Rookie S John Howell (left) can look to John Lynch and other NFL veterans for advice concerning both football and off-the-field issues
Since he has been described by some as a 'John Lynch clone,' rookie safety John Howell could hardly ask for a better place to start his NFL career than in Lynch's locker room in Tampa. Lynch, the Buccaneers' ninth-year veteran safety, believes in lending his acquired experience to rookies, and Howell is certain to take advantage of that resource.
But Howell is his own man, not John Lynch, Jr., and so he is likely to look for additional input as he becomes acclimated to the National Football League. The NFL wants Howell and the rest of the '01 Draft Class to realize that they have access to countless sources of help, information and advice.
Howell, the Bucs' fourth-round draft choice this past April, joined the rest of this year's draft class in Leesburg, Virginia this week for the league's annual Rookie Symposium. Nearly 300 players have come together for four days of presentations from current and former NFL players, coaches, league officials and life-lesson instructors. Topics range well wide of football, as the league strives to prepare its rookies for the off-the-field challenges they will surely face.
The Bucs' nine 2001 draftees – Kenyatta Walker, Dwight Smith, Howell, Russ Hochstein, Jameel Cook, Ellis Wyms, Dauntae' Finger, Than Merrill and Joe Tafoya – all attended, and one of the first speakers they encountered was a familiar face. Veteran Buc defensive tackle Warren Sapp, the league's 1999 Defensive Player of the Year and one of the NFL's best interviews, spoke to the assembled rookies on one of his off-the-field areas of expertise, if you will.
"Warren spoke to the rookies about effective media relations," said Reggie Roberts, the Bucs' Director of Communications, who accompanied Sapp to Leesburg. "He talked to them about what the league's policies stipulate, when you have to be available and why it's in the best interest of all NFL players' best interests to speak to the media."
Long a go-to guy for the local media, Sapp has apparently gained a national reputation as a frank and witty interviewee. The league, in fact, showed a training video to the rookies on media relations at the symposium, and snippets of Sapp interviews popped up about five times in the package.
"The league reviews a lot of tape of pre-game shows, and they see that Warren's always on," said Roberts. "We got a call from the league office saying that Warren would be a real good choice to give this talk, and we agreed.
"Here's a guy who entered the league in '95 with some image problems but has turned that around in the eyes of many fans. He's a guy who cooperates with the media for the most part and usually has a lot of reporters around his locker. The league thought Warren was a guy the players could relate to, a tough and outspoken guy."
The league wants experienced players who will tell it like it is at the Symposium, and Sapp certainly fits that bill. The veterans who attended the conference to speak were not compensated in any way, but Sapp didn't hesitate to lend a hand.
"He was glad to do it, and he was great," said Roberts. I think the rookies got a lot out of it. They realize, 'If Warren Sapp, who's been to the Pro Bowl four times and been the NFL Defensive Player of the Year, can spend his time here on this issue and can spend a lot of time during the week with the media, then I can do it, too.'"
Besides Sapp, there are many other players on hand in Leesburg to share their hard-earned NFL wisdom, including New York Giants RB Tiki Barber and Chicago Bears LB Brian Urlacher. The NFL also sent its own reporter, NFL Insider's Vic Carucci, to Leesburg to describe the proceedings in Leesburg. Carucci filed the following report on the free advice being shelled out by league veterans.
by Vic Carucci, NFL Insider for NFL.com
"Keep your mouth shut and listen."
It was blunt. It was direct. And it was the sort of message that the nearly 300 players selected in last April's NFL draft have been receiving since Sunday, when they gathered here for the league's fifth annual Rookie Symposium.
The speaker was Mike Anderson, running back for the Denver Broncos. He was part of a panel, along with Chicago Bears linebacker Brian Urlacher, Cleveland Browns wide receiver JaJuan Dawson, Atlanta Falcons offensive tackle Mike Thompson, and New York Giants running back/moderator Tiki Barber, that addressed the all-encompassing topic, "Life as a Rookie."
Anderson shared the essence of what helped allow him to overcome entering training camp last summer as the fourth man on the Broncos' running-back depth chart and, presumably, among the first players to be cut. By doing more listening and speaking, he went from a forgotten sixth-round draft pick to one of the league's premiere offensive stars when injuries to Terrell Davis and Olandis Gary gave him a chance to start.
Urlacher, who began his rookie training camp as a struggling outside linebacker before being switched to his more natural middle-linebacker spot and going on to become the NFL's top defensive rookie, mentioned the importance of seeking veteran players for guidance.
"They're not (jerks)," Urlacher said. "They may come off that way, but if you go ask them for help, they'll give you help."
Football lessons. Life lessons.
From early morning until well into the night, these are force-fed to players whose only taste of the NFL so far has come from a couple of non-contact mini-camp workouts. Ahead are far more grueling training-camp practices that begin in late July, and a four- or five-game preseason. Then, for the players who survive to make the 53-man active roster, comes a 16-week regular-season schedule.
Each day through Wednesday, they assemble in a large ballroom and in smaller breakout sessions, and they are bombarded by an endless list of "dos" and "don'ts." Some of the items are presented in the written material packed inside thick loose-leaf binders that they carry at all times, and in standard lecture form. Others are presented through videos shown on two giant screens that flank the large stage. And still others are presented in periodic short skits, performed by professional actors.
Those are, perhaps, the most effective presentations of all, because they deal with true-to-life scenes involving newcomers to the world of the NFL and surrounding temptations and circumstances that could damage, if not destroy, their careers. With hip-hop music playing on the sound system, the actors take to the stage looking and sounding like the young adults in the audience. They use raw language to give the most accurate portrayal of what are, often, raw scenes.
The skits cover topics that the rookies are bound to encounter, in one form or another and sooner rather than later: Money, sex, celebrity, drugs and alcohol, off-field violence, media, and diversity.
Zach Minor, president of Zinc, a New York-based firm that specializes in presenting life lessons to young athletes, directs them. Between skits, the energetic Minor briskly walks through the audience with a wireless microphone, addressing hot-button issues and seeking responses, all while trying to stimulate discussion and debate. His basic themes are: "Choices, decisions, consequences."
In one skit, a rookie player returns home from the symposium to find that his brother, whom he had asked to watch his house while he was away, had arranged for him to receive $20,000 of stolen merchandise for $2,500. The player insists he had never asked for the arrangement, and suddenly finds himself in a dilemma. Before the matter could be resolved, Minor ordered the actors to "freeze!" Then he walked around the audience, asking players what they would do in such a circumstance.
One said he would refuse the merchandise and perhaps call the police. But another said that "80 percent" of the players in the room would probably accept the deal because that's what their street-minded instincts would tell them to do.
"I think the young man was correct, and that's why we do this," said Minor, who has taught in New York's public schools and who has counseled inmates. "And we present it (in the form of a skit) because it's what they do for a living. You practice for that game. Now, we're going to practice for life.
"Primarily, for these guys, it's just understanding youth and what coming from nothing (financially) can expose you to, and how you will risk certain things and how you've got to be educated about the new opportunities that you have. What I want is for the new instinct to be critical thinking."
NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue reminded the rookies of the "opportunity" they have for stardom and to reap all of the rewards that come along with it. But he also reminded them that it is "going to be hard as hell."
Harold Henderson, the league's executive vice president of labor relations and chairman of the NFL Management Council, urged them to follow the path of Walter Payton, who besides being one of the greatest running backs in the history of the game, also represented "all that is good about the NFL."
"Don't do something that is going to end your career before it starts," Henderson said.
"You can never hear it too many times," said linebacker Dan Morgan, a first-round choice of the Carolina Panthers. "You come in here and think you really know it all. But it's always good to hear it again and refocus yourself."
Calling this audience captive would be an understatement. The players, who sit with their rookie teammates and usually wear golf shirts bearing their team logo, have plenty of strict rules to follow while they are here.
They are not allowed to:
• Leave the grounds without permission.
• Have visitors on the grounds.
• Have cellular phones or pagers in meetings.
• Wear do rags, bandanas or sunglasses.
• Attend every meeting.
• Be on time for every meeting.
• Be in their rooms for a 12:30 a.m. bed check.
• Receive a general wake-up call at 6:45 a.m.
• Wear an identification tag, around their neck and on the front of their bodies, at all times.
Violators can be heavily fined.
The guest speakers are not paid for their appearances. They come because they want to share their experiences - and especially their mistakes - in hopes of helping pave the way for younger players.
"I felt like I had to come," said Anderson, who remembered gaining plenty of helpful information during last year's symposium in San Diego. "I was drafted in the sixth round and nobody really expected much from me. And to be able to do what I did last year speaks for itself, but, at the same time, it took something do that.
"The way I look at it, every guy in there could do the same thing I did or better. But it takes something that you've got to do go through to do that. And you must know there are going to be a lot of bumps and obstacles in the road, and you're going to have to deal with a lot of things. I'm not going to sugar-coat it for them or pass out a whole bunch of wooden nickels about what's ahead for these guys."
'YOU'RE GOING TO MAKE MISTAKES'
Barber's panel covered a considerable amount of ground. They spoke about dealing with coaches and family members. They spoke about the struggles of being separated from their children. They spoke about the many potential hazards that go with suddenly having more money than they ever dreamed of having.
One of Anderson's big points to the rookies was that they must learn how to say "no" when it comes to persistent family requests (and sometimes demands) for cash. "That's something I got from last year's symposium, and I found that's the best way to handle a situation like that," he said. "Because you don't want to cause any conflict between you and family members. But if you treat them all the same, no one can really be mad at you because you did it for one and not the other."
Thompson advised the rookies to not give up power of attorney to family members or anyone else. "Always write your own checks," he said. Thompson then proceeded to tell how he had learned that lesson the hard way after some awkward calls home to his mother to inquire about checks she had written from his account, some exceeding $2,000, without telling him beforehand.
Urlacher said he had hired a large firm to look after his finances. After a long stretch of being unable to contact any of the people who were supposed to be looking after his money, he changed firms.
"Prepare yourself now for training camp, not just physically but mentally as well" Anderson said. "It's going to be an uphill battle."
"Guys don't make or break themselves in those mini-camps," Urlacher said. "Training camp is what matters. You put the pads on. And the vets know when to turn it up. And they're going to do that, and you've got to get ready for that. The vets took it easy on you (during the mini-camps). Maybe you caught a pass on them or a few passes on them, but once you get to training camp, they'll hold you, they'll jam you. When those pads are on, it's a totally different game."
"You're going to make mistakes," said Thompson. "You don't know the offense or the defense. But also have the confidence to expect yourself to get better and not make the same mistake twice. You make the same mistake twice, three times, four times, that's how you get off the team."
"Become a professional," added Dawson. "Watch what the older guys do. You're not in college anymore, so it's not just a three- or four-hour-a-day job. Expect to put in nine hours a day … and another two or three at home.
Barber left the rookies with a poignant story about motivation.
"In 1968, East and West Germany were still in revolution," Barber said. "And the family of this one young man in West Germany was killed - his mother, father, and brother were all killed by the East German government. This devastated his life, but he kept going because he wanted to achieve something. He grew up to play on the West German soccer team, which finally played its biggest rival, the East Germans. And this young man scored the winning goal. Afterward, one reporter asked him, 'Why do you wear number 68? That's an odd number (for a soccer player).'
"The young man said, 'That's the best question I've been asked today. In 1968, my mother, father and brother were killed by the East German government. Since then, I've held that inside of me. I let that be my motivation.'
"Every single one of you in here has a motivation. As I leave you, I want you to all look into the mirror and ask, 'What is my 68?' When you find that, guys, it will push you forever."