Colts offensive guard Ryan Lilja is entering his third year in the NFL. But as he watches undrafted free agents reporting to the Colts rookie camp, he can’t help but think back on the rollercoaster ride that began in Kansas City.
Back in 2004, Lilja was an undrafted free agent with the Chiefs, which was a near-perfect situation for the Kansas State player who was born in Lake Quivira, Kansas. And he got off to a good start, showing both good technique and focus.
“I thought I had a good preseason with the Chiefs,” Lilja recently told ColtPower. “I was released with the final cuts and had already signed my practice squad papers, but they told me there was a chance I was going to get picked up on the waiver wire. And sure enough, it happened.”
Lilja was stunned to learn he was heading to Indianapolis because the Colts hadn’t shown a bit of interest in him during his collegiate career or leading up to the NFL Draft. But based on his strong preseason, the Colts and a few other teams put in waiver claims on him.
The next thing he knew, he was packing his bags. And suddenly, he wasn’t in Kansas anymore. Adjusting to his new surroundings and his new team wasn’t the least bit easy.
“You go through training camp with one group of guys, a coaching staff and a particular offense, and suddenly you’ve got to change it up,” he said. “It was definitely tough. I had just learned the Chiefs’ offense, and then coming into Indianapolis I got thrown into the fire there pretty quick.”
Was he ever. Veteran Rick DeMulling went down with an injury before Week 11. And suddenly the undrafted rookie who had to learn a new offense in September was being inserted into the lineup as a starter against the Chicago Bears.
“I was pretty nervous,” Lilja recalled. “I got into the playbook and was spending time after practice with some of our veterans, like Jeff Saturday, watching film. Obviously I also spent a lot of time with Howard (Mudd) and Pete (Metzelaars).
“I wanted to have total confidence heading into the game and I didn’t want our offense to miss a beat. Luckily, we played well, put up good numbers, no sacks, and we beat them by a pretty big margin. So it felt good.”
Ater the game, the rookie who left Kansas in hopes of finding his niche in the NFL, was shown by his coach and his teammates that he had not only arrived, but he belonged. Lilja was presented with a game ball for his efforts that day.
“From the road that I had traveled, being from Kansas City and undrafted, starting one year at K-State, being able to start a game against a good defense at Chicago, and then putting up good numbers and winning handily felt great. And then to have the honor of getting the game ball afterwards was unbelievable. I didn’t see it coming.
“I was definitely on cloud nine. My mom was there, my girlfriend was there. I’ll never forget that day.”
Since then, Lilja has been a mainstay on the Colts’ offensive line, a living example of what hard work and perseverance can translate into for an undrafted free agent.
Eighteen new undrafted free agents begin their rookie minicamp today filled with the hope that they can prove that they belong in the NFL by the time training camp ends this summer. And maybe, just maybe, even get a chance to be a starter during their first season.
For their inspiration, they need not look any further than the Colt who wears jersey number 65.
ColtPower Insiders can listen to Ryan as he compares learning the Kansas City offense to the Indianapolis offense. And he also shares his thoughts on being on the line while Peyton Manning goes through all those audibles every Sunday. Just click the link below to listen in!
Listen to Audio