In his first attempt to make an NFL team, Jeremy Unertl didn't have to go far.
Signing a free agent contract to participate in the Packers' April mini-camp in 2002, Unertl (pronounced YOU-ner-tle) needed only to drive northeast about 200 miles from the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse to Green Bay.
This time around Unertl finds himself on the verge of a much longer journey as one of seven players on the Packers' expanded offseason roster to be allocated for play in NFL Europe.
"Even before last year I kind of knew this would probably be the route I'd have to go," said Unertl, who was a standout safety and punt returner for the Division III Eagles as a collegian. "Most guys from small schools have to go to NFL Europe to show themselves and get some experience.
"When you come from a smaller conference, a smaller division, you have to prove your ability to play the game. And no matter how hard you try, there's no way to simulate real football in practice. There's no substitute. You just have to play."
After two mini-camp stints with the Packers last spring, Unertl was without a team until the Baltimore Ravens signed him in August of 2002.
With only a month of training camp remaining, Unertl struggled to catch up.
"All the other rookies had basically been there for four months," he said. "In mini-camp they kind of walk you through the playbook slowly, but late in training camp everyone else knows it and they're like, 'Hey, tough, you learn it.'
"That's a pretty hard road to follow, and instead of playing the game you're running around trying not to screw up."
When the Ravens downsized their roster for the regular season, Unertl was among the cuts, having had only three weeks to try and prove himself.
He spent the 2002 regular season on the outside looking in, but feels his experience of a year ago has him better prepared going into 2003.
"As a rookie, you never really know what to expect," Unertl said. "I had a pretty good idea about the NFL coming out of college, but to come back this year better knowing how things work, I'm a lot more optimistic."
Unertl doesn't have to look back too far to see the positive effects of the NFL's developmental league on a small-college player.
Former Packers wide receiver and UW-La Crosse graduate Bill Schroeder played with the Rhein Fire in what was then called the World League and went from practice squad player in 1996 to punt returner in 1997, before blossoming as a receiver.
As a defensive player and a punt returner, Unertl's ability to make plays at game-speed will weigh heavily in the Packers' evaluation.
"We know what he can do in practice and we know what he did in college, but we want to be able to see what he can do against a different level of competition," Packers director of player personnel Reggie McKenzie said.
Unertl, too, is curious to see how he adapts. Not only to the play on the field, but also to the lifestyle abroad.
It might be February 4 before he's assigned to a team, but having never been to Europe, his host town is the least of Unertl's concerns.
"It's definitely going to be an adjustment," said Unertl, who was born in Hartford, Wis.
"I come from a small town, small everything. A lot of people don't understand how isolated you are. Going to other places and seeing other things, it opens your eyes to a whole other world and helps you mature as a person."
Of course there's nothing like coming home.
And when the NFLE season ends in June, Unertl said he will cherish his second trip to Green Bay even more than the first.
"Ultimately, I'd love to play anywhere in the NFL, but being in Baltimore really opened my eyes to how special the Packers are," Unertl said. "Baltimore isn't a bad place at all, but they certainly didn't have 4,000 people out watching practice.
"The Packers are everything in Wisconsin. It's a special team."