So This is the NFL, Part I

Robert Klemko
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Rookies at the symposium, shown here in 2013, face long days of lectures, with various former players heading up each session. (John McDonnell/The Washington Post/Getty Images)
Rookies at the symposium, shown here in 2013, face long days of lectures, with various former players heading up each session. (John McDonnell/The Washington Post/Getty Images)

Day 2

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.

Donte Stallworth's career never rebounded after pleading guilty to DUI manslaughter charges in 2009.  (John McDonnell/The Washington Post/Getty Images)
Donte Stallworth’s career never rebounded after pleading guilty to DUI manslaughter charges in 2009. (John McDonnell/The Washington Post/Getty Images)

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.”

Blank stares.

“If you combine anti-inflammatories, you may lose blood through your gastrointestinal system resulting in anemia.”

Blanker stares.

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.”

Brian Banks lived out his dream in 2013, attending training camp and playing in preseason games with the Falcons. (David Goldman/AP)
Brian Banks lived out his dream in 2013, attending training camp and playing in preseason games with the Falcons. (David Goldman/AP)

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.



No excuse for even one blank stare in that room.

Hearing from the perps is a good idea.  They oughta consider hiring Ryan Leaf when he gets outta the slammer.