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Former Wyoming players hope to parlay brief XFL stints into NFL opportunities
UW FOOTBALL

Former Wyoming players hope to parlay brief XFL stints into NFL opportunities

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LARAMIE — Marqueston Huff is still holding out hope that he’ll don an NFL uniform again.

A handful of times earlier this year, Huff, who played his college ball at Wyoming, wore an XFL uniform for the Houston Roughnecks. Former Cowboys Lucas Wacha and Robert Priester did the same in Tampa, Florida, for the Tampa Bay Vipers.

In all, four former UW players were associated with the return of the XFL, the professional football league created by wrestling executive Vince McMahon that infamously bottomed out following its debut season in 2001. But Huff, Wacha and Priester were the only ones that actually played this season.

Tanner Gentry, an all-Mountain West receiver during his time at Wyoming and the older brother of current UW receiver Gunner Gentry, was on injured reserve for the first month of the season, remained inactive and didn’t suit up for any of the New York Guardians’ first five games. The coronavirus outbreak kept everyone else from suiting up at that point.

Like all sports, the XFL’s 10-week regular season was canceled at the midway point in response to the pandemic, which, as of Saturday, has resulted in nearly 1.7 million confirmed cases and more than 96,000 deaths in America, according to the latest data from Johns Hopkins University. The financial impact of the nationwide shutdown may have also dealt a fatal blow to the XFL’s desire for staying power as the league laid off most of its employees and eventually filed for bankruptcy.

Though the experience was shorter than he expected, Huff said he’s still hopeful his brief stint in the XFL will get him back to where he once was.

“I would love to play in the NFL again,” Huff said. “The NFL is a great opportunity. It’s the best of the best. In the NFL, you’re not going to find any football players anywhere that are better than those guys that are out there. It was an honor being on that field, and I would love to be out there.”

Whether it’s trying to get there or attempting to get back there again, each former UW player who got the XFL experience is hoping it serves as a springboard to the sport’s highest level.

Different experience

Huff is the only former Cowboy who played in the XFL this season that’s also taken a snap in an NFL game.

After tallying six interceptions during his college career and finishing ninth nationally in tackles as a senior (10.6 per game), the former UW safety was taken by the Tennessee Titans in the fourth round of the 2014 draft. He bounced around the NFL, playing for the Titans and the Baltimore Ravens from 2014-16 and having cups of coffee with the Jacksonville Jaguars, Kansas City Chiefs and Tampa Bay Buccaneers after that.

The Dallas Cowboys signed Huff in 2018, but he spent that season on injured reserve. After being released by the Cowboys the following spring, Huff said he was back home in his native Texas working out and waiting for his next opportunity in pro football when he got a text from his agent.

“He said, ‘They’re going to make this XFL league and I think it would be good for you,’” Huff recalled. “I was like, ‘I just want to play the game of football.’”

Huff worked out for the Roughnecks last summer and was eventually drafted by the hometown team in October. Rotating with Cody Brown at free safety, Huff finished the abbreviated season with 20 tackles for the league’s last undefeated team. At 5-0, Houston had the inside track on the No. 1 playoff seed with a three-game lead on everyone else in the West Division standings before the season was canceled.

“I felt like it would be a step up from college football and maybe just a tad bit lower than the NFL, and it kind of played out to be what I imagined it would be,” Huff said. “But for me overall, just the experience, the exposure and just to play the game of football is really amazing.”

Huff said the primary difference in the NFL and XFL experiences is the paychecks, which are far less lucrative in the XFL than the six- and seven-figure salaries often earned in the NFL. There was also a much different media experience in the XFL, which gave viewers a unique broadcast experience during its national telecasts. Coaches and referees were often mic’d up, and it was the norm for sideline reporters to chase down players immediately after impactful plays for in-game interviews.

“In the NFL, they’re not going to be all in your face like that,” Huff said. “In the XFL, there’s a possibility that the camera will be right in your huddle. You can turn around, make a pass breakup and the camera is right beside you. It’s a different experience.”

Wacha said he was interviewed a couple of times in between series, adding it would always depend on the situation as to whether he was OK with it.

“If it’s for messing up, then no. I’d rather not get interviewed right after the play,” Wacha said. “But it’s for making a play, then yeah. It’s all right. It really depends on what’s happening.”

Huff and Priester said they were never approached for an interview during a game, but neither of them would’ve had a problem with it.

“I wouldn’t like it for, say, high school or college games, but I feel like pros are pros,” Huff said. “I feel like they can control the situation and be able to still focus on the game of football. I feel like sometimes if it’s a real heat of the moment in the game and you know you made a bad play or made a mistake, I believe the reporter should give you time to gather yourself and then speak to them. But I really don’t have any problems with it.”

Said Priester, “It’s exposure that the XFL is doing a good job of. They wanted to get this league up and going, and I’m supportive of it every step of the way. So I don’t mind. It’s something I wasn’t used to, but it’s something that’s easy to adapt to.”

Teammates again

Wacha and Priester ended up with the Tampa Bay Vipers after stints in the Canadian Football League.

This time a year ago, Priester was on the Edmonton Eskimos’ practice squad when one of the team’s former assistants, Williams Fields, who had recently joined the Vipers’ coaching staff, called him to gauge his interest in playing in the XFL. Not only would the opportunity give Priester the chance to play pro football in America, but he’d also be returning to his hometown of Tampa.

“It was just something that felt like home,” Priester said. “It was just natural, so it was something I couldn’t turn down. It was an opportunity to showcase my talent at a high level of football.”

Wacha’s path to Tampa was a little more unconventional. The younger brother of New York Mets pitcher Michael Wacha, Lucas went through an NFL training camp with the Dallas Cowboys in 2017 as an undrafted free agent before being signed to the Hamilton Tiger-Cats’ practice roster later that year. He spent the 2018 season with the team.

But Wacha sustained a quad injury last spring and was released, putting him out of football. He got a workout with the Vipers last summer through a connection with Vipers defensive coordinator and former NFL coach Jerry Glanville, who served as the Tiger-Cats’ defensive coordinator in 2018.

While waiting to see if that opportunity panned out, Wacha was hired as a middle school teacher and an assistant football coach at his alma mater, Pleasant Grove High School, in Texarkana, Texas. During one of Pleasant Grove’s practices in October, Wacha’s phone rang. It was the Vipers, who informed him they were drafting the 6-foot-1, 225-pound linebacker.

“I didn’t have much battery left on my phone,” Wacha recalled. “I was kind of like, ‘I hope they draft me pretty quick or it could get kind of weird if my phone is off.’ They ended up taking me while I was out at practice coaching. It was awesome.”

Wacha coached Pleasant Grove through the third week of the Texas high school playoffs before reporting to Tampa on Dec. 3. Priester was also drafted by the Vipers, reuniting the two again.

Wacha and Priester were teammates at UW from 2014-16. A four-year starter at linebacker, Wacha finished his college career with 344 tackles. The 5-9, 180-pound Priester was with the Cowboys through the 2017 season and had 139 tackles and one interception as a cornerback.

The Vipers wanted Priester to play safety, a position he said he’d never repped at in a game. But Priester was willing to play whatever position would get him on the field the quickest for his new team, which finished the season 1-4 following a 41-34 loss to the Los Angeles Wildcats on March 8.

Priester ended the season atop Tampa Bay’s depth chart at free safety, finishing with nine tackles, three passes defended and one interception. Wacha started all five games at middle linebacker and had 14 tackles and one tackle for loss.

“I was willing to change my position, so I started off at strong safety, went to corner and then started back at strong safety,” Priester said. “Just started mastering my craft by doing all the things my coach is telling me to do to the best of my ability, and it was starting to work out.”

Making a comeback?

Many took the XFL’s decision to suspend operations and file for bankruptcy to mean the league would once again disappear, but that may not be a foregone conclusion.

According to a report from The Athletic, McMahon could be positioning himself to buy the very league he founded out of bankruptcy while Jeffrey Pollack, the league’s president, has contacted venues in St. Louis and Seattle about reinstating the XFL’s leases there. Should the XFL return in 2021, it’s unclear whether teams would bring back the same coaches and players, all of whom were on one-year contracts.

It leaves Huff, Wacha and Priester with futures to ponder. Wacha said Pleasant Glove allowed him to take a leave of absence and held his job while he was going through the season in Tampa, so a return to his high school’s coaching staff is an option depending on what happens moving forward. None of the three have signed with an NFL team at this point.

Huff, the oldest among the trio at 28 years old, is a husband and a father to two young daughters and 3-year-old son, Marqueston II. Before the XFL season started, Huff reconnected with UW to complete his undergraduate degree in general studies. He graduated in August.

Whenever Huff is done playing football, he plans to stay involved by embarking on a coaching career.

“My body may not allow me to play the game, but I still know the game of football mentally like Xs and Os,” Huff said. “Without football, a lot of these kids wouldn’t have those opportunities to show your skills and grow as a man and meet different people that could really change your life. And teach you things that you never knew, that you never even thought of knowing. It’s just an amazing experience. If I was a coach, I’d have the opportunity to do that.”

But all three hope to get a shot with an NFL team before moving on. Wacha and Priester said they’d have no problem continuing to play in the XFL if it was the only option, but they’re itching for the same crack at the highest level that other XFL players have gotten. That includes Huff’s quarterback, P.J. Walker, who signed a two-year contract with the Carolina Panthers in March.

“I think that’s everybody’s ultimate goal is to play at the highest level, and that is the NFL,” Wacha said. “Give it another shot if I’m blessed to be able to get another opportunity there, but if I’m not, I’m comfortable with the XFL.”

Priester said he had some conversations with the Denver Broncos and the Pittsburgh Steelers following his last season at UW in 2017, but the interest didn’t go much further than that. He’s hopeful his time in the XFL can generate more.

“I just worry about taking care of what’s in front of me right now, and hopefully this leads to exactly where I want to be, where I spent my life dreaming of,” Priester said.

Follow UW athletics beat writer Davis Potter on Twitter at @DavisEPotter.

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College Sports Reporter

Davis Potter is the University of Wyoming athletics reporter. An Alabama native and 2011 Auburn University graduate, Potter joined the Star-Tribune in 2018 after five years covering Ole Miss and the Southeastern Conference. He lives in Laramie.

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