So This is the NFL, Part I
AURORA, Ohio — The Rookie Symposium is not the first test of an NFL player’s resolve, and it is never the last. Its importance is ambiguous; a matter of individual realization. You can sleep through it, as Ryan Leaf did during the second symposium in 1998. Or you can take pages upon pages of notes, as one intrepid neophyte, the one drafted in front of Leaf, did that same year (a rare sight; organizers still recall Peyton Manning’s week fondly). There’s not one right way to do the symposium, just like there’s no perfect path through an NFL career.
There is, of course, a wrong way.
This time around, the stage is Aurora, Ohio, at the Bertram Inn, a three-star spot that goes for $69 a night during weeks when the NFL hasn’t booked it exclusively and posted security guards at both street entrances. Rookies from the 16 NFC teams have flown in from all over the contiguous U.S., and on Sunday night they find themselves together in a dark ballroom seated in leather chairs organized in rows according to team.
Former Chiefs general manager and current Falcons assistant GM Scott Pioli takes the stage in a tan blazer bathed in blue light.
“Some of you might say, I'm just a football player; I don't see myself as a role model,” he says. “You will find that young people look up to you. There are people with jobs much harder than ours who look up to you. To whom much is given, much is expected.”
Secluded in a corner pocket of the ballroom, the next speakers wait their turn. All three of them were here as students a year ago, and all three became starters in their rookie seasons. Gio Bernard, the clean-cut speedster from North Carolina via Ft. Lauderdale, will join the former black sheep son of an NFL legend, Bears guard Kyle Long, and southern-fried Rams running back Zac Stacy in the opening panel. The three of them crack jokes and watch Pioli’s 30-minute presentation on a flat screen in the green room, ducking out occasionally to check on the USA-Portugal soccer match in another room.
Just before it’s the sophomores’ turn, Bernard turns serious.
“No matter what you say, there are guys who are going to listen, and some who just aren't.”
This is the most elaborate and expensive orientation in American professional sports. The league previously held the symposium in a different town every year, but in 2012 decided the final day should end in a visit to nearby Canton and the Hall of Fame. This isn’t the league filling out some human resources checklist. For the men and women who work the event, this is an effort to better the lives of its athletes by letting them know exactly what’s available to them, and what’s expected of them. It’s part of the league’s effort to see fewer DUIs, concussions, drug charges and suspensions, incidences of off-field violence and post-career poverty.
The location has changed, but the timing of the symposium is non-negotiable. The league wants to reach its first-year players before each decides what to do in July, the month with the greatest potential for both growth and misbehavior.
“Right now,” Pioli says, “is the most dangerous time of your rookie season.”
You'll be surprised if you wake up and five G’s are missing from your account,” Stacy tells the rookies. “You'll be lookin’ ugly.
After Pioli’s 30 minutes, and a brief Q&A session, are done, the panel of second-year players begins. Long, Bernard and Stacy are joined by mediator Ross Tucker, a former NFL offensive lineman who is 15 years older than the sophomores. Before long, they’re schooling him on something called Tinder.
“Don’t give your number out,” a sophomore says, “or you’ll have to change it.”
They recall how one attendee of the 2013 symposium invited a woman to his hotel room and was fleeced of his valuables.
Said Long: “There's a business in taking advantage of guys like us.”
The moral: “Don't trust people.”
The sophomores are blunt and, often, tongue-in-cheek. Stacy steals the show.
On cooking: “Try to cook something. I ain't the best cook. Throw some hot pockets in the stove or something.”
On the rookie wall: “I hit mine during OTAs.”
On women who pursued players in college: “Cut ’em off.”
Long follows: “Throwback Thursday.”
Bernard piles on: “Flashback Friday.”
Bears rookie running back Ka’Deem Carey sticks his teammate with a tough question: “How do you deal with the success your family had in football?”
Long, brother of Chris, son of Howie, pauses to think.
“That's a good one Ka’Deem,” he says, “I just have a chip on my shoulder. I'm still mad that my brother’s high school jersey got retired.”
Tucker is an old pro in this realm, having hosted radio shows and podcasts as a full-fledged member of the all-encompassing “media” so often discussed and derided among these players. With Tucker on his feet and playing point, the panel moves from online dating to head injuries to the virtues of mobile banking alerts.
Says Stacy with a drawl: “You'll be surprised if you wake up and five G’s are missing from your account. You'll be lookin’ ugly.”
After the panel breaks up and the rookies head into their breakout groups, Stacy departs the symposium for the second time in his career. The panel was a time for jokes, he says, because the rookies looked half-asleep. The breakout groups, on the other hand, are something serious. Rams rookies were paired with the Vikings a year ago. In that intimate setting, Vikings defensive tackle Sharrif Floyd shared part of his story of family tragedy and abuse.
Despite my unique access to the inner-workings of the symposium, the breakout is a setting not open to the media. Teams worry that a media presence, no matter how discreet, could stunt the progress happening in the room. Thus, I have to ask insiders what it’s like.
Says Stacy, “It wasn't no light, funny thing.”
Every team has a player engagement rep and a clinician present, and many send more than that. In recent years, teams have staged similar rookie seminars prior to the symposium and throughout the season. Many team reps believe the league symposium should be longer, or broken into two sessions, before and after the season. Some wonder why the league’s many undrafted rookies aren’t here in Aurora. All take a great deal of pride in their work.
“This isn’t just about educating them,” says one NFC clinician, “it’s about empowering them.”
After a buffet breakfast in the hotel’s conference center annex, the players reconvene at 7:45 a.m. for a trivia session with former Giants wide receiver and current NFL employee David Tyree. Using remote keypads, players answer questions pertaining to yesterday’s lectures with prizes ranging from footballs to Bose stereo equipment for the individual and team winners. They will do this at the beginning of each large session.
“Rap with me, rap with me,” Tyree says, quieting the room. “What percentage of you won’t be around by Year 4?”
The answer was part of Pioli’s presentation: 40%.
The morning is filled with breakout groups splitting the rookies into amphitheaters for four sessions: Respect at Work, Financial Strength, DUI Prevention and Emotional Wellness.
Next up is a panel on “total wellness” led by former NFL players Donte Stallworth, James Thrash and Patrick Kearney. Stallworth led the two smaller group sessions on DUI prevention. In partnership with MADD, the session is essentially a reminder to use a combination of the many resources, such as Uber, and common sense to avoid a fate like Stallworth’s.
It is Stallworth’s first time at the symposium following his 2009 arrest—and jail term—for DUI manslaughter in the death of 59-year-old Miami man Mario Reyes. The moderator is Dwight Hollier, an NFL linebacker from 1992 to ’99, the bulk of it with Miami. He’s not as engaging as Tucker, but he knows his subject matter intimately, steering the conversation to Stallworth.
“Only a fool learns from his own mistakes,” Stallworth told them. “The wise man learns from the mistakes of others. Let me be your experience. Let me make the mistake. Learn it today from me, not on your own. You don’t want to think, every single day, that you were involved in ending someone’s life.”
Thrash details his encounters with homeless men in Washington, which gave him a new perspective in privilege. Kearney talks about the importance of considering life after the game. Stallworth offers insight on the NFL’s plan to phase out use of the N-word on the field.
“Bill Belichick won't allow those words at all,” he says. “The more you train yourself, the better off you'll be.”
Another breakout follows, then lunch, then another large session. This time it’s Rams team physician Dr. Matthew Matava, who reads off warnings from a laundry list, and recites a doctor’s suggestion that makes perfect sense, but simply doesn’t translate to the gridiron.
“If you see a guy who may have a head injury, notify the medical staff,” Matava says. “Let them know that the guy next to you is not himself.”
“If you combine anti-inflammatories, you may lose blood through your gastrointestinal system resulting in anemia.”
At 3:15 pm, the doctor is out and the ex-player parade returns. Eddie George, Donovin Darius, Ricky Williams and Brian Banks will lead a panel on “reaching out,” meant to spell out the resources available to rookies. The players are familiar with each man’s story before it’s spelled out in NFL Films clips on the big screens. George, the Ohio State legend, played nine NFL seasons and graced the cover of Madden when most of the rookies were in elementary school. Few rookies would have remembered the blockbuster trade that made Ricky Williams a Saints draft pick in 1999, but all should recall his marijuana suspension and subsequent early retirement in 2004, before a return to the Dolphins and a CFL stint. Darius was a first-round pick of the Jaguars in ’98 and last played for the Dolphins in 2007, and now works in Player Engagement.
Learn it today from me, not on your own,” Stallworth told them. “You don’t want to think, every single day, that you were involved in ending someone’s life.
Banks is the only wild card. There is no Films reel to explain his story, so he does it himself: He was falsely accused of rape as a high school junior, spent five years in prison before being exonerated, and was a preseason member of the Falcons last season.
For the first time in this symposium, the room seems captivated with one person.
A rookie asks, “Have you forgiven the woman who falsely accused you?”
Banks: “For me all I ever wanted was my freedom back. I didn't seek revenge. I'm done with this completely. I could forgive her or I could keep hating her, but I just have to move on.
“What am I gonna do with this small window of opportunity? Am I gonna wait for somebody to give it to me, or am I going to take it? Running out of that tunnel with the fireworks and the crowd screaming, that's an experience you’ll never feel again. Take advantage of it.”
Darius alludes to his post-career depression and pointed to Junior Seau’s case as a warning against internalizing angst. Williams and George warn against the same.
“It behooves you,” George said, “to begin this journey with the end in mind.”
More breakout sessions. More food. Long tables filled with fried chicken, macaroni and cheese, salad bars, greens, fruits, chips and M&Ms with tiny NFC team logos printed on them.
Former NBA player Chris Herren is the night speaker, and his story is a familiar one to NFL staffers who are captivated nonetheless. Herren’s addiction to narcotics, including Oxycontin and heroin, saw a promising NBA career dashed and his life threatened on numerous occasions. Wearing a dark blue suit and nursing a cough for his third symposium, Herren paces back and forth in the green room with his hands clasped. Upon introduction he skips to the stage and fist bumps a production assistant.
He describes his first hard-drug experience: "That one line would take 14 years to walk away from."
Forty-five minutes later, the rookies file out with mixed expressions of “wow” and exhaustion. It has been the longest day of the symposium, and there’s another breakout session remaining. For 12 hours, they’ve learned about addiction, DUIs and depression from men who experienced them, all former players.
This was not always the design of the symposium. It began under a director who favored skits in which counselors would act out scenarios that might occur in players’ lives. When Troy Vincent was hired as VP of Player Engagement in 2010, the former Eagles cornerback re-hauled the format. Vincent, who had spoken at the symposium every year since ’98, brought in recent retirees who were his contemporaries. He put an emphasis on identifying former players who hadn’t walked the straight and narrow, making them uniquely equipped to offer insight.
“Troy was a visionary in terms of the way he structured this thing,” Hollier says. “With the peer to peer process, when you see a guy who’s worn the boots, the connection is powerful.”
Vincent was in the process of planning this symposium when he was promoted to Executive VP of Football Operations in March. The philosophical shift opened the door for a Pacman Jones a year ago, and Stallworth and Player Engagement rep Tank Johnson, a former defensive tackle who was arrested multiple times during his career. After Monday night’s breakouts, Johnson, 32, stopped to laugh, "Who would've thought Tank Johnson would be here giving advice?"
Vincent’s vision carried on without him.