The jump from high school to big-time college football is a substantial one in terms of speed, talent and complexities of the game. But that adjustment period pales in comparison to the jump to the National Football League.
The reason this sport stands above all others in popularity is largely due to the unique juxtaposition of ballerina-like grace and power displayed by the human body as it flies through the air to make a catch or implodes on contact from a massive, muscle-bound gargantuan launching himself into the solar plexus of another.
To most—those sane individuals who keep a safe distance from this action—the idea of trying to compete at this level seems laughable. Until I began playing in college, that’s how I saw it whenever contemplating the fantasy of playing in the NFL.
During my time in college, I was always considered smallish for a defensive lineman, at 6’2” and 250 pounds. This never fazed me; I had great functional strength and surprising quickness, which I managed to maximize to my advantage using my intellect and unparalleled relentlessness.
Following my senior year in which I set the school’s single-season sack record, I had a fair amount of confidence and a chip on my shoulder after sliding deep into the sixth round before being drafted by the Oakland Raiders.
Shortly after the draft in April, the Raiders held a minicamp typically designed to introduce the new rookie additions to the team and to show them what being in the NFL is all about…
This is where the differences between college football and the NFL begin.
In college, you’re competing against boys fresh out of high school who are just beginning to fill out their bodies. Most were the best players on their respective teams and very good athletes. All-Stars, All-Americans, blue-chippers, as well as walk-ons and middle-of-the-road guys who show promise.
In the NFL, you are up against the absolute best 2,000 football players in the entire world. This group is strictly comprised of the biggest, strongest, toughest men you will ever see in your entire life, as well as perhaps the best all-around athletes on the planet.
College is typically that time in a football player’s career when he begins to lift weights, train hard and turn his body into both a weapon and shield. Meanwhile, the natural maturation and evolution of the human body is simultaneously playing itself out.
But that specific part of the process is far from optimized. Essentially, nearly all players encountered during college-level competition are likely just beginning to emerge from the adolescence stage, a process which normally ends physically around the mid-to-late twenties and mentally much later in life.
This was more or less what I imagined to see in the NFL; after all, I’d watched NFL football my whole life on TV. It was a process, but hey, I had a winning formula—I knew exactly what I was doing.
Reality was not quite what I had anticipated. Never in my life had I felt so physically irrelevant and small.
When you were a kid, you tried to beat your older relative at one-on-one basketball in the driveway or at the park. Getting that victory was never impossible, but man was it difficult to achieve. Sometimes it takes game after game of losing before you finally put it all together. Then, as time goes by, those wins come more frequently until you finally surpass the current level of competition.
Now, replace your oldest relative with guys like Warren Sapp and Ted Washington, who would essentially be asked to look at MY childish, inexperienced face in the huddle while I tell them the plays, get them huddled up and try to be something of a leader to a group of grown men who have absolutely no respect for me—nor should they at that point, really.
I was terrified at the idea of playing a position I’d never played (linebacker), in a league from which I have no experience, all while telling a group of stars and Hall of Famers what to do. That alone can take months to overcome. It paralyzed me for pretty much my entire rookie season.
Another striking difference that begins to soak in upon arrival is your new regimen. The amount of free time you have, which is a luxury of every college athlete, is the devil in disguise and can feel so wonderful. Here at last is that glorious yet elusive comfort, long missing from your life all these years.
An NFL offseason can feel somewhat like a vacation with all the extra time you suddenly have. The sooner a rookie realizes he needs to take control of his own life, the more likely his chances of success will increase. These hidden variables in scouting are so difficult to predict, even by the best in the business.
Self-discipline becomes the difference between a Peyton Manning and a Ryan Leaf. Without it, you are destined for a lackluster career either ending faster than it started, or being forever known as one of those guys who had all the talent in the world but squandered it away.
In the NFL, time and how one uses it quickly becomes one's worst enemy. I didn’t realize this my rookie year, as I did the regular, by-the-book Raider offseason and training schedule. I followed their lead and lavished in my free time and cozy new apartment equipped with freedom and endless possibilities.
From my ignorant point of view, this free time was all the energy I once put into school. Now, I could save up all that energy and apply it to my profession as long as it was done within the designated times of the day that were mandated for working out.
“How glorious it is to be in the NFL; I could get use to this,” I would think to myself.
But when training camp started and we suited up in full gear, they quite literally separated the men from the boys. The intensity and talent level of college athletes competing for a starting spot is much different from the heat you feel from those who are fighting to feed their families and prolong a career of glory, fame and wealth beyond their wildest dreams.
In theory, I was aware of this, but it took experience to finally understand it.
The preparation and dedication to the game must be absolute in order to sustain success for a long period of time in the NFL. This is probably the most crucial difference between college and the pros.
The best professional football players learn how to dissect the game and their opponents long before they take the field. College athletes never have the luxury of going so in-depth. So, essentially everyone in college is on a relatively even playing field in terms of preparation.
College football is equalized in preparation opportunity, while the NFL is generally more equalized in physical ability. Guys in the league quickly realize they can no longer rely solely on their physical gifts to be dominant.
For this reason, people should expect a significant increase in production from a senior who has already received his degree and is simply playing out his final year of football eligibility while taking filler courses. Hence, guys such as Robert Griffin III. There is often a decisive advantage of increased preparation time.
Offensive and defensive schemes in the NFL are so complex that players often must first prove they can function within the system without compromising the entire unit before they are even allowed on the field, despite their physical ability. To accomplish reliability against committing mental errors on a consistent level takes a ton of reps and tons of studying during your free time.
This is just for achieving a level of competence, mind you. In order to truly become great, you have to take that dedication even further. This is what that free time must be reduced to. But no one is going to be there breathing down your neck to make it happen.
When you combine everything I’ve discussed, you’re left with the reason why the speed of the NFL is something every rookie will feel and likely talk about at some point in their career. It is the sum total of causations and reactions spawned by elite strength and athleticism, toughness, mental capacity, hard work, self-discipline, creativity and years of experience.
For those like myself who fail to keep up, the game can pass you by faster than you can deposit that first check in the bank.
By the time I’d learned the proper use of free time, it apparently was too late. It took being cut and going to the Jets to show me there are levels of work so excessive, they just had to be counterproductive. In reality, it was that same devil convincing me it was damaging. The truth of the matter was this is the level of dedication you must have in order to separate yourself from the best of the rest.
Eric Mangini brought these work habits to the Jets organization, which is also what the players so vehemently protested and resisted. But over time, many of the preparation rituals became habit and appreciated by players after yielding positive results.
A team born of this high level of expectation instilled by Mangini is what the loose and flamboyant Rex Ryan inherited and was able to exploit while applying the perfect counter to it by being the players’ coach he so naturally is. Unfortunately, for every year the Jets are removed from Mangini’s demanding style of preparation, they get one step closer to becoming undisciplined, lazy and complacent.
The path of least resistance is a temptation so powerful it often poisons the appreciation and value of hard work.