KANSAS CITY, Mo. — The college coaches didn’t think much of the skinny defensive end from the small town in Wisconsin. And given the facts, it wasn’t much of a surprise. Austen Lane was a gangly kid with an affinity for writing who had grown up playing hockey and barely weighed 200 pounds as a senior at Iola-Scandinavia High.
“When you’re from Wisconsin,” Lane said, “your dream is to go play for the Wisconsin Badgers … it ended up not working out.”
So you might say that Lane, a fourth-year defensive end with the Chiefs, is used to working through adversity. But then again, he said, you’re never quite prepared for what happened earlier this summer. On June 13, after three years with the Jacksonville Jaguars, Lane was waived to clear space on the roster. The Jaguars didn’t think Lane fit their scheme. So after 16 starts and three sacks in parts of three seasons, Lane was without a job.
“This game is about business,” Lane said.
Just a few days before, Lane had been asked by Sports Illustrated’s Peter King to write a guest column for the magazine’s website. Lane, a journalism major in college, had agreed. But now he had experienced the hurt of being discarded for the first time. So as he sat down at his computer and began to write, the words flowed out. Lane wrote what it felt like to be cut.
“It was a hard thing to write,” Lane said. “Because you’re writing about failure. And I was hesitant at first to do it. But eventually, after writing it, I felt a lot better. It was almost therapeutic.”
A day after being let go in Jacksonville, the Chiefs claimed Lane off waivers. More than two months later, with the regular season looming, he is perhaps a 50-50 proposition to make the Chiefs’ 53-man roster. But after his experiences in Jacksonville — and the response that his writing received — Lane’s view of professional football has evolved into a fuller, clearer picture.
“I think a lot of times we get put on a pedestal as football players, obviously, but we’re still people, too,” Lane said. “We still have emotions and things like that. So I think the biggest role in writing that was to show that we’re still people as well.
“It made me realize after I wrote it, how this game is about business first. The whole thing is trying to win a Super Bowl. So you can’t take things too personally.”
In an NFL locker room, Lane’s passion for writing and free-thinking persona are not the only things that sets him apart. He is, in some ways, a bit of a renaissance man, a 6-foot-5 defensive end with long, flowing braids — and a love for sitting at a computer and making sense of the world through words.
“It’s one of my passions,” Lane said, “because when you write, you get a chance to have yourself as people may not be able to see you. You get to tell a story; you get to make people laugh, you’re basically putting your words, your blood, your soul on that paper. And that’s something you can’t always do when you talk to somebody.”
Lane’s personality also comes through on his Twitter account, @A_Train_92, where his 8,000-plus followers are treated to the 140-character musings of a self-confessed “band geek … and tattooed skater.”
One example from mid June, after he was claimed by the Chiefs: “Packing up for KC tomorrow… You can keep the beach Jacksonville but the Cougars are coming with me.”
Lane’s eclectic interests took shape while he growing up in Iola, Wis., an hour or so from Green Bay. Lane was a devoted Packers fan, but his first love was hockey. He was, by his own admission, a left winger with an aggressive streak. And his physical nature manifested itself on the basketball court as well, where he always had a problem staying out of foul trouble.
“I think the refs can control the game too much,” Lane said of basketball. “It’s way too mental.”
Lane had some scholarship offers for basketball, mostly small schools, but when Murray State offered him an opportunity on the football field, he jumped at the chance. He would grow into one of the most complete defensive ends at the Division I-AA level, and the Jaguars selected him in the fifth round in 2010.
Lane’s tenure in Jacksonville was a mixed bag. He earned time in the starting lineup as a rookie but never quite asserted himself as a consistent pass rusher. When he arrived in Kansas City earlier this summer, he wanted to prove that he could be a productive defensive end in a 3-4 scheme.
“Essentially, that’s kind of what Jacksonville let me go as,” Lane said. “I was playing a 3-4 defensive end in Jacksonville, too. So I kind of just wanted to show to the staff that I could play a three-four defensive end.”
Lane will get his next opportunity on Thursday, when the Chiefs play host to the Packers in their preseason finale at Arrowhead Stadium. For a Wisconsin native, it’s an easy game to get motivated for. And if Lane can do enough to prove that he belongs on the Chiefs, he’ll have another tasty opponent waiting in week one when the Chiefs travel to Jacksonville.
“Just because I’m a 3-4 defensive end doesn’t mean I can’t make plays,” Lane said. “It doesn’t mean I can’t get after the quarterback.
“So it’s more about just proving it to myself that I can do it, because at the end of the day, I’m gonna be my biggest judge, I’m gonna be my biggest critic.”