Jets’ final player cuts and they will see whether Douglas makes further moves as the Jets move closer to next Sunday’s regular season opener against the Bills at MetLife Stadium.
It has been a terrific learning experience for both, and perhaps a springboard to more behind-the-scenes work in the NFL. Ferguson will give it some more thought before taking his next step. Pace is open for business.