— These are always the best stories because you never know where they're coming from or who they will be, only that they are a constant from year to year, decade to decade.
NFL training camp surprises dazzle. They capture minds, making it easier for all to dream.
From Vince Papale to Andre Waters to Michael Lewis to Quintin Mikell to Evan Mathis to Damion Square, they're undrafted free agents who play with an edge and veteran journeymen who see everything fall into place like no sane person would have predicted.
This year's players who appear on their way to be added to that list of Philadelphia Eagles are defensive lineman Brandon Bair and linebacker Travis Long.
After Thursday night's 31-21 preseason victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers, both seem well on their way to full-time employment after entering as long shots at best, afterthoughts in reality.
Bair will turn 30 in November. He's made two other pro rosters but has yet to appear in a regular-season game.
Sure, it helps that coach Chip Kelly and defensive line coach Jerry Azzinaro know him from his days at the University of Oregon — Bair is one of nine former Oregon players on the Eagles' training camp roster — but everything he's achieved this summer is based on previous struggles mostly outside of Kelly's watch.
Bair, at 6-6, 290, can and has lined up at all three positions along the line in the Eagles' 3-4. He understands and executes two-gap responsibilities as well as anyone and always shows up on or around the ball or the quarterback.
Against the Steelers, he led the team with two batted passes. The week before, against the New England Patriots, his three solo tackles were a team high.
"I feel he's competing really well," Kelly said. "He's done a really good job in all three games he's played. We got a tipped pass in there on an early third down. I think he's doing a good job and he's right in the mix."
Bair is a late bloomer by choice as well as circumstance. Before enrolling at Oregon, he left his Idaho home for a two-year Mormon mission in Jacksonville, Fla. Then at Oregon, he moved from tight end to defensive end.
When he left Oregon in 2011, he made the Kansas City Chiefs as an undrafted free agent, but wound up on the Oakland Raiders' practice squad a year later and the Eagles' practice squad last season.
"It's a system that I excelled in in college," Bair said. "I knew what Coach Azz required of me there, and so I'm able to come back here and able to just slip in to exactly what I know he needs to be done and try to get stronger and do what's asked of me."
Bair hasn't made the team yet, but he seems like more of a solid pick every day.
Similar versatility has boosted Long's NFL chances, after a ruptured ACL at the end of his senior season at Washington State seemed to crush them.
Long wasn't yet physically sound enough to perform at the NFL Combine or his school's pro day later that winter. Instead, he rehabbed, waited and wondered, his name not being called in the draft and his phone number not being dialed the day after, like so many others who slip through.
Not until after the Eagles started training camp did they give him a call. He was good enough to land on the practice squad only season.
Kelly after Thursday's game indicated he's seriously considering moving Long up in class.
"That's part of the deal is when you get to those final numbers and you kind of crunch them and the ability to play inside, the ability to play outside," Kelly said. "It adds value to it. We've seen Travis make a lot of really good strides in terms of his progression here. Now what else can he do?
"There is still a big question on how many are you keeping. Last year we played with five inside and three outside [linebackers], you know, and does that number flip? I don't know. We haven't finalized anything. But when you have some position and versatility, it allows you to do that. So … that is the great thing about preseason games. You can get them out there on the field because it really counts. It's not like practice where you can say `Let's run that play again.' It really counts. But we've been pleased with Travis."
Long has proved to be adept at not only playing inside but also applying pressure from a three-point stance when the team switches to a four-man front to rush the passer.
As Kelly has hinted more than once, the final decisions will be affected by how many at each position the staff feels it can afford to keep, which will be based on injuries, shortages at other spots and special teams.
Too many variables are in play to call Bair or Long a lock. But by now it would be a huge upset if at least one doesn't stick when the final cuts are made on August 30.
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