Peter King is on vacation, so he's recruited some help filling in on Monday Morning Quarterback. This week, Indianapolis Colts rookie tight end Coby Fleener takes the reins.
I'm sure you're probably wondering why Peter asked me to express my musings in this guest version of Monday Morning Quarterback. I'll try to explain briefly why he chose me instead of my little-known sidekick at Stanford and, now with the Indianapolis Colts, Andrew Luck.
As I worked toward my Master's Degree in Media Studies, I took a journalism course last winter in specialized reporting and writing about sports taught by author Gary Pomerantz, a former sportswriter. We studied the history and evolution of sportswriting and wrote features and profiles ourselves.
I had been interviewed plenty of times, but had never really thought much about the process. For my first story, I interviewed former Washington Redskins great Joe Jacoby, the man for whom I am named, and wrote a first-person account of the experience. As the family story goes, my mother was pregnant with me in 1988, saw an NFL game on TV and noticed Joe's last name on the back of his jersey. She liked it so much that she and my dad gave me the name Jacoby Fleener.
My first experience as an interviewer was exhilarating. The preparation was challenging, and so was the give-and-take of our phone conversation. I confess I was a little nervous. I quickly learned that the best sports reporters must be multitaskers, and that I have a ways to go in that regard. Thankfully, Joe was kind and patient with me, knowing that I was a rookie sportswriter. He allowed me to slow things down a few times. We talked about his life, and about life in the NFL. He advised, "Be yourself."
A second assignment asked students to write a profile of a current sportswriter, showing how his/her biography shapes the work, and how he/she has adjusted to the modern media revolution. I assumed this profile would be easier than the first. After all, the reporter would know what I was going through.
I chose to profile Peter King. I'm a regular reader of MMQB, and have seen him on TV and in the studio many times. As I interviewed Peter, I realized how much I respect his work, and his approach to it. I was impressed with his extensive list of NFL connections, and his writing style.
But it was more than that. I realized that Peter, like many of my new Colts teammates and I, loves what he does and is thankful for the opportunity to do it. And it isn't just that Peter is happy performing his dream job. I sensed that he pushes himself harder than hard to be the best in his profession.
He told me that he'd been affected by something that New England receiver Wes Welker said in a press conference after the Patriots lost to the Giants in last season's Super Bowl.
Welker had dropped a pass that he should have caught and said that he felt as if he had let down his team.
Peter said, "I have incredibly high regard for Welker. I don't have respect for guys who don't take it very seriously and are in it for some other reason than to try to, when they're out there, be absolutely as good as they can."
Peter doesn't see himself in the mold of Welker, even though he obviously is.
Playing pro football and covering it have more in common than I'd realized.
Life at the Rookie Symposium.
Just when the rookies thought that the whirlwind days of their first mini-camps and Organized Team Activities (OTAs) were over.
The Rookie Symposium is sort of like a four-day mini-camp unto itself. Put on by the NFL, it is intended as an orientation for rookies to smooth their transition from college to the NFL. According to the NFL Player Engagement website, the symposium provides "... an orientation to life in the NFL, including social responsibility, professional development, community engagement, league policies, workplace conduct, and media relations. In addition, it offers educational life-skills workshops on topics ranging from substance abuse, sex education, domestic violence, DUI, gambling, personal finance, associations, and family issues." Somewhere, mixed in with the laundry list of no-no's, are some great opportunities to meet some great people, and to learn.
Is it working?
The most important question is whether or not the long days of talks from former players and NFL employees really helps. Due to the lockout, the 2011 Rookie Symposium was cancelled. However, the downward trend of arrests of NFL players continues. According to the NFL there were 79 arrests in 2006, 73 in 2007, 72 in 2008, 62 in 2009, 64 in 2010, and 62 in 2011. The arrests ranged from possession of unprescribed Viagra to DUI to federal drug charges. It is difficult to discern whether the decline is a result of fear of stronger punishments from Commissioner Goodell, better education through programs such as the Rookie Symposium, or a combination of the two.
Day 1: Wednesday
After spending a few hours delayed in the Indianapolis airport, I made it to the hotel with the other Colts rookies just in time for dinner and a little catching up with other teams' rookies. After that, we made our way to the main ballroom. The NFL's desire to make the environment player-friendly and exciting was evident. Loud pop music blared through speakers and colored lights flashed on a stage, flanked by two large high definition televisions. Giant banners of NFL legends like Walter Payton and Brett Favre covered each wall. I expected to have to suffer on uncomfortable, easily stackable hotel chairs, but instead found rows of comfortable, leather swivel desk chairs.
The lights went down and the TVs sprang to life. A rousing, inspirational NFL Films recap of the 2011 season showed highlights from a variety of big games throughout the year. The final shot showed the Vince Lombardi Trophy being held after the Super Bowl, as if to remind the rookies of their ultimate goal.
Troy Vincent, Vice President of Player Engagement, welcomed the rookies.
Each player was handed a wireless keypad to allow them to answer questions. Antonio Freeman, the second speaker and former standout receiver for the Green Bay Packers, explained that they were a part of the "Ultimate Rookie Challenge." Four times during the symposium, rookies were given eight different questions and 10 seconds to answer each of them. The top five prizes for the teams that won were:
5th: Xbox Kinect4th: Beats headphones3rd: Bose Soundlink Wireless music system2nd: Bose Music System 31st: iPad
To test the wireless keypad system, and to get responses to a survey, the NFL did a trial run, asking, "Which forms of social media do you use?" I pressed the button for Twitter. I then looked at Luck, because I realized he's likely the only guy in the room who didn't press any buttons during the response time. He looked at me with a big smile on his face, and I couldn't help but laugh.
Once Freeman stepped off the stage, the lights dimmed again. Shadows darted around, moving furniture as if it were between scenes at a play. Soon after the lights came back on, a couple walked onto stage, talking to each other and completely ignoring the slightly confused audience. The two actors were the first of a group that would portray various scenarios that players might have to deal with in the future. These parts were called "Walk Throughs." We were then interviewed about our opinions on the skit.
Highlights of this portion included:
• In response to a question about what qualities to look for in a woman, someone responded, "She's got to have good credit."
•Melvin Ingram, the Chargers' first round pick, being pulled on stage to attempt to explain to his "dad" (played by the announcer) that the whole family shouldn't move with him to San Diego.
• Ross Tucker interviewing a player panel of now second-year players from a variety of backgrounds and draft positions. It was helpful to hear from guys who had recently been rookies, and learn small tidbits from them about the steps it takes to become true professionals.
The best quote from the session, courtesy of Ravens receiver Torrey Smith, who explained the importance of having a plan and preparing for life after the NFL: "Congratulations on making it into the NFL. You're now on your way out of the NFL."
The end of the night concluded with breakout groups to discuss team-building and our transition from college to the NFL.
I also learned this cool factoid: Hall of Fame cornerback Willie Brown never played defensive back until his coach handed him his playbook at the start of his first NFL camp. He had played both ways as a tight end and linebacker in college. My sources tell me that the Colts plan on keeping me at tight end ... for now.
Day 2: Thursday
I'm not sure if some guys got caught sleeping during the first night's presentation or not, but it seemed like the main ballroom temperature was lowered 10 degrees on Day 2, which began with another iteration of the "Ultimate Rookie Challenge." I'm convinced that Emmanuel Acho, formerly of Texas and now a linebacker for the Browns, was somehow cheating the system after he registered the fastest correct answer four separate times. As of Day 2, the Colts had yet to crack the top 10 in total score, although Luck impressed with a couple of quick keypad responses of his own.
A representative of Athletes for Hope spoke to the group, explaining that it doesn't require fame or money to make an impact, but rather giving of one's time. He cited the selflessness of tennis legend Arthur Ashe, and the way he transformed his own HIV affliction into a vehicle to benefit others.
After a few more skits portraying real life situations, another panel took place consisting of NFL Director of Player Security Services Deana Garner, former linebacker Mike Vrabel and Freeman. The group emphasized taking the proper precautionary steps to avoid getting into troublesome situations.
Following the panel, brief meetings were held regarding the NFL's different drug testing policies and the punishments for testing positive for either a performance-enhancing or recreational drug. Intelligent alcohol use and using a designated driver or car service was also emphasized.
After a lunch break, the rookies met in the main ballroom for an on-stage conversation with Adam "Pacman" Jones and Terrell Owens moderated by Tucker.
The most memorable parts of the talk:
• Jones contacted the NFL and asked to be at the symposium to share what he had learned with the rookies.
• Jones said there will not be another "Pacman" in the NFL, and credited Goodell for having changed him as a person. Jones understood that he put himself in a position to be suspended.
• Owens said he knew that if he wanted to be able to dance that week, he had to get in the end zone.
• Jones estimated that 90 percent of his childhood friends within two to three years of his age are now either dead or in jail. Jones grew up in Atlanta.
• Jones regretfully recounted spending $1 million in one weekend! To which Owens looked at him, smiling, and said, "Man, you crazy!"
• Owens said that while he only ran a comparatively "slow" time at the combine, nobody caught him from behind during games. Jones got a laugh from the audience when he replied, "I did pull off of you in Dallas."
After the talk, we broke up into small groups before coming back together for a talk about player health and safety. The focus of this talk was toradol use and concussions, both the subject of many headlines over the past year.
The second day wound down after dinner with more "Challenge" questions, skits and advice from Tennessee Titans defensive coordinator Jerry Gray about how to deal with coaches. He spoke on an array of topics, including watching film, contract negotiations, how to use power of attorney and even how to make good decisions when buying a car or house. As a coach and former NFL player, Gray brought an interesting perspective.
The final portion of Day 2 was highlighted by a small group discussion led by Mike Signora, NFL Vice President of Football Communications, about how to handle media, and another panel that included some players and directors of player engagement, including Brown, Luther Ellis, David Thorton and James Thrash.
Day 3: Friday
The whole AFC was up early on Day 3 to get on buses and make the short trek over to the Cleveland Browns' practice facility for a morning full of playing with boys and girls to emphasize the importance of exercise. I have been a part of a few Play 60 events, the NFL's initiative to get kids to be more active. This was one of the parts of the symposium I was most looking forward to. On this day, the NFL invited children of military personnel, and each team's rookies set up their own station for the kids. Interacting with these children was both fun and rewarding.
Our Colts' station was relatively simple. The kids had to run around and try to get open in order to catch a pass from one of the quarterbacks (usually Luck or Chandler Harnish). I was amazed at the level of excitement expressed by the kids despite the heat.
Another player panel was in store for the rookies after a short break. This time, Giants long snapper Zak DeOssie, Patriots receiver Matt Slater, former Cardinals and Rams cornerback Aeneas Williams and Titans linebacker Will Witherspoon spoke to us. The symposium's topics often told rookies what not to do. Here was an attempt to show us admirable examples worth emulating.
The highlights of the player panel included:
• Slater talked about his epiphany that not every NFL player will become a star, and how he now does what he can, in his role, to help his team win.
• DeOssie implored the rookies to take advantage of the doors that are open to NFL players. He got to do an internship with high-ranking members of a bank.
• Williams explained how 90 percent of the battle for many things in life is showing up even if you're scared.
• Witherspoon emphasized the benefits of taking small steps toward your goal.
• Tucker, who was again moderating, emphasized that he and the rest of the media are waiting for any one of the rookies to mess up so that they can dedicate time to it on their shows, websites, newspapers, etc. He said that because there is little to talk about regarding the NFL right now, they look for mistakes made by players.
After dinner, the "Challenge" results were announced. I have to say that while I was suspicious as to how the Browns got their answers in so quickly, I was equally skeptical of the Patriots' dominance throughout the competition. Either way, I was probably just being a sore loser. Congratulations to the following:
5th: Pittsburgh Steelers4th: Jacksonville Jaguars3rd: Cleveland Browns*2nd: San Diego Chargers1st: New England Patriots*
(* Further investigation pending)
The final speaker for the Rookie Symposium was Michael Irvin. His football resume speaks for itself.
Irvin pleaded for all to pay heed to the advice shared during the symposium. Raising his voice for emphasis multiple times, he gave a rousing speech that touched on a variety of topics.
The highlights of Irvin's talk included:
• The reminder that pproximately 70,000 college football players wanted the seats we were sitting in. We earned the right to sit there.
• Irvin said his third-grade tutor first introduced him to football, and that before he played (and succeeded at) football he had felt inferior.
• Moving the Rookie Symposium from Florida or California (where it was held previously) was Irvin's idea, so that rookies could meet, and hear the stories of, those who had sacrificed so much so that the game could be what it is today.
• Irvin spoke about his admiration for his father's hard work, and explained that he ran the name of his father "in the mud" with his bad decisions.
• Recalling his son Googling him, Irvin said he would give back his three Super Bowl rings in exchange for a clean name.
• Regarding legacy, Irvin referred to a quote he learned from his father: "Great men will always see farther than they can run." He said the quote meant that we should strive to build something bigger than ourselves -- the game. In doing so, we would honor those who came before us.
Day 4: Saturday
The final day of the Rookie Symposium consisted of a half-day visit to the Pro Football Hall of Fame. The rookies got up early and jumped onto buses for the hour or so trip to Canton.
Upon arrival, we were brought into a large room where Steve Perry, the President of the Hall of Fame, welcomed us, saying that maybe one day he would welcome some of us back to be enshrined there. I found out later how bold of a statement this was. According to our tour guide, more than 25,000 men have played professionally, yet there are only 250 busts in the building. While the odds aren't favorable, they also don't seem impossible.
The highlights from the Pro Football Hall of Fame visit included:
• Watching former Alabama and current Colt defensive tackle Josh Chapman design his own Super Bowl ring at a computer station where you can choose your favorite team and create a ring.
• Taking a picture with the Lombardi Trophy ... it was behind heavy duty plexiglass.
• Finding out that the average cost of a Super Bowl ring is between $15,000 and $30,000.
• Seeing equipment and memorabilia of players such as Tony Gonzalez and Rob Gronkowski from different record-setting moments. Shoes, jerseys and footballs were displayed in cases with information about them on a card nearby. There were a lot more, but (naturally!) I wanted to highlight the tight ends.
• Learning about the African American pioneers of the game, and how they impacted the color barrier in baseball as well. I won't spoil it for you. It's a really cool story.
• Seeing the busts from every player inducted. Some look real, some don't. Some look like they are about to open their bronze mouths and talk to you.
• A talk from Carl Eller, Hall of Fame inductee and well-known member of the "Purple People Eaters" defensive line for the Minnesota Vikings from the late 60s and 70s. He implored the rookies to accept the challenges before us, and to realize how awesome it would be to start and end our careers at the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
"Not suggesting it is a "cure-all" but Aldon Smith also did not attend an NFL Rookie Symposium as 2011 pick."
-- @rosstuckernfl, the former player and now media member, on the timely nature of the news that Aldon Smith was stabbed at a house party over the weekend. Tucker moderated talks during the 2012 Rookie Symposium.
1. A loud alarm clock. In addition to my cell phone alarm, I want to make sure that I set a backup to wake me up just in case.
2. A comfortable pillow. You never know what kind of sleeping situation you're going to walk into at the first day of camp.
3. A fan. Hopefully Anderson University has air-conditioned dorms. I'll plan for the worst case scenario.
4. My laptop. Who knows when you're going to get a call from one of the top sportswriters in the world asking you to write a piece for him (although I doubt Peter King will be taking any vacation days during football season in the near future).
5. My hair clippers. The best investment I've ever made. Now I just have to decide whether to grow out my hair again or not ... the awkward stage between a nice buzz cut and cool, flowing locks of hair is so long.
6. A backpack. Essentially, it becomes my Swiss Army knife/man-purse during camp. I carry everything from deodorant and nail clippers to my playbook.
7. My cell phone. How else am I going to be able to tweet? ...Or call my loved ones?
8. My toothbrush. Playing a sport in which people are constantly trying to knock my teeth out, I'll try to keep them as healthy as possible.
9. My playbook. They put them on iPads now. My back is rejoicing.
10. My camp outfit. Many players (at least at Stanford) wear the same outfit almost every day at camp. The more hygienic people alternate, as one outfit might need to be thrown in the wash every once in awhile.
1. I think I'm honored to be writing MMQB this week. For the fans that are reading this, thank you very much for not clicking the "X" in the corner of your screen. For Peter King, thank you for the opportunity.
2. I think the 2012 rookie class will have one of the best success rates the NFL has seen in recent years. While many think the new CBA made life harder for rookies, it also provided us with a unique opportunity to get more reps in practices before camp than any class ever has.
3. I think it was a good idea to send some guys from the 2011 class to the symposium. Last year's lockout cancelled theirs.
4. I think I am excited for training camp. It's not my favorite time of the year, but it's an opportunity to get back to playing the game I love.
5. I think it would be pretty cool if the United States liked soccer a little more. Don't get me wrong, I love football. I just think it's amazing how entire European nations rally behind a common cause in their soccer team more than once every four years.
6. I think I am impressed with R.A. Dickey. Not because of his stellar pitching. Not because of his courage in talking about the abuse he suffered as a child. Because he has shown that the knuckleball is still relevant, and that Tim Wakefield wasn't the only modern-day player who could be successful using it.
7. I think Stanford University is an amazing place. From the people that you meet on a daily basis to the weather to the success of the athletic programs (more than 100 NCAA Championships), I can't say enough about it. I hope that I can one day send my children there.
8. I think that the new playoff system in college football will settle everyone down for now ... until they select the four teams at the end of the year. Then, once again, the pundits will say, "It's an imperfect system, but it's what we have to work with."
9. I think the Rookie Symposium was better than I expected. I expected long speeches of "don't do this or that," and while there is a need for that, they did a good job of keeping it interesting for the players.
10. I think I'm a rookie, and I think I know nothing ... but I'm learning.