Dear NFL Rookie,
Congratulations on having your lifelong dream come true. You have been drafted by a pro team or signed as a free agent and are now associated with the enormously popular National Football League. I am sure this is an extremely exciting time for you, and I am thrilled that you have this opportunity.
But the truth is you haven't made it unless you are Matthew Stafford, which is a rant I'll save for my letter to Roger Goodell and DeMaurice Smith. You are just getting started, and if you want to have a successful NFL career, you have to work at this every single day for as long as you want to call this your profession. Here is some advice as you head into your first mini-camp:
• Be humble: You haven't done anything in pro football. The other players in the locker room don't care how great you were in college. So were they and it means nothing now. You are going to be judged exclusively by what you do from this day forward, so give your All-America plaque to your mom and get to work. Unless you were drafted in the first three rounds and have a roster spot virtually locked up, you are lower on the totem pole than a freshman in college. They, at least, are on scholarship.
Some of your rookie brethren already realize this. Pittsburgh Steelers first-round pick Ziggy Hood said it best when he told me on Sirius NFL Radio he hadn't accomplished anything because, "You haven't made it until you hit somebody."
• Keep your mouth shut: This is different than being humble because it deals with how you act in meetings and on the field as opposed to the locker room or the cafeteria. Don't ask questions or make comments during working hours just to hear your own voice or to try to show your coaches and teammates how smart you are or how much you think you know. You don't know anything. Rookies should be seen and not heard, so pick everything up as best you can on your own and only speak up if you have a question that you absolutely need answered in order to complete your task.
• Know your stuff: Mental mistakes get teams beat and coaches fired in the NFL. You are not going to stick around very long if you are a guy with a lot of missed assignments or mental errors. Study your playbook as long as it takes, all night if you have to, to make sure you are up to speed on not only your position, but also any other position in which they could place you. Your one opportunity to really show what you can do may come at a moment's notice at a different position if somebody gets hurt.
I know you will be tempted to hang out with the other guys, and will want to act like you are one of them and belong, and not have them think that you are a book worm or a guy who has to try too hard to succeed. You already have plenty of friends. Make sure you have a job.
• Practice the technique: Coaches in the NFL can be very particular about how they want something done, so it is your responsibility to do it exactly how they are asking. This may be difficult because it may be very different than what you have been taught, but such is life in pro football. These coaches have big egos and they believe their way of doing things is the best. If you do things their way and have success with it at the same time, you are doubly stroking their secretly insecure egos.
If you have to go over the footwork or the hand techniques in your hotel room at night by yourself, so be it. It takes time to train your body to do something, and every rep helps get you more comfortable with what the new coach is teaching you. Practice it -- it will help.
• Set the tempo: There won't be any pads, but the cameras are on and you are absolutely being evaluated, so turn up the intensity. The old saying that you never get a second chance to make a first impression is definitely true, so make sure you are going all out. If the coaches have to tell you to calm down or dial it back a notch, that is a very good sign. They would much rather tell you that than have to try to get you going, trust me.
Some of the older guys may give you some flak and tell you to chill out, but remember what I said about friends earlier. You have enough already. It is time to get paid to play football.
• Don't get punked: I am not talking about Ashton Kutcher here. I am talking about letting someone push you, punch you or say something to you that they shouldn't. If you let a player do that to you and don't retaliate in some way, you will continue to be treated like a second-class citizen until you stand up for yourself. The coaches may act like they are mad at you if something goes down, but they will secretly be happy about it and your teammates will be able to trust you to have their back should they ever need it.
• Utilize the resources: You may think I am talking about watching the practice film on those fancy video-editing machines. You should definitely do that as well, but more important is that you take advantage of the food and drinks made available to you. Enjoy eating all those free well-prepared and well-balanced hot meals from the team chefs and make sure you don't take it for granted. The real world, which you will be trying to avoid like the plague every day by the way, is not like that.
That means you should also take some of those free Gatorades and waters in those coolers back to your hotel room as well. For one, you have to stay hydrated to perform to the best of your abilities. Secondly, you'll have to pay for those some day, and those little Gatorade bottles are more expensive than you think.
That's all I've got for you. If you have any questions, feel free to shoot me an e-mail in the box above right. As a matter of fact, make sure you ask me and not one of your new veteran teammates. They may or may not tell you the truth. After all, this is a business and they are trying to provide for their families. Quite frankly, helping you isn't really on the agenda. Especially if you play the same position.