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  • Last year, Ohio State cornerback Eli Apple declared for the NFL draft after three years. His mom offers crucial life tips for Leonard Fournette, Christian McCaffrey and others who are following suit.
By Annie Apple
December 07, 2016

The college football regular season has come to an end and bowl season and the college football playoffs have arrived, which means eligible players face one of their biggest life decisions: “Do I stay or do I go”?  Leonard Fournette and Christian McCaffrey have already declared for the 2017 NFL Draft, with many others to follow in the coming weeks. Making the decision to leave college after three years is a tough one that shouldn’t be made without heavy thought and research. This is not a decision to be made out of fear or pride.  

By this time, all the guys who are thinking about coming out have asked their head coaches to submit their names and film for an NFL grade. Your coach and staff choose the film of your plays to send into the league along with other information, including character references. The league then provides your coaches with a grade: first round, second round, or stay in school.

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I wonder about Dak Prescott’s grade. Dak is balling and he’s a fourth round pick from Mississippi State. Everyone is in awe and rightfully so at his poise and talent, something most draft analysts failed to project. Mississippi State generally gets two and three star recruits. Dak is dominating now because he has a great o-line, a heck of a running back and elite receivers he never would have dreamed of at Mississippi State. So his body of work in college wasn’t a fair representation of his skills and his professional future. I don’t know anyone who watched a North Dakota State game, but that didn’t matter because Carson Wentz, though he’s currently going through the rookie quarterback adjustment, went second overall to the Eagles and he can play.

Making the decision to go pro has to be the player’s decision based on factors and elements he can control. You can’t control where you’ll be drafted or if you’ll be drafted, but if you know you’ve accomplished all you can at the college level, then staying an extra year is not going to make you any better. No matter how much you love your school, some guys are just ready to leave after three years, for various reasons. Nothing is guaranteed in football but injuries. Plus the NFL isn’t the Promised Land.  It’s simply another level in the process of life. If you’re healthy, have good body of on-field work and no off-field issues, your coaches should give you good recommendations when NFL executives and scouts inquire. Off-field issues may hinder some prospects, but if you can play, a team will take a chance more often than not. If your name is Lucifer and you can ball, someone will take you. But make sure you work out your off-field issues because more money will only increase your behavioral deficiencies. And remember a coaches’ job is often to convince you to come back one more year. So the player has to be sound in his decision and reasoning. Some guys come back because they’ve been convinced they aren’t ready for the next level and some guys come back in hopes of helping their team win a title. Whatever the reason, it must be the player’s because he has to live with the results.

I’m not into telling people what to do with their lives but if Ohio State quarterback JT Barrett tells me he is coming back, I will drag him by his ear from High Street to the Woody. He’s done great things in Columbus. We don’t win the first CFP National Championship if he doesn’t lead us through that winning season. He was Fiesta Bowl Offensive MVP and his former roommate, Black Eli, was Defensive MVP. JT broke all Big Ten touchdown records, and he graduates on December 18th. What else is there left for him to accomplish in college? For the guys playing in the CFP and bowl games, they’re focused on the games and won’t talk publicly about their next step, but by now, it’s already been decided or very close to it.

Once a declaration has been made, the world of an NFL draft prospect can be unique, exhilarating and frustrating all at the same time. Having gone through the process with Black Eli last year, here are some tips on how to stay grounded: 

Manage expectations

Unrealistic expectations and inflated sense of self will derail your focus and lead you to making hasty and bad choices. You must be honest with yourself and mentally prepare for whatever may happen. Ask yourself: Why I’m I leaving early? What if I don’t get drafted? What if I don’t go as high as I think I should? No matter what anyone tells you or what the draft experts say, you won’t know where you’re going to be drafted until you hear the Commissioner call out your name. Unless you’re a certified first rounder, there are no guarantees. You have to be prepared mentally and strategically for the outcome, whatever it is.

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Develop the right attitude about money

You have to change the way you think about money. Remember money is not a master. Money is a tool. When you allow money to become master, you instantly become its slave. Nothing right happens when you have a wrong relationship with money. If you’re only interested in going pro for the money, you won’t last on or off the field. You’ll get distracted by the things and people money draws. The NFL is a job. You have to love and respect the game to play it at a high level. It also comes with many uncertainties. You can go undrafted, drafted low, you can be cut, you can be injured and sidelined, or worse. Remember, NFL contracts are written in sand on a windy day. It can all blow away. Now is the time to start digging into who you are as a man and what kind of man you want to become. If you want the money to be famous or buy stuff, you won’t last. If you want to go pro to take care of your family forever, you and your money won’t last.

No matter how much you love your uncle, he should not be your financial adviser. Find a reputable company with lots of capital that isn’t depending on you as its sole client. Make sure he or she has a great history and integrity. Do your homework. Your accountant and your financial adviser should not be the same person. Diversify your needs. Find a financial advisor who will look out for your best interests above all and give you solid counsel on how to manage and save your money.

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Find the right agent

Before you begin the agent process, invest in some knee-high rain boots to help you navigate the crap you’ll be stepping into. There are good agents and there are agent-whores, meaning they’ll tell you anything to get you. When we thought there was a possibility that Eli may consider leaving after three years, we started the vetting process. We met with various agents, including one from a major agency. I was shocked we could all fit in the same conference space with this agent’s massive ego. He spent about 17 minutes talking about the superiority of his resume and how amazing he was and how he told Moses where to part the Red Sea. When I asked him which one of my son’s games was his favorite, he said he had never seen him play. Even online daters watch video footage and look through pictures of their potential mates in order to connect. How do you want to represent my son when you’ve never taken five minutes to watch him play a snap or watch a three minute clip of him on YouTube? He said he didn’t really watch football; he doesn’t care about the game just his clients. How can you care about my son or your clients if you don’t care enough to spend time understanding their profession, watching them do what they love most?  It’s like wanting to marry someone and not caring what he or she does for a living when their occupation is such a major part of the person’s life.

Your agent relationship is the most important one outside of your parents and significant other. You will entrust this person with your life and wellbeing. Ask perspective agents questions that will catch them off guard. Don’t be too easily impressed. Don’t get caught up in the marketing presentation. You can’t market garbage. You’ll have to go and perform and your performance will open the right doors for you. Don’t get enamored with the agent’s roster either. Just make sure he or she fits your temperament, your talents, and your needs.

Prepare for complete life transition

Everything changes when you declare for the draft. In college, your schedule and every minute of your life is planned for you. Once a pro, your time is yours and you must learn to manage your time and your priorities. Football will be the easier part. You know football. It’s constant. You know what you must do to be competitive and be your best. The toughest part is the mental adjustments with new teammates, family and friends. Your family relationships will change. Your friendships will be tested as the motives of those around you are revealed. Going pro doesn’t mean the work ends. On the contrary. No matter how good you are, you won’t play this game forever. By the time you’re 30, you’ll be in your next phase of life. As you declare, make plans to one day get your degree. Start to think about what you would be doing if you weren’t playing football and what you want to do when your football career is over. That reality often comes sooner rather than later.

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Don’t believe the hype or the hate

When you declare for the draft and as you prepare for the combine, everyone will have and express their opinions about you as a player and as a person. They will try to predict how high or low you may go and how far they think you can go. Don’t get caught up in the hype and the hate won’t be a problem. Keep a level head and a focused heart. Take care of your body and train to improve your game. Make sure your identity is rooted and grounded in a high force. That’s the foundation that will keep you steady in this shaky new life you’ve decided to join. No matter what happens, don’t try to control the results, just enjoy the process and make it work for you. 

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