FLORHAM PARK, N.J. — The first time it happened was Sept. 3, 2016. James Burgess Jr. was cut by his hometown team, the Miami Dolphins. So began his remarkable journey on the margins of the NFL, a four-year whirlwind of practice squads, free-agent workouts, canceled flights, short hotel stays, cold shoulders and seemingly constant rejection.
Burgess, now a starting inside linebacker for the New York Jets, has been released eight times by six teams. Imagine being told that many times by an employer that you aren’t good enough. Would you pack it in? Would you look for another line of work? Burgess, 25, never thought that way because his only dream was to be like his father, James Burgess Sr., who played linebacker for the San Diego Chargers (1997-98).
On he went, waiting for the next call, much like an aspiring actor between auditions.
“It’s the ugly side of the NFL that people don’t really know about,” the younger Burgess said. “Everybody sees the glamour and everybody on film, but there’s also an ugly side, too.”
Say this for Burgess: He might be undersized at 6-foot, 230 pounds, but he can take a hit.
After his initial release from the Miami roster, he played musical practice squads, going from the Dolphins (nine days) to the Chargers (13 days) to the Baltimore Ravens (six days) to the Jacksonville Jaguars (nine days) to the Cleveland Browns, who eventually promoted him to the 53-man roster. He lasted nearly two years in Cleveland, where he got hurt and was waived in 2018.
From there, it was back to the Dolphins (six months) and then to the Jets, who waived him at the end of the preseason and re-signed him to the practice squad two weeks later. He got a call-up on Oct. 20, and over the past four games, he’s the Jets’ leading tackler — and one of the few feel-good stories in a lost season.
“How many times has he been cut?” defensive coordinator Gregg Williams marveled. “Those are fun guys to coach.”
One day in the spring, Williams pulled a picture off the wall in his office and brought it to a meeting. He told the players about Burgess and his story of perseverance. In the photo was a cracked Browns helmet, worn by Burgess on Nov. 19, 2017, the day he recorded 15 tackles, three tackles for loss and a sack against the Jaguars. Mind you, this show-and-tell session took place before Burgess was on the Jets.
“His helmet looked like back when I played. It was crushed and broken,” said Williams, so moved by the performance — and the fractured artifacts — that he made sure it was photographed and saved.
Perhaps fatefully, the Jets claimed Burgess on waivers from the Dolphins about a week later. Burgess played so well in the preseason that some players were disappointed that he didn’t make the team, but he was invited back after injuries to C.J. Mosley and Avery Williamson. He hopes to make this team his home because he’s tired of being an NFL nomad.
“It’s tough,” he said. “Every man can’t deal with it. Basically, you’re living out of a suitcase. Every week or two, I was getting cut. It’s tough. I wish that on no one. It’s a lonely stage, but I kept fighting and kept going.”
It was a crazy lifestyle. One day, he was in the Miami airport, waiting to fly out for a workout with the Indianapolis Colts. That was a few days after he was released by the Ravens. His agent called with the news that the Jaguars, who worked him out previously, wanted to sign him to the practice squad. He made a quick travel change and flew to Jacksonville. That turned out to be a short and bitter experience.
“I was ballin’ in practice, and I thought I was on the verge of getting signed up,” Burgess said. “They called me to the office, and I was like, ‘Oh, yeah, finally a break. I’m going to finally get my chance to showcase.’ They were like, ‘We’re releasing you.’ I was like, ‘Damn.’ That was probably the hardest cut.”
And the coldest.
“For a regular job or the NFL, when they cut you or fire you, they wish you the best of luck,” he said. “When I got released from Jacksonville, it was just, ‘Dude, come in the office.’ It was sign here, sign there, and I walked out. It was probably the worst feeling I ever had in my life. It was like I was s— or something. That was the worst feeling I ever had. That was bad.”
After each cut, Burgess returned home, received a pep talk from his father and stayed ready. He trained with his uncle, Willie Middlebrooks, a 2001 Denver Broncos first-round pick. They worked out in a park in Homestead, Florida, their hometown. Burgess grew up in football, learning the game and the cut-throat business from his father, a former linebacker who came out of the University of Miami as a free agent and bounced among the Oakland Raiders, Kansas City Chiefs and Chargers.
“I was in the same shoes he was in,” said Burgess Sr., who played 31 games in two seasons. “He wants to prove, especially to me, that he’s good enough to play in the league. He says, ‘I want to be like you.’ I tell him, ‘No, you’re going to be better than me.'”
Burgess coached his son in youth leagues, sending in defensive plays via hand signals. How many 8-year-old linebackers have the aptitude to play the game on that level? Probably not many. He took his game to Louisville, where he enjoyed a solid, four-year career — but wasn’t good enough to be drafted. The big knock on him was his size, which is the same as his dad’s (6-foot, 230).
Father and son are extremely close. On Sunday night or Monday morning, Burgess will receive a call from his dad, who provides a comprehensive breakdown of his performance. By the time he gets to the Jets’ film review on Monday, Burgess already has a good idea of the coaching points he will receive. Unlike other players, he is graded twice on every test.
Burgess is such a student of the game that he routinely plays a lead role in the Tuesday defensive meeting, when players gather on their off day to begin game prep.
“The players tease me all the time and say, ‘Hey, we’d much rather listen to him than you,'” Williams said.
This explains why Burgess is such a popular player; his teammates know his background and appreciate his determination. When Jets defensive tackle Steve McLendon was approached for a comment on Burgess, he invited the reporter into a side hallway and spent five minutes raving about him. McLendon affectionately calls him “young bull.”
“He’s been through so much adversity, and look at him now,” McLendon said. “When we had a linebacker go down, I went to talk to the coaches and said, ‘Man, we need him.’ You can’t tell me this man doesn’t belong in the league. He’s a smart football player. He’s a hard-working football player. He’s a tough football player.”
Burgess has started every game (six) since being promoted from the practice squad. He has 49 tackles, including one sack. He’s second on the team in “hustle” stops (seven), according to NFL Next Gen Stats, which occur when a player covers 20-plus yards from snap to tackle.
That shouldn’t be a surprise. After all, Burgess has been hustling long distances since 2016, trying to make an impact.