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The day Ken Mastrole nearly made the NFL

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During the preseason of 2002, a quarterback named Ken Mastrole captured the attention, affection, and imagination of a city during his battle for the third-string quarterback job. Mastrole spoke with WCG historian Jack M Silverstein about playing for the Bears and the month he helped make the preseason exciting.

Ken Mastrole prepares to unleash a 52-yard completion to Kenny Christian during the 2nd Bears preseason game of 2002. (Tribune photo by Scott Strazzante / via newspapers.com)

The preseason is boring and doesn’t matter is what they tell us, but I dare them to say that to Ken Mastrole.

We’ve been talking about him for 16 years, along with his preseason teammate Kenny Christian. They are certainly among the two most famous Chicago Bears who were never officially Bears.

Way back in August of 2002, “The two Kennys” were fighting to make the roster, Mastrole as the third quarterback, Christian as the fifth wide receiver. Against the Rams in the second preseason game, their shared legend was born on merely two completions: a 52-yarder on the game’s final drive, and a 15-yard touchdown.

The score gave the Bears a 19-17 road win, and gave Mastrole and Christian newfound status among teammates, coaches, and fans.

“For me, sports has always been … about being around guys and relationships,” the 41-year-old Mastrole told me in a phone interview last week. “(Kenny) was such a good dude. He was like me. He worked hard. It’s almost like you’re in the back of the crowd and you’re trying to get your face up there. I think after that it was like, ‘Great catch!’ We relived the two plays. And then we talked about, ‘We have a real chance at this. We have to keep pushing.’”

The first thing I liked about Mastrole was that he looked the part. “Ken Mastrole, NFL quarterback” made sense to me. He had the frame: 6-foot-3, 245 pounds. The arms. The stride. His face was stoic, yet with a boyish charm that exuded a sandlot appeal.

And the jersey looked right. No. 17. It made him look even taller, but like a brave underdog, a football version of Colonel Dax, or maybe a young Johnny Unitas.

Today, Mastrole coaches young quarterbacks as they prepare to enter the NFL Draft. Among his past clients are Teddy Bridgewater, E.J. Manuel and Jacoby Brissett. He’s helping them become better prepared than he was in 2002 when his NFL dream reached its zenith.

That zenith was the preseason. But that’s overselling it. The zenith was the Rams game. But that’s overselling it. His zenith was one drive in one game, in the fourth quarter, with only 2:17 on the clock. A two-minute drill, down four. He hadn’t even run a two-minute drill in practice. He’d barely run a 7-on-7. As far as he could tell, he was a camp arm. He was there for coaches to have a “closer look,” but really just someone to make the roster guys sweat.

To hell with that. Mastrole was all in. He’d come this far, after all. His prior four years of football featured two colleges, going undrafted, and entering NFL Europe as a third-stringer. A third-stringer in NFL Europe! And now here he was at Bears camp in Bourbonnais.

The days were hot and the drills were repetitive. He was getting about one rep a day, typically a handoff or maybe a swing pass. How far could he even go just throwing swing passes? Not even knocking them out one by one. One rep, and wait. Another rep, and wait.

But then something caught his eye. The “C” on the helmet. The Bears C. The helmet of Walter Payton and Gale Sayers. Of Dick Butkus and Mike Singletary. Of young stars Brian Urlacher and Olin Kreutz and Mike Brown. And you know what? Of Ken Mastrole.

“This is everything I’ve ever dreamed of,” he thought to himself. “If I ever get a chance, I’m going to cut loose and play and lay it all on the line.”

Ken Mastrole during the 2002 Bears preseason. Prior to signing with the Bears, he spent time in the Arena football developmental league. (Tribune photo by Bonnie Trafelet / via Newspapers.com)

The two Kennys come to Chicago

Mastrole’s first padded practice as a Bear was the latest in a series of binary tests. Win or lose. Impress or disappoint. Stay or go home.

It was July 29, 2002, and he was fourth on the quarterback depth chart. The top two spots were basically locked up: starter Jim Miller and new backup Chris Chandler. So Mastrole would be competing for the No. 3 job against former (and future) Canadian Football League star Henry Burris. By the time he came to Chicago, Burris had five years of professional football on his resume — four in the CFL and the 2001 season with the Packers.

“People were talking like he was the second coming of like Brett Favre or something like that,” Mastrole said. “There was super high talk on him. So I go to camp and I was like, ‘I made it this far. Who cares? I’m just going to keep competing.’ … I felt like I was a better player. I always believed that.”

Here’s what Mastrole means by “this far.” After a college career that started at Maryland and ended at Rhode Island, he went into the 2000 NFL Draft and was enthused by a pair of great workouts with the Patriots and the Lions. The Pats told him they had some late round picks and intended to take a quarterback with one. I’m going to get drafted by the Patriots, he thought. At the very least, he would sign with New England as an undrafted free agent.

With the No. 199 overall pick, the Patriots selected Michigan quarterback Tom Brady. Mastrole went undrafted.

In early 2001 he landed with the Arena Football League’s Florida Bobcats. But even that didn’t quite work out, and he was demoted to the Florida Firecats of the AFL’s developmental league, the AF2.

In November of 2001, the Carolina Panthers called him and fellow undrafted free agent Mike Van Raaphorst for a workout. They signed 37-year-old Jim Harbaugh instead.

“Why are they signing this 40-something-year-old guy who has been in the league forever and they’re never going to give us a chance?” he recalls thinking. “So it was discouraging.”

Not long after, the Bears came calling. The team was in the midst of a surprise 13-3 season, and on January 8, 2002, 11 days before hosting its playoff game with the Eagles, the Bears signed Mastrole and promptly sent him to NFL Europe and the Amsterdam Admirals.

Though the Bears brass told Mastrole a spot in training camp would be waiting, the encouragement was slight compared to the reality: in Amsterdam, Mastrole was at the bottom again, the third string quarterback on an NFL Europe team, earning $200 per game. He motivated himself by keeping his suitcase packed and next to the hotel door at night. He would go to sleep ruminating on the suitcase, telling himself that if he wanted to reach the NFL, he had to win each and every day. If not, the suitcase was ready to accompany him home.

Mastrole didn’t play much, and he was far from dominant. In 10 games, he was 12 of 28 for 147 yards, with one touchdown and two interceptions. But his play was good enough to bump his way up to second string behind NFL veteran Kevin Daft. And when he returned to the States, the Bears invited him to OTAs, and then camp.

In early August, the Bears tried and failed to trade for Washington starter Patrick Ramsey. Once that fell through, the only quarterback race remaining was for the No. 3 spot between Mastrole, the long shot, and Burris, the favorite. It was during this time that Mastrole met Kenny Christian, the player with whom he would become linked in Bears lore.

Kenny Christian came to the Bears as an undrafted rookie after five years at Eastern Michigan University. (Tribune photo by Scott Strazzante / via Newspapers.com)

Like Mastrole, Christian was an undrafted rookie and one of the 14 players the Bears sent to NFL Europe in 2002. Like Mastrole, Christian took a long road to the NFL. After finishing sixth in the nation in receptions in 2000, the fifth-year senior Christian returned to Eastern Michigan University in 2001 only to learn that the school had mistakenly told him that a 1998 injury gave him another year of eligibility, when in fact he’d played too many games that season. He ended up sitting out the entire 2001 season, which he spent tutoring middle schoolers, and signed with the Bears a week after Mastrole.

Like Mastrole, Christian was in a battle for the last spot at his position. His main competition was injured veteran Ahmad Merritt and sixth round rookie Jamin Elliott. So there they were in OTAs, the two Kennys, a couple of long shots determined to prove their value, literally starting from the bottom.

“They put us in this downstairs, bottom-of-the-basement locker room,” Mastrole says. “My locker was by Marc Colombo, Alex Brown — I can remember these names clearly. And I would sit around and I really didn’t talk to a lot of people. I would go back to my room and I would start studying my playbook (and) I would go to bed. I kind of kept to myself, because I said I have to put the time in to study the playbook.”

This was no joke. He describes himself as “raw in terms of football knowledge.” At Maryland, his first college, he played “purely on instinct,” just like he did in high school.

“I had no idea what I was looking at coverage-wise,” he says. “We came from an archaic offense. It was, ‘Throw it to the open guy.’ I couldn’t tell you what Cover-2 or Cover-3 or Cover-4 was when I started my first game in Maryland. I was out there winging it. I kind of knew some concepts, but I was a dummy in football. Nobody taught me the game.”

He had very little direction in college, and arrived in Chicago still fairly clueless.

“I always said to myself, ‘I know I’m talented enough. I’ve got the arm. I can make every throw on that field. I’m athletic enough. I just have to figure out what the hell I’m doing out there,’ because I was too afraid to ask people,” he says. “I was like, I’m at a higher level now. How do you not know?”

He recalls sitting in a meeting at Bears camp, and offensive coordinator John Shoop was running through a fairly rudimentary discussion about whether the middle of the field was open or closed.

“Most quarterbacks in high school will know what that is,” Mastrole says. “I had no idea what he was talking about. So I studied. They handed us a playbook that was incredibly thick. I struggled. I said, ‘I’ve got to learn this if I’m going to make this team.’”

Not every end-of-the-roster rookie on the Bears approached the game like a student. But Mastrole did, and Christian did too.

“Kenny and I would quiz each other, talking about plays,” Mastrole says. “Before practice we would be going over terminology or what the route concepts were. … You’re an undrafted free agent. You’re just a guy out there who is happy to compete. You’ll do anything. There are certain people who will press themselves on everybody. They’ll try to make an impression. But he and I are similar. We just kind of work hard. We’re grinder-type guys. I think he was a guy who had been around, and we just kind of connected on certain things from a football standpoint.”

Mastrole quickly noticed the invisibility of the back end of the roster. He talked to some guys, even veterans, and became friends with Jim Miller — they still go out to dinner now and again. Brian Urlacher and Marty Booker were always very cool and helpful to him, and he spoke some with James “Big Cat” Williams and Anthony Thomas.

But for the most part, the Bears veterans did not talk to the guys that low on the roster.

“They know you might not be there the next week,” Mastrole says. “You might get cut, so they don’t really build relationships with you.”

That left him talking more to the rookies, and really, more to Christian.

“I started talking to Kenny a little bit in practice, because when you’re not playing a lot you’re just an arm,” he says. “And after that preseason game, we were buds.”

Chicago Tribune, August 19, 2002, pumping up Kenny Christian. (via Newspapers.com)

The next Kurt Warner

The Bears’ first preseason game was as ugly as the season soon to come. With Soldier Field under construction all year, the Bears played their home games at the University of Illinois. That’s where the preseason started, a 27-3 loss to the Broncos.

The original game plan was that Burris and Mastrole would split the second half, but on the morning of the game, the Chicago Tribune reported that Burris would take the majority of the game’s snaps. As it turned out, Mastrole didn’t play at all. Burris finished the game 6 of 19 for 49 yards, with no touchdowns, two interceptions, two fumbles (one lost) and no drives ending in points.

Seven Bears players caught passes. Christian was not among them. The next game would be August 16 against the Rams. Mastrole was a bit concerned at this point about having an opportunity to show his skills.

“I was starting to think, ‘I’m not playing a lot. I’m not doing anything in practice,’” he says. His only 7-on-7 work leading up to the Rams game was one snap that the center fumbled, the final play of the period. He would go into the weight room and even the strength coach would ignore him.

“So going into that week, I took the approach that: you gotta stay prepared,” he says. Even though he was sensing that the coaching staff was just a bit less enamored of Burris, he still wasn’t getting many physical reps. So he focused on mental reps. He had to be ready.

His moment came with 2:17 remaining in the fourth quarter against the Rams. Miller had played well, going 6 of 8 for 78 yards and a touchdown. Chandler barely played. Burris was better than the week before but nothing special, and when Dick Jauron pulled him for Mastrole, the Bears trailed 17-13.

In the regular season, a quarterback taking the field in this scenario would be cheered and exalted. In the preseason, nothing. Mastrole remembers Miller and Chandler giving him a pat on the back and dropping a serious but low-stakes “Go get it done.”

As he ran in, he had dueling thoughts. The first, obviously, was to get the win. But the second is simply a reality of preseason football, and a roster full of players trying to win a job, any job, whether on this team or another one.

“I kept thinking, ‘How many plays am I going to get?’” he says. “Because I need plays. I need film. But what am I going to do in one offensive series in two minutes and 17 seconds?”

Plenty, as it turns out. To this day Mastrole remembers the sequence. First down, a short pass, incomplete. Second down, a scramble for six yards. Third down, another pass and a short gain. Fourth down was his first look to Christian, a slant that drew a pass interference and a first down.

Then came 1st and 10 from the Bears 33, with 1:34 on the clock. Shoop dialed up a deep pass. Mastrole dropped back to throw and the Rams brought pressure. He saw Christian streaking down the left side and saw the positioning of the safeties.

“I get my eyes down field, weave through some pressure, and I saw him and dropped the ball right on top of him,” Mastrole says. The play went for 52 yards and brought the Bears down to the 15. He spiked the ball on 1st and 10 to stop the clock, and then threw back-to-back incomplete passes to players not named Kenny Christian, bringing up 3rd and 10.

“Shoop calls a play-action pass,” Mastrole says. “I think Miller was laughing on the sideline, like, ‘Why would we go play-action?’ But I remember going play-action and throwing a back-shoulder high ball to Kenny, and him catching that for the touchdown. And it’s funny: I came back to the sideline and Mike Brown’s jumping on me. Urlacher’s smacking me — a lot of the vets, which was cool, because they don’t even acknowledge you during training camp. And the next thing you know guys are energized by you. Kreutz is giving you some love, things like that. They’re laughing about it. I just felt for a second like, ‘Man, maybe I’ve got a new notch on my belt.’”

The one guy Mastrole really wanted to celebrate with was Christian. They were thrilled, and Christian too felt the new vibe with his teammates. Because the Bears were playing the Rams, and because Kurt Warner’s career also included a stop with the Amsterdam Admirals, Mastrole was starting to hear Warner comparisons, while his teammates were treating him more like a league MVP than roster also-ran.

“Mike Brown would get on the bus and would walk by me like I didn’t even exist. And after that game, it’s amazing — the strength coach is in my corner talking to me,” he says. “People are saying hello in the hallway. You’re not a celebrity but you’re being recognized. You have a bit more credibility when you walk in the building.”

Ken Mastrole celebrates the Florida Firecats’ 39-26 win over the Peoria Pirates, giving the Firecats the 2004 AF2 championship. (Photo by Clint Krause for the News-Press in Fort Myers, Florida / via Newspapers.com)

“That’s my calling.”

A preseason win should not have mattered much to a team expected to compete for the Super Bowl, but it did. It mattered to Bears fans and it mattered to players. The Tribune reported that Kenny Christian was now “all but assured” a spot on the 53-man roster opening day, while Mastrole was now receiving “meaningful practice time.”

In the third preseason game, against the Jaguars, he and Burris swapped series starting in the third quarter. Neither one killed it. Mastrole went 2 of 4 for 19 yards. Burris went 2 of 6 for 16 yards and an interception that bounced off the hands of Christian.

Their battle was now considered a full blown quarterback controversy. Jauron told reporters that he wished the No. 3 battle would “become really clear.”

“They both do some good things, and they both do some things that make you want to pull your hair out,” Jauron said.

Mastrole, meanwhile, felt like he was winning over the locker room. Williams told reporters that Mastrole deserved another chance to prove himself. Mastrole even remembers Urlacher telling him something along the lines of, “I’m going to talk to Coach — I really think you need an opportunity to be here.”

“I was like, ‘Wow,’ because this is a guy I looked up to,” he says. “For him to talk to me and say those things, it was kind of cool.”

Leading up to the fourth preseason game, the city of Chicago was truly pumped about the third string quarterback race. Mastrole was getting noticed at the team hotel or out to dinner. Fans were approaching, saying “I’m pulling for you.”

“I’m humbled by that,” he says. “You appreciate the fact that the fans are so die hard that they notice that. So there was a lot riding on that last game. I really felt that if I outperformed him I would take his job.”

The Bears lost the final preseason game 24-22 to the Dolphins, with Mastrole and Burris taking the majority of the snaps. Mastrole went 4 of 8 for 40 yards with a successful two-point conversion. Burris went 3 of 8 for 27 yards and a sack. Kenny Christian led the Bears with four receptions, and his 38 yards trailed only Dez White, whose lone reception was an 80-yard touchdown on the team’s first play.

Final cuts were a few days later. Coaches told players to stay by their phones at their hotel. If they got a call, they would have to bring in their playbook. If they didn’t get a call, they likely made the team. On the day of cuts, Mastrole went out for a meal with safety Than Merrill. When he returned to his room the light on his phone was blinking.

“A lot of people were pulling for you,” a representative with the team told Mastrole. Jauron was very complimentary, as was general manager Jerry Angelo, in his own way.

“When we signed you, we thought we were just getting a bag of doorknobs,” Mastrole recalls Angelo telling him. “We really didn’t have any intentions but you played so well. We wish you the best.”

Christian ended up on the chopping block too, cut in favor of the speedy Jamin Elliott. The Two Kennys lost out in basically the same fashion: the Bears kept Burris and Elliott not necessarily because they outplayed Mastrole and Christian, but because they were more athletic and gave the team an element that they did not already have.

Both men clung to their NFL dreams. Christian came to bunk at Mastrole’s home in Florida so that they could continue working out together in case the phone rang. In the meantime they started a side-business detailing cars.

“It wasn’t like we had intentions of building an empire,” Mastrole says. “We were waiting for that next call.”

After the Bears cut them, Mastrole and Christian both worked out for the Dolphins in early October. Nothing came of that. Mastrole worked out for the Chargers, Jets and Vikings too. Nothing came of those either. In December, both Kennys went to the Arena league, Mastrole to the Chicago Rush, Christian to the Indiana Firebirds.

That month, in the final game of the season, the Bears finally played their third string quarterback. With Miller and Chandler hurt, Henry Burris got his first and only NFL start against the eventual Super Bowl-champion Buccaneers, famously losing 15-0.

Burris would go on, of course, to have one of the most celebrated CFL careers ever, but on this day he was just a struggling NFL quarterback, and when the team had seen enough of him, the final quarterback on the roster in 2002 was journeyman Cory Sauter, who the team had signed in November.

December also marked the only two games Jamin Elliott saw with the Bears. He had no passes thrown his way, and only played one more NFL game, for the Falcons in 2006.

Christian’s NFL dreams finally took flight in 2003, when he caught on with the Eagles. He did not enter any games and ended his career bouncing around the Arena league for a few years.

Mastrole did too, joining four teams between 2003 and 2004, most prominently with the Firecats. He went 7-4 as their starter in 2003 with 55 touchdowns and seven interceptions, and led them to the AF2 championship in 2004.

That led to one final NFL offer, from the Raiders. It also led to a coaching offer with the Firecats as offensive coordinator. He mulled them over and took the job that had a future.

“Tell them I’m not coming,” he told his agent to relay to the Raiders. “I’m done.”

Ken Mastrole at his Mastrole Quarterback Academy. (via Twitter)

Instead, he coached with the Firecats for three years, and then through his football connections ended up working with Manuel before the 2013 draft. That led to a full-time job and his own Mastrole Quarterback Academy where he prepares young quarterbacks for their professional careers.

“Maybe I couldn’t have been the best quarterback in the NFL, but humbly, I would put myself up against anyone out there to train an athlete the right way, to help them across the board,” he says. “I feel like that’s my calling. So it kind of worked out.”

Attempts to reach Christian for this story were unsuccessful. Mastrole hasn’t seen him in about a decade, but they recently reconnected on Facebook. And though he never actually played for the Bears, Mastrole has found that his time in Chicago never left him. Even in Florida, he still runs into Bears fans who are thrilled to meet him. For one thing, there is his quarterback coach in high school. He grew up a Bears fan and was ecstatic that Mastrole’s shot came in Chicago. He still gets fired up when he talks to Mastrole about it.

There are other fans too, ones Mastrole doesn’t know. They’ll see him around and thank him for his time as a Bear. They’ll tell him how well they remember 2002, about the Rams game and the passes to Kenny Christian. They’ll tell him how for one short month, he made the preseason matter.

Jack M Silverstein is WCG’s Bears historian, and author of “How The GOAT Was Built: 6 Life Lessons From the 1996 Chicago Bulls.” Say hey at @readjack.