NFL rookies already might have experienced sensory overload while digesting playbooks that make “War and Peace” look like a comic strip.
Now, they’re about to receive what league vice president Troy Vincent calls “tools to succeed and to sustain themselves during their playing experience.” But, Vincent insists, the information will be presented in a simplified, concise manner.
All 254 players drafted in April have been invited to the Cleveland area for the NFL Rookie Symposium, which runs from Sunday through Wednesday this week for AFC choices, and Wednesday-Saturday for NFC picks. Vincent, a star defensive back for 15 seasons and now the NFL’s senior vice president of player engagement, believes the series of seminars, one-on-one sessions, panel discussions and frank conversation is essential in making the transition to the professional life.
“It was too much information we were giving them in the past, way too much,” Vincent said. “At that particular time, when they left the symposium in the past, they were a couple weeks away from training camp and they were going through information overload.
We’ve had to find creative ways to get our message out, tally what we learn from each drafted rookie class and think how we can become more accessible and visible and build our credibility.”
One way of doing that is by bringing in veteran and retired players to tell their war stories. This year, that also includes two players who have had run-ins with legal issues: Adam “Pacman” Jones, now with the Bengals, and Terry “Tank” Johnson, formerly with the Bears, Cowboys and Bengals.
Cincinnati cornerback Jones pleaded not guilty earlier this month to an assault charge, and repeatedly has had off-field issues resulting in suspensions. He missed the 2007 season on suspension and sat out 2009 when no team was interested in signing him.
Johnson once served a two-month jail term for violating probation from an earlier gun charge when he had unregistered firearms in his home.
Vincent says it’s imperative to offer all viewpoints and past experiences to the incoming players. So Jones and Johnson will join the likes of former players Aeneas Williams, Mike Haynes, Brian Dawkins and Chad Pennington — all with impeccable resumes — in mentoring the rookies.
“Adam and Tank provide the realities of our game,” says Vincent, a former president of the players union. “We want to give a balance. We are going to have teammates who struggle with something and must overcome something, and we overcome it together. These men share their stories to teach and to educate.
“What we like to say is the risks are real. You are now a pro athlete. Everything is public knowledge about you, and you are at risk, and it is important to really strike the right balance. We will have our success stories and also those who have had risky behavior.”
Along with their sessions in Aurora, the rookies will visit the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, where Jim Brown and Richard Dent will conduct a history lesson. They also will participate in a youth football clinic at the Browns’ training complex in Berea.
Four core principles will be covered at the symposium: league history, total wellness, professionalism and experience.
All of that on top of learning plays, team philosophies and systems before OTAs and minicamps ended could have the rookies’ heads swimming.
“You have to understand pro football is cumulative,” Giants coach Tom Coughlin says. “You have to be one of those guys that can retain information and use it in the same sequence again the next time that situation arises. They haven’t had enough yet. They have it twice in OTAs and in the minicamp; they will get it a third time in (training) camp. So hopefully that is going to be a time when they will retain.”
Vincent hopes there is lots of retention over the next week, and that the symposium is a collaborative experience for those 254 NFL novices.
“You can truly share your thoughts, intimate thoughts about the game and your life,” he said. “They are looking for role models and they are looking for guidance. We don’t come boasting, we come asking them to fully engage in the conversation. Not to just hear stories, but to let them talk and to ask questions. We encourage asking.”
Among the most frequent questions is how much different life will be in the NFL compared to college. Such speakers as 49ers tight end Vernon Davis, former linebacker LaVar Arrington and 1991 Heisman Trophy winner Desmond Howard — all big college stars — will reply with stories about the up-and-down nature of professional sports.
“We always say at this level you now go from potential to production,” Vincent says. “In college, a student-athlete is referred to as someone with high potential. At the NFL level it is about daily production, physically and mentally.
“Where someone has been able to get by with athleticism before, now there are people looking to identify your greatest weakness and expose it. How do you handle that?”
Vincent doesn’t want NFL newcomers thinking it’s all work, no play. Of course, if you don’t do the work, you won’t get to play, whether you are left tackle Eric Fisher, the top overall choice by Kansas City, or tight end Justice Cunningham, No. 254 by Indianapolis.
And the vast majority of guys who will attend these symposiums have a short shelf life in the NFL. It’s critical to get that point across, because, generally, these young athletes have not thought beyond the next few snaps.
“We are not here to be dream killers,” Vincent says. “We have to be realistic, though, and you are now on the clock. So, of the drafted rookies, less than half will still be around three years from now. That doesn’t mean life stops; it better not. While we are introducing them to the NFL, we’re also talking about life after football.
“And there will be nothing these young men who come from all different walks of life have been through that one of us has not been through. There are life lessons that need to be learned right from the beginning.”