In 1976 I relocated to Tampa, Fla., to be the beat writer for the expansion Tampa Bay Buccaneers, a rookie among rookies, naïve and homesick, in over my head by at least 20 thousand leagues.

Attempting to find an ally, I aligned myself with the Bucs' third-round draft pick, linebacker Steve Maughan, a friend from my hometown high school who had gone on to be a beast of a linebacker at Utah State.

In a Bucs' exhibition game, Maughan collided with a Miami Dolphins punt returner so violently that he tore his biceps from its bone. He would never play a snap in an NFL regular-season game.

My education as an NFL writer was sobering and here's what stuck with me through Steve Maughan's sad journey: Everyone is disposable.

If there is one message I could send to former Sunnyside tailback Michael Smith, now property of the Buccaneers, or to ex-CDO linebacker Aaron Tevis, who is newly employed by the New Orleans Saints, it is that the NFL will ultimately kick your butt.

Fortunately, many Tucson NFL players made a successful transition back to the real world.

After UA and Tucson High tackle Mike Dawson played nine years in the NFL, he returned here and opened a sports bar and, later, a landscaping firm.

After UA and Catalina High tight end Rich Griffith played seven years in the NFL, he became a youth pastor, employed by a ministry in Colorado Springs, Colo.

In a great majority of NFL cases, Plan B is as important, or more important, than Plan A.

Once Michael Smith arrives at One Buccaneer Place and begins the process of extending his employment with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, he will be introduced to Mossis Madu, a running back who occupies the job Smith wants.

Madu once ran for 112 yards in the Big 12 championship game for the mighty Oklahoma Sooners. As a high school senior in Norman, Okla., Madu was ranked by Super Prep magazine as the 11th-most skilled high school football player in America.

By comparison, Smith was the second-best prospect in his family, behind his brother, Sunnyside and UA tailback Xavier Smith. And when Michael finally made a name for himself at small-time Utah State, it was as the No. 2 tailback.

This is the first thing that Michael Smith should know: The Bucs don't care.

They don't know (and they certainly don't care) that Michael Smith's first foray in college football was as an unrecruited, second-string running back at Eastern Arizona College.

Scout.com rated Madu the nation's No. 11 prep running back in 2005. Smith was so far removed from big time football that, on Sept. 2, 2006, on the first play of EAC's season, he broke his hip. While Madu was working his way up OU's depth chart and toward the NFL, Smith was living in Safford, going stir crazy, limping on a busted hip, doubting that he would ever play football again.

None of that matters any more. Now is the time and the clock ticks.

No job in pro sports is more fleeting or more unpredictable than playing in the NFL.

Madu or Smith? It won't be about pedigrees. It will be about performance.

In the offseason between 1976 and 1977, recovering from his biceps injury, Maughan noticed a lump on his neck. He went to a doctor and got some horrifying news: He had Hodgkin's disease. He was 23 years old. It seemed impossible.

After months of radiation treatment, the cancer in remission, Maughan returned to the Bucs. He weighed 192 pounds. Although he took his place on the team during the exhibition season, his strength was compromised. During his comeback attempt, he broke two ribs. The Bucs released him.

I met Steve in the parking lot after he cleaned out his locker.

"I was hoping they'd give me another few weeks to get in shape, give me another chance,'' he said. "But that's not the way it works.''

Fortunately, Maughan had been an honor student at Utah State. He became a physical therapist, got married and raised a family. Tragically, he died in 2006 of Lou Gehrig's disease. He was only 52.

Sometimes there are much happier endings after football.

After UA and Sunnyside High safety Mike Scurlock played six years in the NFL, he became the director of athletics at Catawba Christian School in North Carolina and bought into a physical-therapy company.

After Marana High and Eastern Arizona College grad Paul Robinson arrived at the UA in 1967, he left the track team and used his final year of eligibility to play football for the Wildcats. Much like fellow EAC grad Smith, Robinson's speed attracted pro scouts.

He was drafted by the Cincinnati Bengals and became the 1968 Rookie of the Year. He played in two Pro Bowls.

But by 1974, his body beaten up, Robinson returned to Thatcher where he got married, raised a family and became a probation officer for Graham County.

Today, at 67, Paul Robinson is the kind of role model that NFL rookies would be wise to get to know.

Contact columnist Greg Hansen at ghansen@azstarnet.com or 573-4362.