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Final cuts: Beware The Turk

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(This blog was posted on Aug. 31, 2012. It is being reprinted with permission of the author, which was easy to obtain. Teams must cut their rosters to 53 players by 6 p.m. Saturday.)

By Tim Graham

Through the morning fog, on a fire-breathing black steed rides an unflinching specter. His deadly blade is drawn and ready to sever poor souls in his path.

The Turk cometh.

"The name carries some connotations that sound more like somebody with a scimitar," former New England Patriots head coach Rod Rust once told me, "going around, cutting people's heads off."

The Turk is a haunting, mythical figure. He's a shapeshifter, taking on different identities in various regions -- but always the harbinger of doom.

"The Turk has been many people and a much-storied individual, that's for sure," added former New York Jets coach Al Groh. "He's somebody that you don't want to know."

And he probably has peach fuzz, runs a lot of office errands and bought his first legal beer a year or two ago.

The Turk is a menacing character in NFL lore. He's the one who approaches players at the team facility and says "Coach wants to see you. Bring your playbook." At that moment, the player knows he has been cut.

Essentially, as Rust analogized, a head has been lopped off.

In reality, The Turk usually is fresh out of college and trying to climb the NFL ladder. He's an intern, an entry-level coach or a scouting apprentice.

The Turk never has more power throughout the year than he does today. He's in his most fearsome glory for the NFL deadline to reduce rosters to 53 players arrives at 9 tonight.

"Eighty percent of the guys know, but it's never easy," said a one-time Turk, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the interview wasn't authorized by his team.

"It's a coldhearted business. It's a necessity in all sports."

GaileyThigpenThe Turk traditionally is an entry-level employee not only because it's a job nobody wants, but also because it lessens the chance for confrontation when the sickle swings.

"It's pretty impersonal," Rust said, "but the person's not at any emotional risk because he clearly is not the one who made the decision. There's a psychology there, obviously."

John Rauch Jr. was only 16 years old when his father anointed him The Turk for Oakland Raiders camp in 1966. Rauch Jr. carried out the duties for five years, including 1969 and 1970, when his dad was Buffalo Bills head coach.

"My father would give me the list of names the night before," Rauch Jr. said by phone from Maryland. "I would have to knock on the doors every morning and need a positive response from each room that they were awake so they wouldn't be late for meetings.

"When I did those rounds, I would inform those on the cut list that 'Coach wants to see you before the morning meeting, and bring your playbook.' "

Said the anonymous former Turk, whose experience was fairly recent:

"It sucks being the young guy. You get a lot of the crap work, especially with the younger players. You pick them up at the airport when they first get to town. You shuttle them everywhere. They depend on you. They vent to you. You develop relationships with them. You get closer to them than other people do."

Rauch Jr. had a similar experience. He often had to break the harsh news to players he had considered buddies.

Rauch Jr. was a ball boy at his father's camps. By the time Rauch Sr. took over the Bills and reported to Niagara University, Rauch Jr. was in college, of drinking age and owned a car.

Players would pile into the car and head to town. They would eat steamed clams and pound Genesee Cream Ales at a Lewiston tavern known as the Bucket of Blood.

Fitting for The Turk, no?

"Some of them I really liked and they had become friends of mine," said Rauch Jr., who played receiver at East Tennessee State. "Others, I didn't care for and it didn't bother me. There were some who were bad guys, and I relished telling them. But I hated telling the ones that I liked."

Rauch Jr. said he "got a charge" out of informing kicker Stefan Schroder, a 13th-round draft choice in 1970, to turn in his playbook.

"He was a real jerk," Rauch Jr. said. "He was a very cocky guy for being a kicker, and he didn't take it well at all. He threw a fit and cursed and told me to get out of his room. I just laughed at him and walked out."

The toughest cut for Rauch Jr. was star AFL receiver Lionel Taylor, the first to catch 100 passes in a season (and when there were 14 games). Taylor was trying to hang on with Oakland in 1967, but was in a battle with a young Fred Biletnikoff and Glenn Bass, who'd come to the Raiders along with quarterback Daryle Lamonica in a trade with the Bills.

"Biletnikoff was coming off a knee operation, Bass had broken his leg the year before, and Taylor was in his mid-30s at the time," Rauch Jr. said. "I was always a big fan of Taylor's, and when I had to tell him, I think that was the one that affected me the most. I always thought he was so great."

Rauch Jr. was on the other end years later. He was visited by The Turk when his tryout with the Chicago Winds of the World Football League fizzled. He opted for a career in the Navy and, at 61, works at Naval Air Systems Command in Patunxent River, Md.

The Turk who spoke anonymously for this story declined to share any specific stories for the record because he didn't want to reveal his identity.

But he did pull back the curtain on how The Turk operates -- and it's not nearly as heartless as the players dread.

"You're there to do a job, and they know that," the anonymous Turk said. "It's just those couple days before and those couple days after. You don't make eye contact. You walk with your head down. You're not as jovial. You know it's getting to be that time.

"Then on the day of the cutdowns, you get in there bright and early. The coach gives you the list of who to look for way before any of them come in. When they come in you start grabbing them, one by one. 'Hey, man. Sorry. Coach wants to see you and bring your playbook.' Then the air comes out of them."

The process of getting cut is more than getting a good-bye pep talk from the coach and turning in playbooks and iPads.

Players have to fill out human-resource forms, get an exit physical, turn in a forwarding address for their locker contents, documents or any pay checks that are due.

"That's the last thing they want to do, fill out all that paperwork after their dreams were just shattered," the unnamed Turk said. "Then the absolute worst part is driving them to the airport afterward. What do you say to them? His career just ended."

The anonymous Turk claimed the job is an art. The Turk can't be emotional, but must always be mindful of the player's circumstance.

So I asked the unidentified source to give his list of dos and don't of quality Turking.

What Good Turks Do

• Deliver the boilerplate coach-playbook-iPad line and nothing else: "Say the bare minimum because their whole world is about to be turned upside down."

• Work quickly: "Make it as painless and business-like as possible."

• Let the player dictate conversation: "Feel free to let them vent."

• Listen without speaking: "The more you talk, the more awkward it gets."

What Good Turks Don't Do

• Fail to collect the playbook: "Make sure. Sometimes the player's playbook is back in the hotel. You think 'OK, I'll get it.' Well, you've got to remember to go get it."

• Miss anybody: "Sometimes the guys come into the facility all at once and a couple guys can slip through the cracks."

• Joke around: "For obvious reasons."

• Agree or disagree with what the player says about his opportunity: "Don't speak for the team."

(Bills Photo: James P. McCoy/Buffalo News; Grim Reaper photo: Getty Images)

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About Press Coverage

Tim Graham

Tim Graham

Tim Graham returned to The Buffalo News in 2011 after covering the NFL for three years at ESPN and for one year at the Palm Beach Post. Before that, the Cleveland native spent seven seasons on the Buffalo Sabres beat for The News and was president of the Boxing Writers Association of America.

@ByTimGraham | tgraham@buffnews.com


Mark Gaughan

Mark Gaughan

Buffalo native Mark Gaughan started working at The News in 1980 and has been covering the Bills exclusively since 1992. He is a former president of the Pro Football Writers of America, and he is a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame selection committee.

@gggaughan | mgaughan@buffnews.com


Jay Skurski

Jay Skurski

Jay Skurski joined The News in January 2009. The Lewiston native attended St. Francis High School before graduating from the University of South Florida. He writes a weekly Fantasy column in addition to his beat writing duties.

@JaySkurski | jskurski@buffnews.com

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