Most of the time, men who play in the National Football League were big-time college players and were on the radar of pro scouts.
It is exceedingly rare for a player to go undrafted and achieve any time of success in the NFL or any other major pro sports league.
Wayne Chrebet was the exception. He made his way into the league by taking a shot in the dark, and it turned into a very productive career that lasted about a decade.
He is living proof that underdogs can and do succeed wildly in life.
Wayne John Chrebet Jr. was born on Aug. 14, 1973 in Garfield, N.J., a suburban town located just minutes west of New York City. His father, Wayne Sr., was a loan officer for a mortgage company, while his mother Paulette stayed at home to raise him and his sister Jen.
Young Wayne was very energetic. He earned the nickname “Mush” because he spoke fast and in a somewhat muffled manner.
He loved to scurry around and find ways to entertain himself, and sometimes it did not end well. One day, he was running around the house chasing the family cat when he fell face-first onto a coffee table, resulting in 22 stitches on his chin and a long-lasting scar.
In his early years, Chrebet loved playing football, basketball and baseball. His mother would not let him play any organized football though, even in an era where more parents were OK with their kids getting tackled and hit on the gridiron, but Chrebet still wanted to give it a try.
Early in his time at Garfield High School, he went up to Huff Kotwica, who coached the football team, and tried to convince him to let him onto the team. In his sophomore season, Chrebet succeeded, and he would end up playing as a defensive back.
At first, football wasn’t his strongest sport. He was undersized (he would grow to be only 5-foot-10 and about 190 pounds), and he didn’t quite have the best physique for being a difference-maker on the gridiron.
At the time, he was the centerpiece of Garfield High’s basketball team, where he played the shooting guard position.
But Chrebet had an amazing desire to be the best he could be at football. He obsessively watched game film in order to improve, and he would even meet up with coach Kotwica at his house the morning after a game.
As Chrebet grew into his frame, Kotwica switched him to the wide receiver position. But he wasn’t impressive enough to garner any interest from any schools in terms of athletics.
Walking Into Opportunity
Chrebet attended Hofstra University on Long Island, allowing him to remain in the New York metropolitan area for college. He was a walk-on during his freshman year for the Flying Dutchman football program, but he quickly became a standout on the field.
The vast majority of star college athletes were big stars at their high school in their hometown and made their way to their college program by means of an athletic scholarship.
But not Chrebet. He had to have his parents pay for his tuition.
He made up for what he lacked in terms of physical gifts and prior reputation with his work ethic, and it would take him very far.
There is an old saying that hard work beats talent when talent doesn’t work hard, and Chrebet would become living proof of it.
He lettered in football as soon as his freshman year, and he would in fact letter during all four of his seasons at Hofstra, while becoming quite a star.
By his senior season, he was dominating. He put up over 1,000 receiving yards that year, becoming the first receiver in school history to do so, while also scoring 16 touchdowns, earning him the team’s most valuable player award.
In one game against Delaware, he set another school record with 245 yards, while tying the legendary Jerry Rice’s NCAA Division I-AA record with five touchdowns.
But just like in high school, not a whole lot of people who mattered took notice, and Chrebet would still have an uphill battle towards accomplishing his ultimate dream.
An Unexpected Star On Broadway
In general, there was no real interest in Chrebet heading into the 1995 NFL Draft. According to him, he worked out with the New Orleans Saints and Cincinnati Bengals, but he was not invited to the NFL combine in advance of the draft.
When the draft rolled around, Chrebet watched it from a local bar with his parents. He was hoping against hope that some team would choose him, but he wasn’t expecting it to happen.
Every single team passed on him – in each of the seven rounds of the draft.
The pickings were slim. He had an offer to try out for the Baltimore Stallions of the Canadian Football League (CFL), but it didn’t work out for him.
Luckily, the New York Jets of the NFL used Hofstra University as a training facility, and Chrebet eventually secured an opportunity to try out for them as a walk-on, just as he did in high school and college.
At first, things went poorly. He walked from his dorm to the practice, which was being held on campus, only to be stopped by a security guard, who thought he was there to try to get some autographs from some players.
Chrebet tried to convince him he was there to try out for the team, but the guard didn’t believe him, presumably because he lacked a football physique and therefore looked like a “normal” man.
Luckily, he ended up getting into the facility, as a team official let the guard know that Chrebet was indeed supposed to be there. Somehow, he survived the final cut and made the final 53-player roster, but he was dead-last on the team’s depth chart.
Chrebet had already achieved the unthinkable – a walk-on at every level becoming an official member of an NFL team, in his home area to boot.
But once a player has made it to the pro level, the battle begins anew as he now must prove he is a valuable part of the team and not simply a wallflower who hands out Gatorade while being a glorified cheerleader on the sideline.
In the mid-1990s, the Jets were mired in mediocrity. They had made the playoffs only once in the past nine seasons, and they had one of the league’s weakest offenses.
The team’s starting quarterback, Boomer Esiason, who had once been named league MVP while leading the Bengals to Super Bowl XXIII, was now 34 and no longer one of the best signal-callers around.
With very little talent around him, Chrebet would be called upon, almost by default, to try to lift New York into respectability.
He quickly proved he was up to the task. Although the team overall was terrible, Chrebet was a revelation, and new head coach Rich Kotite took a liking to him, especially since the wideout had a knack for absorbing contact while holding onto the ball after a catch.
In Week 14 against the St. Louis Rams, he tallied 98 yards, and on one play, he managed to evade several tackles while taking the ball towards the goal line.
Chrebet ended the season leading the Jets with 726 receiving yards while scoring four touchdowns, and Esiason was gaining a good deal of trust in him.
The next year, Chrebet boosted his numbers to 909 yards on 84 receptions. His best effort of the season came in Week 7 against the Jacksonville Jaguars, who would go on to appear in the AFC Championship Game, when he had 162 yards and a touchdown while catching 12-of-15 passes thrown his way.
That day, he also converted five times on third down. He was starting to become something of a security blanket when the Jets needed a crucial reception, especially on third downs.
By 1997, things were on the upswing for the Jets. Kotite was replaced by Bill Parcells, who had coached the New York Giants to two world championships years ago and, like Chrebet, was a native of Bergen County, N.J.
The team was also helped by the emergence of another young wideout named Keyshawn Johnson, who was almost the polar opposite of Chrebet when it came to his personality and life journey.
New York also had a new QB in Neil O’Donnell, who had taken the Pittsburgh Steelers to the Super Bowl a couple of years prior.
By now, Chrebet had been relegated to mostly a second-string wideout. He started just one of 16 games in ’97, and his numbers dipped a bit to 799 receiving yards and three touchdowns.
After winning a total of just four games in the previous two seasons, the Jets went 9-7 in ’97, just narrowly missing the playoffs.
Finally, things would come together for New York in 1998. Pro Bowl running back Curtis Martin joined the squad as a free agent, further taking pressure off Chrebet, while veteran Vinny Testaverde replaced O’Donnell under center.
Testaverde had a great year, and Chrebet benefitted, registering 1,083 yards and eight touchdowns while returning to the starting lineup. He would surpass the 100-yard mark in five contests that season.
All of a sudden, the beleaguered Jets were top five in both points scored and allowed, and they finished 12-4, winning their division for the first time since 1969.
After a relatively easy win in the divisional round over Jacksonville, the Jets headed to the AFC Championship Game to play the defending Super Bowl champion Denver Broncos.
After an ugly start, the Jets finally scratched with the help of Chrebet, who made a 20-yard reception to set up a field goal that gave New York a 3-0 lead at halftime.
But after Martin scored a touchdown early in the third quarter, the roof caved in on the Jets. Although Chrebet had 121 yards on the day, the Broncos were simply too good, as they scored 23 unanswered points to win the game and head towards their second straight world title.
The 1999 campaign was a rough one for New York, as Testaverde tore his Achilles tendon in Week 1. The team, in general, was hit by the injury bug, including Chrebet, who missed five games with a broken foot.
As a result, the Jets fell to 8-8 and missed the playoffs.
Parcells resigned as head coach and was replaced by Al Groh for the 2000 season. After Johnson threatened to hold out because he wanted a new contract, he was traded, putting more pressure on the modest shoulders of Chrebet.
He responded with 69 catches for 937 yards and eight touchdowns, as well as some memorable moments.
In Week 4, the Jets would visit the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Johnson’s new team. Under head coach Tony Dungy, the Bucs were building a winning program, and behind stars such as Warren Sapp, John Lynch and Derrick Brooks, they had one of the NFL’s most feared defenses.
The Jets were 3-0 at the time, and the media was hyping the matchup between Johnson and his former team. When asked to compare himself to Chrebet, Johnson, who was known for modesty as much as Tampa is known for snowy winters, dissed his former teammate by saying it was like “comparing a flashlight to a star.”
Although Chrebet didn’t have one of his greatest games, he caught the game-winning touchdown pass with 52 seconds left in the fourth quarter as New York won 21-17.
— Danny Bags (@DannyBagsZ) May 2, 2020
Johnson, meanwhile, caught just 1-of-5 passes for one paltry yard. Looks like he had the “flashlight to a star’ analogy backward.
Just three weeks later, the Jets hosted the 5-1 Miami Dolphins on Monday Night Football with first place in the AFC East at stake. Trailing 30-7 at the start of the fourth quarter, the Jets looked grounded.
But they put forth a Tour de force performance, scoring four touchdowns in the fourth period, including one by Chrebet to tie the game with 3:55 left, to force overtime, where the Jets prevailed to improve to 6-1 on the season. Chrebet finished the contest with a total of 104 yards and two touchdowns.
— New York Jets (@nyjets) March 31, 2020
— New York Jets (@nyjets) March 31, 2020
Many consider it the greatest game in the history of Monday Night Football.
The Jets lost altitude from there, winning only three of their remaining nine games. With a 9-7 record, they fell just short of claiming a wild card spot in the playoffs.
Herm Edwards took over as head coach in 2001, and the Jets returned to the playoffs with a 10-6 record, aided by Chrebet’s 56 catches and 750 yards.
He continued to come through in the clutch, recording 83 yards on five receptions in Week 17 against the Oakland Raiders to help New York to a 24-22 win, which clinched it its spot in the postseason.
There, it would face the Raiders again in the divisional round. Chrebet did his part with 52 yards and two touchdowns, but the Jets’ defense faltered, leading to a 38-24 loss.
The 2002 season saw Chad Pennington succeed an aging Testaverde at QB after the team got off to a 1-3 start. From there, the Jets took off, winning eight of their 12 games with Pennington under center.
Chrebet helped out with 691 yards and a career-high nine touchdowns on the season to help New York finish first in its division with a 9-7 record.
The Jets blanked the Indianapolis Colts in the wild card round, but they were no match for the eventual conference champion Raiders, who blew them out in the divisional round, 30-10. Chrebet played poorly in that contest with just one reception for seven yards.
Still, by now he was wildly popular among Jets fans not just in the tri-state area, but across the land. He had earned nicknames such as “The Green Lantern” and “Mr. Third Down” because of his uncanny ability to make plays at opportune times and to put himself in the middle of the action and shoulder the pressure for his mates.
A measure of Chrebet’s popularity came in the hit 2003 movie “Elf” starring Will Ferrell, in which one of the members of Ferrell’s supporting cast is seen wearing Chrebet’s No. 80 jersey.
The 2003 campaign was a brutal one for the Jets, as injuries struck the team hard, in particular Chrebet. He hurt his back in Week 6 against the Buffalo Bills and missed New York’s next game, and in Week 9 versus the New York Giants he suffered a concussion that resulted in post-concussion syndrome that ended his season.
New York missed the playoffs that season, but it was back on the mend in ’04. Chrebet was now mostly a backup, as coach Edwards elected to rely more on Santana Moss and Justin McCareins, both of whom were younger than the 31-year-old Chrebet.
Perhaps a major factor why was that he continued to deal with the effects of post-concussion syndrome. For a brief time the previous winter, he was thinking of retiring, but with the blessing of his wife Amy, Chrebet decided to continue playing.
It’s a good thing he did, as he managed to have what may have been his best game as a pro in Week 5. Facing the Bills, he caught all eight passes thrown his way by Pennington and finished with 90 yards to help the Jets to a 16-14 win.
In Week 17, Chrebet suffered what was termed a mild concussion and had to leave the contest. He did not play in the postseason, as the Jets scored an inspiring win over the San Diego Chargers in the wild card round before falling to Pittsburgh in the divisional round.
After again pulling up the rear in the early weeks of the 2005 season, Chrebet sustained a serious concussion in Week 9 against the Chargers. He managed to make a catch on the play for a third-down conversion, but he left the game and was subsequently placed on the injured list.
Chrebet later said that all he saw was “white” right after the hit that caused the concussion. He needed help getting undressed and showered in the locker room afterward.
Doctors said that if he continued to play football, he would be risking brain damage. With that, he decided to retire the following June.
“I think the decision (to retire) was kind of made for me,” Chrebet said at a news conference. “When I finally came out of the last concussion and saw my wife smiling, I realized that she knew something I didn’t … I just kind of had to accept it. I don’t know if I’ll ever truly accept it.”
By his own admission, Chrebet’s first months away from the game were difficult, and it wasn’t just because he missed the sport.
“I was nothing,” he said. “I was just a shell, aimless, I had no nothing. I was miserable. It’s a combination of retiring and not being ready for it, the depression from retiring, depression from concussions. Self-pity. At some point, you look at yourself in the mirror — you got to man up.”
According to Chrebet, on some days he couldn’t even get out of bed.
For years afterward, he would continue to occasionally suffer some residual effects of the concussions he sustained during his playing career, as he would get headaches and have mild episodes of forgetfulness or lack of concentration.
When the conversion around head injuries in the NFL dramatically shifted in the 2010s amidst new evidence of their extent, Chrebet didn’t seem to express any regret for his leave-it-all-on-the-field playing style. He still adopted the attitude that if he suffered any damage, it came with the territory and it was all worth it in the end.
“When you sign up, you expose yourself to these things,” he said. “I knew the risks. I loved the contact. I miss that. But I had some high I got over getting a big hit or making a hit if I got somebody or they got me more. Would I play any other way than what I’m saying? No. It’s not in my DNA. It’s not how I wanted to be.”
Unlike some ex-athletes, Chrebet managed to find a new passion in life and parlay it into a robust second career.
A few years after walking away from the NFL, he met a man named Ed Moldaver, who worked for Morgan Stanley, the behemoth Manhattan investment bank, while playing poker at a New Jersey country club.
Moldaver became a mentor to Chrebet, and it led to the former wideout becoming a financial advisor for Morgan Stanley in 2009. Three years later, he moved on to Barclays Capital and became an Assistant Vice President at its Park Avenue office.
By 2017, he was involved with $1.5 billion of assets in his capacity with Barclays. Many of his clients happen to be fellow pro athletes.
Going back to his playing days, Chrebet has also been involved in horse racing as a racehorse owner. He also helped run two restaurants on Long Island near Hofstra University, his old college.
Over the years, he had done a lot to help those who are disadvantaged or less fortunate. He has been heavily involved with The Colleen Giblin Foundation, which helps develop new treatments and cures for neurological illnesses that affect children.
In 2018, Chrebet, along with several other NFL players, bagged groceries at ShopRite, a large supermarket chain in the New York-New Jersey area, to create awareness for food insecurity and raise funds for local food banks.
Away from the limelight, he is living a happy and fulfilling family life. He and his wife Amy have three boys, two of which are in their late teens.
Even if everyone cannot agree that Chrebet is Hall of Fame material, he is still widely beloved by jets fans. Team owner Woody Johnson is fond of inviting him to home games at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, and he often will appear at community and charity events as an ambassador for the only pro team he ever played for.
In 2014, the Jets inducted him into their Ring of Honor, and as one would expect, it was a highly emotional occasion for the Jersey native.
"All I wanted to do was wear Jet green. Thank you all you fans. You don't know how much this means to me."
— SNY (@SNYtv) December 1, 2020
“To see all the No. 80 jerseys,” a choked-up Chrebet said, “I can’t tell you what it means to me.”
Every kid or adult who is lacking in talent or resources can look at Chrebet’s journey and draw inspiration and hope from it. If he was able to make it, so can others.