PLANT CITY — It was a team meeting two years in the making.
Before, the XFL and the Tampa Bay Vipers were an idea, names on paper. But on Dec. 3, the idea became reality, and the names became teammates.
That night, after a long day of travel and paperwork, coaches, players, front office personnel — the entire Vipers operation — gathered in a conference room at the team hotel in Temple Terrace.
Head coach Marc Trestman’s first message: You can’t find the value in people unless you really know who they are, and you can’t know who they are unless you listen. He then asked each player to introduce himself — name, hometown, last locker room.
“New York Jets.”
“Winnipeg Blue Bombers.”
“Pleasant Grove High School.”
Most Vipers players were coming directly from an NFL, Alliance of American Football or Canadian Football League locker room.
Not linebacker Lucas Wacha.
His last stop: assistant coach for his high school team, the Class 4A Division II Pleasant Grove Hawks in Texarkana, Texas.
In fact, he got the call that he had been drafted by the Vipers during one of Pleasant Grove’s practices in October.
“Where we going?” players shouted as Wacha hung up.
The team erupted.
— Josh Gibson (@joshgibson_pg) October 15, 2019
“When you’ve been working so hard for something and you get that phone call — I wouldn’t have wanted to share that moment with anyone else,” Wacha, 26, said after a Vipers practice this week.
Wacha, the brother of New York Mets pitcher Michael Wacha, was with the Hawks for only a few months, but he quickly bonded with his players. Pleasant Grove head coach and athletic director Josh Gibson said that when Wacha left for the XFL earlier this month, Hawks players wrote about 65 letters to him.
“I’ll say this: I don’t know who’s on that football team in great detail, but I just know with a kid like Lucas you’re not going to get a guy who’s going to prepare any harder than him while he’s there,” Gibson said. “He’ll find a way to make a big-time contribution.”
About seven months ago, Wacha, who had a stint with the Dallas Cowboys during their training camp in 2017 and played for the CFL’s Hamilton Tiger-Cats in 2018, was beginning to confront the possibility that his career as a football player was over.
In May, he suffered a quadricep injury during a Tiger-Cats preseason workout. In June, Hamilton released him. He was out of work.
But not for long.
Vipers defensive coordinator Jerry Glanville, the same Jerry Glanville who coached the NFL’s Houston Oilers (1985 to 1989) and Atlanta Falcons (1990 to 1993), called Wacha and invited him to the XFL Summer Showcase in Tampa. They had crossed paths in 2018, when Glanville was the defensive coordinator for the Wild-Cats.
“I wanted him in five seconds,” Glanville said. Then he deadpanned: “But he fooled me. I thought he was really good. You make mistakes.”
Wacha accepted Glanville’s invitation and dropped $400 on a flight and hotel stay to attend what was essentially a tryout.
“It was one of those risks I was willing to take,” he said. “I’d do anything for football.”
After the Summer Showcase, the Vipers maintained contact with Wacha. June Jones, the head coach of the Houston Roughnecks, also reached out. Before joining the XFL in May, Jones was the head coach of the Tiger-Cats.
Wacha figured that he would reunite with his former head coach or defensive coordinator in the XFL, but on the fringes of professional football, there are no guarantees, so he pursued a teacher’s license in June and joined the Pleasant Grove coaching staff in July.
“Everybody has a journey — every one of these guys do,” Trestman said. “And that’s what we’re here to find out.”
The next leg of Wacha’s journey: He’s headed back to Texas today to finish what he and Pleasant Grove started. The Hawks will be playing in the state championship game Friday at AT&T Stadium in Dallas. Wacha will be on the sidelines.
“I think someday when he’s totally done playing, this is exactly what he wants to do, is be a coach and impact kids, and he’s great at it,” Gibson said.