When former Cal Poly linebacker Johnny Millard was released by the St. Louis Rams during the preseason late last month, the NFL rookie was at a crossroads.
“When that happens, you’ve got to look in the mirror and ask yourself, is this time for me to move on?” Millard said. “I have a good degree from Cal Poly, and I know I have other options.”
Yet everyone Millard sought out for advice — from Mustangs head coach Tim Walsh to Millard’s father, Keith, a former NFL star and coach — echoed the same sentiment: “Be patient. You showed you can play in this league.” So, Millard is sticking with football.
The former Cal Poly standout became one of the first players to sign on with the fledgling Fall Experimental Football League (FXFL), a first-year organization where each of its six franchises will play a six-game schedule this season.
Millard signed with the Brooklyn Bolts under head coach and former New York Jets offensive lineman John Bock and linebackers coach Marvin Jones, a former Jets star in his own right.
“He’s got such a football IQ. It’s off the chart,” Bock told CBS New York columnist Peter Schwartz about Millard this week. “To have Marvin Jones be able to teach him, I couldn’t find anybody better to go to Brooklyn with.”
And what sets this league apart from other football start-ups in recent memory is its aim. The FXFL’s main goal is to become a feeder system to the NFL, the equivalent of MLB’s Triple-A level.
“They’re not trying to get players to come here and be rich,” Millard said. “They’re not trying to compete with the NFL. They’re trying to assist with the NFL, get good players to keep playing and give them a chance.
“All these guys have been on an NFL roster or have had some NFL experience. They’re all trying to get back to the NFL. That’s going to be a really exciting atmosphere.”
Millard felt he excelled with the Rams. St. Louis, however, had injury concerns at other positions and entered the season with just five linebackers on the active roster.
In a 26-24 loss to the New Orleans Saints in the Aug. 8 preseason-opener, Millard had two tackles and an interception. In the third preseason game, a 33-14 win over the Cleveland Browns, he had a team-high four tackles.
Despite compliments from coaches, Millard was released the following day, one of many undrafted free agents back on the market.
“I felt even more hungry,” Millard said. “Man, I loved it. I had a great time, and I felt confident, and I don’t feel like it would be right if I stopped.”
Millard said within two days of being cut, he was contacted by FXFL commissioner Brian Woods.
Millard was given time to find another NFL team, but he remained unsigned when teams made their final cuts to trim rosters to 53 players. In addition to the active roster, NFL teams are also allowed to sign up to 10 players to the practice squad.
NFL practice squad players are allowed to practice with the team but are prohibited from playing on Sundays and can be signed by any other team in the league.
Unlike the practice squad, the expected benefit to playing in the FXFL is being able to develop during pro-level games.
“Our long-term goal is to establish a partnership with the NFL,” Woods told The Associated Press in June, “and we feel can do that on many platforms. It would give them a way to work with younger players that they don’t currently have. We can help them train prospective NFL officials — in the NBA, every referee entering the league (in recent years) comes from NBA Developmental League.
“We can be a testing ground for proposed rules, too.”