Than Merrill ’01 was one of 10 free agents signed to a future/reserve agreement by the Super Bowl champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers Jan. 31.

“It’s exciting, of course,” said Merrill, a former standout safety on the Yale football team. “You just have to make your career last as long as you can.”

The future/reserve contracts, though binding, will technically take effect on March 1, when the NFL’s 2003 season officially begins. Merrill’s contract does not include an agreement for the 2002 season, but since there is no practice squad or injured-reserve designations during the brief off-season, Merrill has joined the active roster.

“Basically, I’m competing for a roster spot,” he said. “I’ll primarily be a special-teams player and to a lesser extent, I’ll serve as a backup.”

Merrill, a former seventh-round Bucs draft pick, has the most professional experience of the 10 players, with a year in the pros under his belt. In April 2001, Merrill became the first Yale football player since 1982 to be drafted. Eli teammate and current San Francisco 49er tight end Eric Johnson ’01 was selected one pick after Merrill.

“The chances of making it in the NFL are so incredibly slim, but he’s one of those guys who just works to make things happen,” Merrill’s former captain Pete Mazza ’01 said. “I’d never bet against him.”

After a varsity campaign and a red-shirt year with Stanford University as the No. 3 quarterback, Merrill transferred to Yale in 1997. With the Bulldogs, Merrill made the transition to safety. During his three seasons in New Haven, Merrill played both free and strong safety and was named first-team All-Ivy twice and first team All-New England his senior year. At 6 foot 3 inches and 212 pounds, Merrill was a ferocious hitter determined to make it to the next level.

“The kid just has an unbelievable work ethic,” Mazza said. “His capacity to work is phenomenal. All through his college years, his pro year and and the nebulous period after last season, his dedication never wavered.”

Merrill has endured a turbulent NFL ride. He was cut by the Buccaneers after training camp in 2001, only to have the Chicago Bears quickly snatch him off waivers.

“The turnover rate is high in the NFL, and every player going into the pros knows that,” Merrill said. “But you have to stick with it.”

As part of the special-teams unit, and under the guidance of Chicago head coach and former Eli tailback Dick Jauron ’73, Merrill played in 15 games, helping the Bears top the NFC Central division. Merrill tied for 10th place on the team with seven tackles, but he was released by the Bears in September before the 2002 season.

Since then, Merrill has been active in the Yale community, serving as an assistant defensive backs coach for the Bulldogs and opening the MexiCali Grille with Mazza and local restaurateur Charlie Hague. The restaurant was originally scheduled to open its doors in early January.

“We’ve been having a few problems with the contractors, but we plan to open within the next 10 days,” Merrill said.

After training with the Buccaneers during January, Merrill is back in New Haven for personal reasons and to prepare for the MexiCali Grille’s grand opening.

“I’ll tell you one thing about the kid, he’s become quite the wiz with the apron,” Mazza said. “But, fear not Yale students, we are leaving the menu to the professionals.”

After opening the Grille, Merrill will rejoin the Bucs in late February.

“From a purely selfish standpoint, I’d hate to see him go,” Mazza said. “He’s an invaluable member of our partnership, but we all want what’s best for him.”