Greg Orton was at his apartment and happened to glance out the window to see Spokane Shock head coach Rob Keefe’s car go by. His heart sank when Keefe approached the front door.
The Shock had proven receivers in Raul Vijil, Huey Whittaker and Markee White, but Orton thought he had a good shot at making the roster near the conclusion of the 2010 training camp.
“He sat down and explained they were letting me go,” Orton said. “I felt bad. I was beginning to know my teammates well and I liked it up here. I had a lot of emotions going through me.”
He still does, including one overriding sentiment Orton carries to this day: “It was a turning point in my life.”
Many players in every football league (AFL, NFL, CFL, UFL) have found themselves in a similar position: Told they weren’t good enough, they were the wrong fit or the one-size-fits-all “we’re going in a different direction.”
Orton and the Shock went different directions for about two months. Orton returned to live with his parents in Dayton, Ohio, and worked odd jobs. Meanwhile, White was placed on injured reserve with a shoulder injury and Vijil went down with a season-ending knee injury near the midpoint of the campaign.
The Shock made a phone call to Orton, who answered with some reluctance.
“I had a sour taste in my mouth,” he said, “but God put me back up here for a reason.”
Said Keefe: “I couldn’t believe nobody picked him up. We were fortunate.”
Orton requested uniform No. 0, “to motivate myself from people thinking I wasn’t anything or thinking nothing of me.” He soon entered the starting lineup and never left. With Orton, Whittaker and a healthy White, the Shock got better offensively every week in the playoffs, scoring 57, 60 and 69 points to finish off a championship run. Orton led the AFL in playoff receptions, no easy feat considering he shared the load with White and Whittaker.
Had Orton’s story ended there it would have been a nice tale of redemption, but he wanted more and was willing to pay the price. Orton took two weeks off after the ArenaBowl, then politely told his parents he was going to find a job in Spokane and dedicate himself to conditioning in a way he’d never done before. Not at Purdue, where he was sixth in career receptions, and not like he did during a 2009 training camp stint with the Cincinnati Bengals.
Rarely taking a day off for months, Orton ran, lifted weights and studied video of Vijil, White and Arizona standout Rod Windsor. Orton caught countless passes from quarterback Kyle Rowley. He fine-tuned his route running. He got stronger without picking up pounds. He added top-end speed and was more explosive coming out of breaks.
Orton worked the front desk at a Holiday Inn, usually the 3-11 p.m. shift. He checked in guests on Christmas and New Year’s Eve. He decided not to return home to Ohio to celebrate his December birthday. He also squeezed in a couple of classes, leaving him just one short of receiving his degree from Purdue.
“It was kind of like the movie where everybody is telling you what you can’t do,” Orton said. “For me, I wasn’t explosive enough, fast enough. I didn’t catch the ball with my hands enough. I worked on those things every single day. I wanted to turn my weaknesses into strengths. I see it watching myself on film.
“I had that chip on my shoulder. I sat down and made my goals. Every day I was going to take the opportunity to get better. My goal was to be the best receiver in the AFL, move up to the UFL and then the NFL.”
He appears to be on the right path. The 6-foot-3 Orton leads Spokane and is in the top 15 in the AFL with 89 catches, 1,142 yards and 27 touchdowns. He had a tryout with UFL Omaha that went “awesome” during a recent bye week.
Orton still carries that chip. During training camp in February, he would close his eyes and envision Keefe walking up the steps one year earlier.
Teammates noticed Orton’s enhanced speed and strength.
“You know if you’re guarding him you’d better bring your ‘A’ game or he’s going to make you look stupid,” defensive back Terrance Sanders said. “You want to go against guys like that in practice because iron sharpens iron.”
Orton honed his game in the offseason.
“I look at things more humbly, having hit rock bottom (last year),” he said. “I appreciate things a lot more. I really want to stay healthy and the biggest thing is paying attention to detail, the little things people don’t pay attention to. There’s always room to get better.”