This isn't the first time Kory Sheets has been in Raiders training camp in Napa. That introduction happened six years ago. He was an undrafted rookie with the 49ers who came up to Napa to have joint practices with the Raiders. Since that time, his career has taken him to many different places, but the one thing that has eluded him is a spot on an NFL roster.
In that training camp and preseason, he made a positive impression with the 49ers. That was also back when the cross-bay rivals played against each other each preseason. In that game, he had 12 carries for 51 yards and a touchdown. The following week, in the ever important third preseason game, he had 11 carries for 42 yards and 2 touchdowns.
But despite being second on the team in rushing in that preseason behind only Glen Coffee, he found himself on the final cut list.
"After the third preseason game, I was a little surprised that I didn't make the team," said Sheets. "Just because of the numbers that I put up. . . I was a little surprised and everybody else was a little surprised too."
It was especially surprising considering aside from Frank Gore and Glen Coffee, the 49ers had basically no one at running back. Sheets thought that third guy would be him and rightfully so.
Sheets would then go through the waiver system and was re-signed to their practice squad. That didn't last long because come October the Dolphins scooped him up and signed him to their active roster. That's where he had his only NFL carry. It went for five yards.
After that season, he came into Dolphins camp ready to prove he deserved more than his one carry, but that all ended when he went out with a torn Achilles tendon and was lost for the season. He would be back in Dolphins camp the following season but was once again cut at the end of camp. That was the last chance he had to make an NFL roster out of camp.
Sheets looks back on those opportunities now and sees where things went wrong for him.
"I think I was more immature," he said. "Like most rookies are and most first and second year guys are. I was an immature player. I wanted to score on every play instead of playing the situation and I think that kind of got the best of me sometimes."
What he needed was a chance to develop and a real opportunity to prove he belonged. That chance came from the CFL's Saskatchewan Roughriders.
"I think it was just finally somebody gave me a chance to actually carry the ball and it not just be a one and done type of thing. When I got up there, it was basically up for grabs. It really was up for grabs. You come to places and it's like it's a competition but it doesn't really be a competition. When I went up there, it really was a competition and they let everybody get equal amount of reps, there was no favorites, nobody was etched in. The first game came and I was the number two guy and I (had) started at number four. . . after a couple plays, when I made a couple plays and the other guy fumbled twice, I knew I was going to be the starting guy. Basically when they realized I was going to be the man and they found some faith in me, basically I was able to play without having to worry about being cut."
He took that opportunity and became a star for the Roughriders, going on to lead them to a Grey Cup championship where he was named MVP. When a player accomplishes that, it tends to catch the attention of the NFL.
The Raiders came calling and according to Sheets, they said all the right things to convince him that Oakland was not like his other NFL stops where he was not given a real shot at earning a spot on the roster.
"[It] came down to where would my best opportunity . . . they told me everything that I wanted to hear or needed to hear in order to make the best decision to come back to the NFL."
"One thing they said to me was ‘if you come in here and play the way that you're capable of, you'll definitely play. We're not bringing guys in here just to stand around and be bodies. We want people to come in here and make an impact, make a difference' and that was everything I wanted to hear."
The Raiders are in a place right now where few spots are safe. There is good competition at running back but there is definitely room for Sheets to earn one of those spots. All Sheets need do is look at what happened with the quarterback position for the Raiders last season to know that when Dennis Allen says there is a competition at a position, he means it.
Now it's on Kory Sheets. A challenge he says he is far more mentally prepared for now than he was early in his professional football career.
"When I went up north to Canada, I was able to mature and understand if it's meant to be, it's gonna be. So, just go out there and play ball and let everything else fall into place. . . mentally I'm in a lot better place. I'm not really worried about being cut. If it's gonna happen it's gonna happen, you can't really control that. All you can control is you carrying the ball, you making sure that you know when to block and when you do carry the ball, making sure that you don't fumble it."
Playing in the CFL may not have been what he envisioned while he was setting school records at Purdue and when he was fighting for a roster spot in NFL training camps, but it may have been the best route he could have taken.
Americans who watch the NFL each season tend to scoff at the CFL but the crowds fans in Canada are just as crazy for their teams as we are here. And their Grey Cup Championship is just as coveted as our Super Bowl. They find NFL head coaches up there like former Raiders offensive coordinator and current Chicago Bears head coach, Marc Trestman. And players such as Dolphins defensive end Cameron Wake who dominated in the CFL and then did just the same in the NFL.
The fans are just as crazy too. For Sheets' part, it was the Roughriders fans, or as they call them "Rider Nation". An homage to the Raider Nation and a fanbase with a devotion to their main attraction which Sheets describes as a cross between the loyal support of the Green Bay Packers and rabid attitude of Raiders fans.
The fans up there love Sheets for what he brought to their team. In my experience they are torn. Part wishes the best for him and part hopes he doesn't get scooped up by the NFL so he can come back. For Sheets' part, it's the best of both worlds.
"Yeah, that's crossed my mind but I wanna be in the NFL. I feel like my talent is the NFL caliber and I feel like I can have an impact on this team and have an impact on this team this year. . . I've never really made a team and I'm hoping that this will be the first team that I make."
For Sheets, making his first NFL roster as a Raider seems downright serendipitous. The completion of a six-year journey from California to Florida to Canada and back to where it all began, with a franchise whose championship history was written by misfits, on a team in the early stages of a rebuild filled with hungry players looking to prove their doubters wrong.
In a month's time, he could see one journey end and another begin.