One waited four seasons for his chance, while another tore up his knee when he got his.
One returned a blocked punt for a touchdown that keyed a victory, while another threw passes toward the end of a lopsided defeat.
Two others won Super Bowl rings.
The unifying thread for these six football players is membership in an exclusive group: They appeared in just one N.F.L. game. They are football versions of Archie “Moonlight” Graham, whose brief baseball career was celebrated in the movie “Field of Dreams.”
One N.F.L. game is one more than most of the population gets, a goal reached after years of dedication and sacrifice, and these players take great pride in the achievement. It is also a distinction that sometimes haunts them, hinting at potential unfulfilled and dreams unrealized because of injuries or circumstances that remain unexplained.
“Sometimes,” the former safety Tony Dye said, “I feel like I was never officially solidified as an N.F.L. player because I only played in one game.”
Dye retired suddenly, for health reasons, and the transition upended his life. He felt rudderless for about two months as he acclimated to the lack of structure. Alex Silvestro, a defensive end-turned-tight end who played for New England and Baltimore, could not watch the N.F.L. for about a year. Neither could Tommy Sims, who, after ripping up his knee in the Indianapolis Colts’ 1986 season opener and then struggling to come back, grappled with becoming a civilian.
“I had to divorce myself from it,” Sims said.
He eventually reunited with football, becoming a youth coach and then a successful agent. Now he instills in his clients the importance of preparing for a second career, something he wishes he had known upon retiring.
“There are very few Peyton Mannings, Eli Mannings, Adrian Petersons,” Sims said. “I can be real with the kids. I can say this is not a 20-year career.”
But engineering is, and that is what Mark Reed pursued after throwing 10 passes in a game for the Baltimore Colts in 1983. He completed his degree three years later and has been working for 3M ever since.
Some of his football memories have faded — he doesn’t recall when in the fourth quarter he entered, or his first play. But he is grateful to have had the opportunity.
“I wish I would have played more, but I feel pretty blessed that I made the rosters and was part of the team,” Reed said. “I’m lucky for that.”
Rams at Vikings, Dec. 31, 2006
Martin Nance’s primary objective was having a career in business, but he delayed this pursuit by several years because, coming out of Miami of Ohio, he felt he owed it to himself to see if he could play in the N.F.L.
Undrafted in 2006, Nance signed with the Buffalo Bills before latching on with the Minnesota Vikings, who kept him on their practice squad for much of the season. They elevated him in Week 16, then activated him for their Week 17 game at the Metrodome against Nance’s hometown team, the St. Louis Rams.
The morning of the game, the Minnesota offensive coordinator, Darrell Bevell, told Nance he would be starting. On his first catch, he fumbled and was grateful when a teammate recovered. With his parents, sisters and fiancée in the stands, Nance finished with four receptions for 33 yards. He wishes he had spent more time savoring the moment.
He went into the off-season with momentum, encouraged about his standing on the team, but he did not play again for the Vikings. They would bolster their receiving corps through free agency and the draft — players the front office was more invested in — and kept Nance on the practice squad. That, in a way, introduced him to business — the business of the N.F.L.
Landing in Pittsburgh, where his college teammate Ben Roethlisberger pushed for his signing, Nance spent all of the 2008 season expecting a call-up from the practice squad that never came. It almost came in the biggest game of all.
On Feb. 1, 2009, the morning of Super Bowl XLIII, Nance woke up in Tampa, Fla., expecting to play that night for the Steelers against the Arizona Cardinals. For two weeks coaches had told Nance to be ready in case Hines Ward was not healthy enough, and he had been practicing with the first-team offense. But when Nance arrived at Raymond James Stadium, his locker blared his status: no equipment. He watched from the sideline.
The Steelers won, and Nance, when he wears his Super Bowl ring, does so with pleasure. He regards it as a representation of all he experienced and accomplished in a career he considered a short stopover in his quest for professional fulfillment.
Pittsburgh cut him before the 2009 season, and he knew it was time to retire when, with relatively good health, he had more enthusiasm about entering the business world than he did for finding a new team. Within a few weeks of being cut, he was taking the entrance exam for graduate business school.
He attended the University of Michigan, where on-campus recruiting helped him snag an internship in Chicago with Gatorade, which turned into a full-time job in marketing. Nance, 34, lives in Evanston, Ill., with his wife and two daughters.
“I don’t walk around and wonder if I had a career in football; my body reminds me,” he said. “I know there are guys who are in more difficult situations than me, but I still consider myself strong and capable. I consider that a blessing.”
Bills at Patriots, Jan. 1, 2012
Brandon Coutu was born in Georgia, grew up in Georgia and starred as a kicker at the University of Georgia. While playing for the Seattle Seahawks, he earned his real estate license in Georgia.
But not long after retiring in 2012 with one N.F.L. appearance on his résumé, his career curtailed by two hip surgeries and a busted hamstring, he moved to Dallas, where his wife is from.
“I played sports my entire life, and after they were taken away with an injury, I didn’t want to talk sports anymore,” Coutu said. “Part of me liked the aspect of going somewhere where I could start fresh and was just another guy trying to start at the bottom and make their way.”
That is what Coutu, 33, who recently joined the commercial real estate firm JJL as a senior vice president, has done. Starting out, he did not earn a salary. He cold-called companies, trying to earn their business. The challenge appealed to him, as did the competitiveness of the field.
It soon became a worthy replacement for his previous occupation, which he rarely talks about anymore.
“I was a pretty good kicker in college and I competed with the best of the best and I know how good I was,” Coutu said. “I don’t even think about my N.F.L. career because if I could have been healthy, I would have had one.”
The Seahawks drafted Coutu in the seventh round in 2008 and then made the atypical decision to keep two kickers — Olindo Mare was the other — on their roster all season. Coutu was inactive for every game, including Seattle’s Week 17 matchup at Arizona, when he was in Vail, Colo., he said, undergoing hip surgery.
The following training camp, Coutu struggled with kickoffs, and the Seahawks released him. It would be another two years — after another hip surgery, and despite workouts for multiple teams — before he resurfaced on an N.F.L. roster. He spent three weeks with Seattle in the summer of 2011 and less than a week on Jacksonville’s practice squad until, a few days before Christmas, the Buffalo Bills called.
They signed him to kick in their season finale at New England, a 49-21 loss. Coutu said he had an “unbelievable” warm-up but missed his only field-goal attempt, a 45-yarder just before halftime that sailed wide left. He did not recall how many extra points he kicked (three), or how many times he kicked off (four). Until he was reminded, Coutu did not remember that the last time he kicked was for Omaha of the United Football League, in 2012.
Coutu said he thought the hip surgeries compromised his mechanics, precipitating the ruptured hamstring he sustained with Jacksonville a few months before that aborted comeback in the U.F.L. He has coped by embracing the next phase of his life, one he did not think would come so soon.
“You can sulk, but it is what it is,” Coutu said. “I gave it everything I had.”
Bills at Colts, Oct. 16, 1983
Mark Reed has switched offices several times across more than three decades at 3M, but a few keepsakes have braved every move. One hangs from his wall: the team photograph of the 1983 Baltimore Colts.
Reed is sitting in the front row.
On Oct. 16 of that season, his third in the N.F.L., Reed replaced Mike Pagel at quarterback in the fourth quarter of a 30-7 home loss to Buffalo. He completed 6 of 10 passes for 34 yards and had an interception, a bad throw that even now he wants back.
“I probably shouldn’t have been so excited because the team got beat up pretty good that day,” Reed said. “But me personally getting in the game, I had a lot of adrenaline. I remember that.”
The other mementos from the N.F.L. that Reed holds dear are lessons he has applied to his engineering career. An eighth-round pick of the Giants in 1981 — he remains the only player drafted out of Division II Moorhead State in Minnesota — Reed benefited from a staff loaded with coaching talent: Bill Parcells, Bill Belichick, Romeo Crennel, Ernie Adams.
The Giants’ coach, Ray Perkins, told Reed and the other quarterbacks that the difference between winning and losing in the N.F.L. was infinitesimal. Because of that, Perkins said, they needed to pay attention to details and be prepared to take advantage of their opportunities.
For Reed, one such opportunity came in 1984, shortly after the Oakland Invaders of the United States Football League cut him. By then married with two children, Reed resolved to pursue work in a field that did not mandate he try out every summer.
Spurning interest from the Canadian Football League, he returned to school, at North Dakota State, and spent the next year and a half completing his engineering degree.
“Everything that I learned from the N.F.L. as far as hard work and intensity, I basically took that to the classroom,” Reed said. “I was just bearing down.”
He was hired by 3M soon after graduation, and after 32 years with the company, Reed, now 58 and living in Eagan, Minn., is responsible for five manufacturing plants in the United States. People always seem surprised, he said, to discover that he played in the N.F.L. He tells them that he was a 60 percent career passer.
Colts at Patriots, Sept. 7, 1986
Tommy Sims made the Indianapolis Colts’ roster in 1986 as a rookie seventh-round pick. He started at strong safety in the season opener at New England, registered four first-half tackles and on the punt team experienced the misery of trying to block the future Hall of Famer Andre Tippett, who knocked the breath out of his lungs.
In the third quarter, sprinting toward the sideline on a toss sweep by running back Craig James, Sims was preparing to tackle him when his right leg planted in the artificial turf at Sullivan Stadium and got stuck. He had torn the anterior cruciate ligament in his knee.
Sims’s family decided not to travel from South Georgia to attend his debut. They were waiting for the following week, when the Colts played at Miami.
The ensuing surgery was one of four Sims would need on his knee. He regained stability but not agility, or sufficient lateral movement. He struggled to cut. He remained with Indianapolis for another season, then tried out for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
“I didn’t want to be a camp body,” Sims said. “I didn’t want to be one of those guys who couldn’t see the forest for the trees.”
Depression set in. All his friends were playing, but he wasn’t. Living in Chattanooga, Tenn., Sims refused to watch games on television until hearing how the Hall of Fame running back Walter Payton, after time to reflect, let go of his anger about not scoring a touchdown in Super Bowl XX.
“Because I didn’t play for 10 years, because of the injury, I’ve met so many great people who’ve asked me about that,” Sims said. “It motivated me to be a mentor to some kids and tell them my story. You can put everything into it and you can end up with nothing.”
As an agent — first at A3, now for Vayner Sports — Sims draws on these experiences with clients every day. He can relate to frustrated players because he tore up his knee long before advances in medical technology made returns from A.C.L. injuries commonplace. He can discuss the difficulties in adapting to life after the N.F.L. because he struggled at it, then found his calling.
“It’s a great head start in life, a dream come true, but most of us are going to play only two or three years,” Sims, 53, said. “You’ve got to come back and get a real job, as we say.”
So he asks players what they would be doing if not for football. However they respond, he advises them to use their celebrity to build relationships now that will help them later. He encourages them to attend seminars and boot camps put on by the league’s players association, and visit high schools and clinics if they want to coach.
These players, Sims said, are more well-informed than those of his generation about post-career options and the link between football and chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or C.T.E., a degenerative brain disease associated with repeated hits to the head. The severity of C.T.E., studies have shown, is exacerbated by the length of a player’s career. Considering Sims’s career was so short, did he feel fortunate not to have played longer?
“I would take that risk all over again,” he said.
His lone regret is not that he played only one game — “In the early years it was hard, but I’m past it now,” he said — but that the Washington Redskins, after calling to say they were considering drafting him, did not. They went on to win two Super Bowls.
Instead, he went to Indianapolis, where he forged friendships that have lasted three decades. Sims said: “Billy Brooks and Nesby Glasgow, they always told me, ‘You could have really helped us. You could have really helped us.’”
Browns at Bengals, Nov. 17, 2013
Tony Dye’s ankles ache all the time. His knees are destroyed, he said, and his back hurts so much that he has to roll out of bed onto his stomach. He retired from the N.F.L. at age 24.
“If I would have played six or seven years,” Dye said, “is it really worth losing 15 on the back end?”
This is a rhetorical question, but it merits an answer. Like many others with brief careers, Dye, a safety, feels he could have played longer — deserved to play longer — had a few things turned out differently.
He never learned why, despite starring on special teams for Cincinnati and scoring a touchdown in his only game, he did not play again.
That’s a thing that should have turned out differently, he said.
His health is another. Dye visited the Giants before the 2014 season, but their doctors discovered a heart condition and wouldn’t sign off on signing him. The next day, after Dye had returned home to California, the Raiders called and asked him to fly up to Oakland. They even booked a flight for him, he said.
“I was thinking long term; I want to hold my kids one day,” Dye said. “I decided that was enough. I didn’t get on the plane.”
Speaking over the phone from Los Angeles, where he is working to complete his degree in history from U.C.L.A., Dye, 27, sounds comfortable with his decision to stop playing. But the immediate aftermath troubled him.
The transition from current to former N.F.L. player bedeviled Dye. It was the first time he could remember not being part of — or training to be part of — a team, and for two months he flailed without a routine.
“I had no idea who to reach out to, what the next step was,” Dye said. “You’ve never worked in your life because football, football, football, and you have all these intangibles like teamwork and leadership, but I can’t get a job at Chipotle.”
Wobbling, he found purpose during an errand. When he picked up his younger brother Troy at football practice at Norco High School in Norco, Calif., the coach asked if Dye would help out.
“I don’t know what I would have done if I hadn’t fallen into that job,” said Dye, who served as the team’s defensive coordinator. “When you’re playing, you think you’re going to play forever. No, you’re not. But that’s not your mind-set because you can’t survive if you think you’re not going to play forever.”
Growing up, Dye never thought he would play football, let alone make it to the N.F.L. Hockey was his sport. But once he declined to play at a Minnesota prep school, he quit, he said, because it was too expensive to continue. Choosing football, he earned a scholarship to U.C.L.A., where one tackle at practice in 2011 altered the trajectory of his career and life.
Dye went on to play three games, but the tackle fractured his neck, causing him to miss most of his senior season. He had been told he would be a second-day draft choice, a status that comes with relative job security. Instead he went undrafted in 2012.
He joined the Bengals but missed the season with an ankle injury, and then spent most of the 2013 season on their practice squad. His position coach, Adam Zimmer, told him he would be active for their Week 11 game against the Cleveland Browns.
Before the game, Zimmer reminded Dye that he supported his promotion: “Please go out there and do something.”
From scouting Cleveland, the Bengals believed they would block a punt. Because his job was to line up outside and prevent the gunner from disrupting the return, Dye thought he would not be involved in the recovery, if they indeed blocked the punt.
Late in the second quarter, his teammate Jayson DiManche whipped through the line and deflected a punt, sending the ball bouncing across the field — toward Dye. And as he dropped the ball once, twice, then a third time, he wondered why he was still wearing old gloves with slick fingertips. The ball squirted around for a few seconds before Dye snagged it and ran 24 yards into the end zone.
“I started to pick it up and I’m like, ‘Wow, this is happening,’” he said. “Everything was so quiet. Like, I’m sure the crowd was cheering. There were no Browns players in the area, my teammates are grabbing my shoulders and I’m just running. Even when I hit the end zone, I didn’t hear the crowd or anything. I just turned around and saw the ref’s hands go up. I guess I just scored a touchdown.”
That score stretched Cincinnati’s lead to 21-13, and the Bengals won, 41-20. Dye lived in an apartment near Paul Brown Stadium. Every time he left, fans would mob him for photos and autographs.
The adoration was unfamiliar but nice. It did not last long. When the Bengals returned from their bye two weeks later in San Diego, where many of his family members had gathered, Dye was inactive. His moment had passed.
After the season, he signed with Oakland, where he lasted four months. Then came the decisive setback — the failed physical with the Giants.
“Every once in a while, it pops in my head,” Dye said. “I probably could have gotten more out of my career, but quality of life, would I have been happy doing that? Would it have been worth it to say I started an entire season? I played plenty of football in my life.”
Dolphins at Patriots, Dec. 24, 2011
Alex Silvestro works at a bank now, and sometimes clients and customers, sizing up his 6-foot-3, 260-pound frame, will wonder aloud whether he played football.
“If they ask about it, I’ll eventually tell them,” Silvestro, 29, said. “I’ll tell them that I played for the Ravens and the Patriots.”
That is the woefully abridged version of Silvestro’s career, which across two full N.F.L. seasons enabled encounters with the legendary Belichick, who demanded that every player know one another’s name, and the convicted murderer Aaron Hernandez, who would lift weights early in the morning so no one knew how hard he worked. It featured a position change, to tight end from defensive end, and resulted in two Super Bowls, including a championship, though he missed the ensuing victory parade because of traffic.
As far as the other Super Bowl, in the 2011 season, for which he dressed but never played, Silvestro is perhaps best known for his role in a development that unfolded less than 24 hours before kickoff.
In a move perceived as coldhearted from the outside but as standard operating procedure from those within the sport, the Patriots released receiver Tiquan Underwood. Replacing him on the active roster was Silvestro, Underwood’s former teammate at Rutgers.
Silvestro was so excited about his promotion from the practice squad that he never considered the corresponding move. Belichick informed him two days before the game, and Silvestro said he was warned that he wouldn’t dress if the move leaked to the news media. He told his father, but no one else.
The next day, at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis, the Patriots took a team photo with 54 players, Silvestro said, instead of the permissible 53. The players knew then that Silvestro was in, but not at whose cost. Silvestro remembered talking with a teammate at the bottom of the roster who started cursing and panicking, thinking he would get cut.
Silvestro went to bed that night thinking about playing in the Super Bowl. He went to bed the next night, after enduring a 21-17 loss to the Giants and reluctantly attending the team’s consolation party, thinking about not playing in the Super Bowl.
Despite being active, Silvestro came close to entering only once, when Rob Ninkovich missed a play. Silvestro, Ninkovich’s backup, grabbed his helmet, but when New England switched the defensive front, he was told not to rotate in.
“What if they put me in? What could I have done? I’ve always thought like that,” he said. “Maybe we could have won. Maybe I could done something to help.”
A few hours before New England hosted the Kansas City Chiefs to begin this year’s N.F.L. season, Silvestro, a native of Gibbstown, N.J., was sitting toward the back of a restaurant in nearby Clarksboro, decked in Rutgers workout shorts and a T-shirt.
He said he still followed the Patriots, appreciating their forthrightness at every stage of his career: signing him during the lockout in 2011 as an undrafted rookie, explaining their reasoning for personnel moves, and elevating him for his only N.F.L. appearance, against Miami in Week 16 in 2011.
In a 27-24 home victory, he recorded two tackles and nearly sacked quarterback Matt Moore. After that series, Silvestro’s position coach, Pepper Johnson, praised his pressure but told him to calm down and finish. He played 11 snaps, and more than anything was happy to have played in a real game for the first time since Rutgers’s victory in the Pinstripe Bowl a year earlier.
That off-season, though, with the Patriots looking to bolster their stable of tight ends, Silvestro switched positions. The transition was challenging — blocking, in particular — but he enjoyed it, and when the Patriots released him midway through the 2012 season, Baltimore signed him to its practice squad with New England’s endorsement.
There he stayed through the playoffs and through the Super Bowl against the San Francisco 49ers in New Orleans, which the Ravens won, 34-31. This time, Silvestro stayed at the victory celebration until he was kicked out, at 4:30 a.m.
But more than four years later, what irks Silvestro is the feeling that Baltimore never gave him a fair chance during the 2013 preseason. He played just 13 snaps, three on special teams, and after getting cut, he garnered interest from only one team, the Montreal Alouettes of the Canadian Football League.
So he went back home, where he became a licensed banker, and he now works at a Citizens Bank in Concordville, Pa. He helps people invest their money in conservative annuities and mutual funds.
He can also assist with setting up debit cards, checking accounts and safe deposit boxes, which is where he keeps a particularly valuable piece of jewelry: his one Super Bowl ring.