I don't know many former NFL players that don't agree with me that your first year is always the hardest. But no matter how you perform on the field, the truth is it's all a new experience for you. You are practicing in longer training camps, playing in almost a handful of preseason games—and that's before you even get to the games that matter.
What many of us never realized early on is how important it is to take care of your body. As a young guy making NFL money, I was looking to get out and enjoy myself, not sit around a training room or in a cold tub. Unless I was injured I was always taught previously to avoid the training room at all costs anyway. The quicker I could leave the facility the faster I could get better acquainted with the streets of Tampa after all.
However, without the proper maintenance your body starts to break eventually down during a 17-week season, something I learned the hard way my rookie year.
There's also no training table like most of us had in college, so we are on our own make the right—or, for that matter, wrong—choices in our diet. Some guys lose too much weight because they are eating the wrong kinds of meals and not paying attention to how many calories they are taking in. Of course, the same can be said for the guys who gain too much weight during the season as well.
After eating bad week after week, eventually it's going to catch up with you regardless of which end of the spectrum you're on. You wake up near the end of the season and notice you aren't performing as well on the field. Then you check the scale and what do you know, you're at least 10 pounds off from your optimum weight.
My experience with this is kind of comical now that I look back on it. You see, I gained weight before the draft to try to avoid the label of "tweener." I wanted to be known as a defensive lineman and not a linebacker because I felt it would help my draft stock.
Then the Philadelphia Eagles drafted me as a linebacker, so I had to quickly lose all that weight. I got cut during training camp and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers then brought me on the practice squad to play defensive end. Of course that meant I had to try to gain all that weight back while practicing in this Florida heat every day.
I became so accustomed to overeating that even after I had gained enough weight I didn't stop. The next thing I know I felt like I was trying to pass rush with a gorilla on my back. That was not a good look or feel for me at all.
Then there is just the monotony of doing the same thing over and over week after grinding week. In high school most of us play 10 or so regular-season games; in college we all played 11 or so games before bowl season or the playoffs.
In the NFL you're talking about almost double that when you add in the preseason games. It's more than double if you go deep into the playoffs. That's a relatively huge jump in the number of times you have to go out and compete against quality competition, and it takes a toll on you mentally as much as it does physically.
Around about Week 10 in 1996 with the Bucs is when I ran head-first into the wall. It was as if my body was tapping out and telling me it was time for football to be over. My legs were heavy, my arms were weak and I was sore almost everywhere. To say I wasn't looking forward to practice would be a massive understatement.
It didn't help that we started off so bad that year and the playoffs were already out of the question. I still wanted to play and practice my best because I didn't want to get cut. I would be lying if I said it was easy to get motivated at that point in the season, however.
I had never gone through such a situation before, where I always felt rundown. No matter what I did at that point I just never felt like I had fresh legs.
Fellow rookies on the team were going through the same things as well. We didn't all hit the wall at the same time, but we definitely all took turns experiencing the collision. In some ways it was comforting and made it better, as we were all commiserating about it together.
As you get older, if you are fortunate enough to continue to play in the NFL, that rookie wall can teach you some valuable lessons. You start to realize that you can't burn the candle at both ends and still expect to perform at a high level come November and December.
You learn that you can't eat whatever is laying around the house or on the most convenient take-out menu and expect your skill level not to go down. You learn the value of preventive maintenance and doing all you can to avoid nagging injuries.
That first year, however, you don't have such experiences to draw from and you're basically flying blind. Near the end of the season, you end up paying for your bad choices by hitting that rookie wall.