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.”
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.”