NEW ORLEANS — With the NFL lockout putting the squeeze on both his wallet and pursuit of a pro football career, former Connecticut quarterback Tyler Lorenzen has created some of the latest culinary innovations in the Big Easy, just so he can eat at home and save a little coin.
Lorenzen insists that his twist on chicken fajitas, with cottage cheese replacing more fattening sour cream, is delicious, even if it may never quite garner the reputation of, say, the Oysters Rockefeller invented by famed French Quarter restaurant Antoine's.
"It's better for you and it just tastes good," said the clean-cut, 6-foot-5, 245-pound Lorenzen, who is under contract with the Saints. "It doesn't sound good. Everyone knocks it until they try it."
Perhaps most importantly, the homemade dish fits into his shoestring budget. That kind of thing matters to players on the margins of NFL rosters — the ones who seem to be forgotten by those who describe the league's labor strife as a standoff between millionaires and billionaires.
There are a lot of players like Lorenzen who are nowhere near being millionaires. They get invited to training camps and sign "futures" contracts for the league minimum, which are honored only if they make the regular season active roster. Otherwise, they snap up whatever offer they get for a practice squad gig paying about $5,000 a week for however long a team keeps them around.
"It's tough for those guys," said Saints quarterback Drew Brees, who has helped pay for some recent practice squad players to stay in New Orleans-area hotels so they could take part in workouts he organized at Tulane. "I know there's been a few veteran, established guys who've made the comment, 'Hey, we don't mind the lockout. We get all this free time.' Well, that's because you're an established player who's gotten some big contracts.
Lorenzen has been an off-and-on practice squad player since 2009 whose chances of making it in the NFL ride on his ability to convert from college quarterback to pro tight end. The 25-year-old's NFL earnings last season, when he spent about a half-dozen weeks on the Saints' practice squad, added up to about $30,000.
"There are more (NFL players) that are in my position that really aren't millionaires," Lorenzen said. "They don't have tons of money and have to be smart and budget just like everyone else and know that this is a job and a way to make money, but not a guarantee, just an opportunity."
Instead of taking Brees up on a subsidized hotel room, Lorenzen decided to stay in a bedroom in back-up quarterback Chase Daniel's downtown condominium. Initially, Daniel invited him to live there free, but Lorenzen eventually insisted on contributing about $500 a month.
And while Lorenzen lives in a city renowned for fine dining, where chefs like Emeril Lagasse, John Besh and Susan Spicer enjoy celebrity status, and where a popular drive-time radio talk show is largely about where people ate last night and what they had, Lorenzen does his own grocery shopping and cooking.
These days, Lorenzen's idea of dining out is "Taco Tuesdays" at a popular bar in New Orleans' warehouse district, or the 75-cent hamburger slider special at a restaurant Besh opened in the National World War II Museum. Even then, he avoids soft drinks and alcohol, usually settling for ice water. Occasionally, he'll let teammates talk him into joining them for a more fancy meal, as long as they pledge not to settle the bill by "credit card roulette." When he does dine out, he usually eats a little something before leaving home.
"People think I'm crazy and they're like, 'We're going to dinner, why are you eating?'" Lorenzen said. "And I say, 'If I eat now, I won't be as hungry, so I can just get an entree and I'll be good.'"
As for shopping, Lorenzen won't be looking for tailored suits or fancy Swiss watches on Canal Street any time soon.
"I just don't buy stuff that often," he said. "I don't own any jewelry. I buy most of my clothes at outlet stores because they have double-extra-large and it's cheap."
Lorenzen stressed that he doesn't want anyone to feel sorry for him, and adds that he's more fortunate than many players who are also in the stage of their careers in which they're still trying to prove they belong.
He has a lot of support in his hometown town of Fremont, Iowa, near where his family's small soybean genetics business is headquartered. When he was cut by the Saints after 2010 training camp and spent nearly three months out of football, his family found him a job in Minneapolis, where he could stay with his sister and work at one of the company's two plants. He did whatever the plant manager needed, from scheduling, to bagging soybeans for shipment to Japan, to meeting with clients.
After work, he would go straight to the gym to resume his training, which is one thing on which Lorenzen gladly spends money. He considers it an investment in his future, so he doesn't hesitate for pay for a membership at a local yoga studio, for example, that he visits regularly with Daniel and a few other teammates. He also has saved most of his NFL earnings from the past two seasons, which included around $100,000 in 2009, when he spent the entire season on New Orleans' practice squad, benefiting from a few extra weeks in the postseason as the club won its first Super Bowl.
And when he decided last fall to leave the family business and focus solely on the NFL again, his father understood.
"My dad's always preached to me that your window of opportunity in sports is so small, and it will come and go, and as long as you know that you took it for everything it's worth and just had as much fun as you can and smelled the grass, then it was worth every bit," said Lorenzen, who doesn't want to burden his parents by asking for money.
"Right now, this is not ideal for me at all. I finally feel that I can play tight end. I'm big enough, and the best thing for me would be getting work with the coaches, day in and day out, and getting better and better.
"But that isn't the situation, so you've just got to deal with it," Lorenzen continued, reflecting on his decision join his teammates at Tulane. "I'm going to learn from the guys that are around, soak as much up as I can and when the opportunity arises that we play again, I'm going to be ready."