When you have a dream, you don't let it go. No matter how long it takes to realize it, you hold on to it. There are times when it's tough, when you think it's over, but something inside you makes you hold on a little bit longer.
L.J. Fort knows exactly what that is like. Coming out of Northern Iowa in 2012 the linebacker dreamt of playing in the NFL. He dreamt of being selected in the NFL Draft. But when that didn't happen, of course he wondered what would be. Soon thereafter, though, he was signed as an undrafted rookie free agent by the Cleveland Browns.
Since then it's been a rocky road for Fort. He spent his first season with the Browns, but was released prior to the 2013 season, spending the year out of football. The Denver Broncos signed him after the 2013 season, but he was released during training camp, before the 2014 season kicked in. He was added, and not long after released from the Seattle Seahawks practice squad that season, and then signed to the Cincinnati Bengals practice squad a few weeks later. He was released by the Bengals during the 2015 offseason, signed by the New England Patriots during training camp, and then released again.
"I felt like I was not going anywhere, just running in place," said Fort. "I felt like I needed to move on with my life because I felt like I was being used as a camp body the three years after Cleveland, just bouncing around here and there. I would be with a team and they would cut me, go to another for a few weeks. It was kind of nerve-wracking not knowing where you're going to be the next week. It just got old after two or three years.
"It's a cool experience because you're still in the NFL, and you're still playing football for a living, but at the same time you aren't meeting your goals and the objectives you set out for yourself. That's the frustrating part. My dream job wasn't as fulfilling as it was when I was dreaming of being in the NFL, so I was going to move on and try to pursue other things."
Once he was released by the Patriots, though, his fortune changed. Fort was claimed off of waivers by the Steelers, and immediately felt energized.
"At the beginning of the year I thought I was done with football," said Fort. "I left the Bengals and I actually got a job. Then I got three phone calls in one day, so I took it as a sign that I should be playing football still. When Pittsburgh picked me up you're not really optimistic going to a team that is already two-three weeks into camp.
"I got there and the first day I had a ton of reps which was really exciting because it was the most reps I had since I was with the Browns. I was just grateful for that opportunity and that's really all you can ask for, practice reps to prove yourself."
Fort said inside linebacker coach Jerry Olsavsky immediately went to work with him, something he never experienced before with a coach and more importantly, something that helped him grow tremendously.
"The first week I got here I learned how important hand placement is," said Fort. "Jerry was watching film on me and he said that's what I needed to work on. I started doing that and getting off blocks became much easier. It made me a lot better player, being able to use my speed as an advantage. They are not real big on having huge linebackers here so that made me feel more comfortable. I don't have to try to keep weight on I can play at my normal weight and be able to run fast.
"From the second I got here, Jerry brought me into his office and it was one-on-one. We were watching film of previous games and he said we'll work on this and that. Other teams, I've never gotten that one-on-one coaching and it was a crazy experience. I got that much better over the course of the week just from meeting with him and watching film. That's awesome that a team would invest in a player that got here two weeks into camp."
While Fort didn't make the 53-man roster to start the season, spending the majority of the year on the practice squad, he didn't just sit idle. He learned and grew the entire time.
"Everybody's goal in the NFL is to be playing, but at the same time you've got to be grateful for what you have and be optimistic for the future," said Fort.
Fort was activated late in the year and getting that opportunity meant the world to him.
"It was incredible," said Fort. "I finally had a chance to prove myself. I had been working all year and finally getting back onto a football field and doing what I love and putting on that uniform for a regular season game was an incredible feeling.
"My favorite thing about Pittsburgh is they pick from the guys they're using and training there on the practice squad when they have a need. They don't go out and find other people. I love that about the team. You know you're working to get on that 53-man roster. You're not just working to hope for next year.
"Pittsburgh kind of reignited that old passion I had when I first came out of college and wanted to play in the NFL. You get that whole sense of worth, like you could do this."