Skip to main content

Swain, Dietrich-Smith Conquer Tough Road


There's no such thing as an easy road to the NFL, but it is a lot tougher for some guys than for others.

Receiver Brett Swain and offensive lineman Evan Dietrich-Smith are two players who definitely took a difficult path to the Green Bay Packers' 53-man roster for 2009. But they got here, and that's all that matters for now.

Swain was a seventh-round draft choice in 2008 out of San Diego State who didn't make the roster as a rookie. He was signed to the practice squad, though, and he spent all of last season there, toiling in obscurity, which is hard to avoid in the auxiliary locker room adjacent to the main one, where most practice-squad players reside.

But rather than wallowing in his isolation, Swain just kept working. Working on his route-running and other receiving fundamentals. Working on special teams. Working on re-shaping his body, to add some size and muscle to his 6-foot frame. Even working on playing some cornerback on the scout team, duty that suddenly paid dividends last Thursday in the preseason finale in Tennessee, when injuries depleted the Packers at defensive back and Swain played the last 1½ quarters on the other side of the ball.

Come last Saturday, when the final roster cuts were being made, Swain knew it was close between him and fourth-year pro Ruvell Martin for the fifth receiver spot. He was hoping the Packers would keep six receivers, so both could make the team, but he didn't know, having made only three receptions in the preseason.

Then at around 1:30 p.m., 3½ hours before the cutdown deadline, Swain got the news he had made the team from the unlikeliest of sources. Martin, who had just been released, called him.

"He said he wanted to give me an early congratulations," Swain said. "That's how good of a man Ruvell Martin is. It touched my heart, and that's one thing I'll learn from him and that he's taught me since I've been here, is just to be a good person and have good character, and it leads to great things. That really touched my heart a little bit, and I love Ruvell for that."

General Manager Ted Thompson and Head Coach Mike McCarthy both have commented in the last two days that releasing Martin, a reserve receiver for the Packers and notable community figure the last three seasons, was the hardest decision of the entire weekend. McCarthy called it the kind of decision that "tears you up."

"I told Ruvell that if we were to have a billboard and wanted to put a picture of someone that exemplifies a Green Bay Packer, we would put his picture up," McCarthy said, a point reinforced by Martin's gracious phone call to Swain.

But it was Swain's abilities on various special-teams units and his undeniable progress in the past year that gave him the nod, and now he's simply focused on not letting the coaches, or himself, down.

Monday was Swain's first day in the main locker room and on the practice field as a member of the 53-man roster, an accomplishment in itself but one that only makes him hungrier for more.

"Last year I sat right there on the edge (of the auxiliary locker room) and was kind of looking in here all year," Swain said. "You want to be in here mingling with everybody, and once you're finally here, now you just want to be on the field with them. The extra hard work comes into play again, just like it did on practice squad, and now you have to work to get on the field."

Another player who earned his newer, larger locker is Dietrich-Smith, the only non-drafted rookie to land a roster spot this year. Other non-drafted rookies to make the team out of training camp in the McCarthy era include defensive linemen Jason Hunter (2006) and Daniel Muir (2007), and running back Kregg Lumpkin (2008).

As it was for Swain, Saturday was a nerve-racking day for Dietrich-Smith, and it didn't help that his friends kept calling him to find out any news. Generally speaking, if a player doesn't get a phone call from the front office on cutdown day, it means he's made the team, so hearing the phone prompts an immediate visceral reaction.

"Every time the phone buzzed, my heart just kind of dropped, ... here we go," said Dietrich-Smith, who had already bid farewell to his training-camp roommate, nose tackle Dean Muhtadi, as well as other rookies like him staying at a local hotel. "I kept telling my friends, 'You can't be calling me right now. Don't talk to me for a little bit. Just leave me alone.'"

As the 5 p.m. deadline neared, Dietrich-Smith didn't know whether the trade of fellow offensive lineman Tony Moll to the Ravens was good or bad news for him. It turned out Dietrich-Smith had made the team, a monumental leap from just four months ago when he wasn't selected in the draft and was pondering a free-agent contract from the Packers as well as what his agent felt were potential free-agent offers from the Jets and Giants.

"After draft day, to get picked up as a free agent, I was happy enough with that," Dietrich-Smith said. "I felt like all I needed was an opportunity, and to come to where I am now, I just tell myself, hard work always pays off. That's just what you have to do, go out every day and work hard."

Dietrich-Smith did that, first by shifting back to the interior of the offensive line and playing center and both guard spots after playing his final two collegiate seasons at Idaho State at left tackle. Then he continued to refine one trait he takes particular pride in as a 6-2, 305-pounder - his nimble footwork.

Playing any of the three interior line spots, Dietrich-Smith showed the Packers' coaching staff the athletic feet he developed as a prep basketball standout at Salinas (Calif.) High School, where a former NBA assistant for the Utah Jazz coached him on his low-post moves.

{sportsad300}He says those skills have given him a comfort level at every stage of his football career, as well as at any of the five positions along the offensive line, all of which he played at some point in college. Because of that, he felt that even as a rookie from a smaller college program he wasn't a "deer in the headlights" in his first pro preseason games this summer.

"You just get out there and hit people," he said. "You just go out there and play the game like you've been playing it your whole life."

He felt his best preseason performance was the final one, last Thursday in Tennessee, when the starters exited after one series and he got to play all but the first three offensive snaps. He said the extra playing time allowed him to get a feel for the game and adjust to how his opponents were playing him.

That presumably showed up on the film, and Dietrich-Smith's versatility certainly helped his cause as well.

The next step? Like Swain, Dietrich-Smith knows there's a difference between making the team and making it as a pro. After a long road, they've finally chalked off the former, and now it's on to the latter.

"Just improving, the little things you can fix to always get better," Dietrich-Smith said. "There's no set level of greatness. You can always keep expanding, and that's what I look forward to, is getting better and keep working at what I have to do."

This article has been reproduced in a new format and may be missing content or contain faulty links. Please use the Contact Us link in our site footer to report an issue.

Related Content