NEW YORK (AP) — James Dearth waited patiently at home for a call that never came.
Unemployed and unwanted after nine seasons with the New York Jets, the free agent long snapper recently put his house in New Jersey up for sale and his playing career on hold.
"You have thoughts go through your mind that maybe this is it, maybe I'm done," Dearth told The Associated Press. "You just have to look reality in the face. If I am done, I can't keep pursuing a dream that's not there anymore."
With no offers from any other teams, Dearth is packing up and heading home to Houston, along with his wife, Laurie, and their three children. While New York prepares for what it hopes is a Super Bowl run, Dearth is suddenly an ex-Jet.
"It is a tough thought to deal with, especially when you feel like you're healthy and you can still play," the 34-year-old Dearth said. "It's tough to walk away, but I've got three kids and a wife who are looking to me, so I've got to find some work."
Dearth co-owns an Athletic Republic franchise in the Houston area with friend and former NFL running back Derrick Blaylock, who played for the Jets from 2005-06. The 13,000-foot training facility opened last December, and helps young athletes prepare for professional careers.
Dearth plans to make use of his own facility because he's not ready to call it a career. If he can't find a job in the NFL, Dearth would consider playing in the United Football League.
"I still love the game, and this past year was the healthiest I've been," he said. "I'd hate to walk away from the game. If there's a UFL team that would have me, I've thought about doing that for a little while."
The fact that it has come to this is a bit surprising. While coaches came and went, along with dozens of players, Dearth was a constant for the Jets. Signed as a free agent in 2001 after two years in Cleveland, he became the second-longest tenured member of the team behind defensive end Shaun Ellis.
After a run to the AFC championship game last season, New York decided to go younger at several positions, including Dearth's. Despite Dearth still being regarded as one of the league's most consistent long snappers, the Jets signed unproven Tanner Purdum in February.
"Yeah, it does hurt, actually, because that's all I've known for the past nine years," he said. "I don't know if it closes the book because there's always that possibility of getting that call. It just means I can't sit around and wait on the NFL or the Jets or any other team to call me. Life don't stop."
In fact, offers might come after minicamp as NFL teams reassess each position. Even the Jets haven't ruled out a return, with coach Rex Ryan recently saying, "James Dearth, we know where James is at."
"I obviously have a lot of respect for James because I had him all those years," special teams coordinator Mike Westhoff said. "James is so strong, but I understand the realms of the business, going younger."
Dearth has never been well-known to fans, simply because of the position he plays. Most times, you hear about the long snapper only when something goes wrong in a game. But Dearth, a devout Christian, was a popular presence in the Jets' locker room — a low-key and cordial guy who tried to keep his off-field struggles last season from affecting him.
His grandfather died before the season, and he learned his father, James Sr., was given a year or two to live because of kidney cancer. Then, his mother, Jan, suddenly passed away in November.
"That wasn't easy," Dearth said. "I mean, I was a Momma's boy growing up, so that was pretty tough and I still have a hard time. Some days, I just miss her."
Meanwhile, Dearth tried to stay focused as the Jets went on a playoff run and got within a win of the Super Bowl.
"Dealing with both, you're excited about the playoffs and there's pressure, but your heart and your mind tell you to grieve a little bit," he said. "I just kept telling myself I can't and that was a tough emotional game for me. So, it was a tough year."Dearth believes he performed pretty well considering the circumstances, but thinks he's still improving. That gives him hope that there are still some snaps left to launch in the NFL.
"The second I stop getting better, the second I can't block somebody, that'll be the day I retire because I wouldn't want to play this game and not be able to do something," he said. "You've just got to keep pressing on and keep moving. That's the only way you get through life."