Playing in the NFL was unlike anything else I have ever experienced in my life. Although I had already been playing football since I was a little kid, doing it as a professional was a lot different than I expected. There is a lot more to it than just what happens on the field and there is no way to fully prepare for it.
There are plenty of lessons I learned in the NFL that I could have never learned had I not made it there. I picked out eight things that I definitely would have never known had I only been a spectator.
When you watch movies or TV shows about professional football players, they tend to play up the glamorous parts of the life style. Guys are out partying with random women the night before the game or doing various other activities that would likely have a negative effect on their performance.
It's easy to get the impression that this is the reality of most NFL players, but the truth is that on road trips most of our time is heavily regulated, leaving little opportunity for those activities.
We would always leave for away games the day before, and when we arrived, their were only a few hours before we had to be ready for meetings. Once meetings were over we had bed check and a curfew, so if anybody was going to go out they would have to be breaking team rules.
I won't sit here and say that everybody was a saint or that nobody tried to sneak out back then. What I will say that the percentage of players that even considered such a thing was very low because the repercussions for getting caught were severe. The coaches are very aware that young men sometimes make bad decisions so they made sure to have strong deterrents in place so nobody got any bright ideas.
In the offseason, of course guys get out and about, some partying more than others. But the notion that guys are out partying right before the game is just a fantasy—one that guys who actually played will confirm isn't close to being true.
If you play in the NFL for any length of time, chances are you will spend some time in the training room. Even if you never have a major injury, the minor ailments you pick up during the season have to be taken care of.
After awhile, you get a feel for how to handle all kinds of small injuries and that comes in handy when you're done playing ball.
You probably won't have ultra sound or electronic stimulation machines to aid your recovery, but you will know when to use cold and when to use heat if you sprain your ankle playing basketball. Likewise, if you pull a hamstring playing flag football, you will know how much time you will need to rest. Even when you're sick, you get exposed to which over-the-counter remedies work best, because that's generally all the trainers will give you.
It's admittedly some odd knowledge to have, but it's a lot better than having to run to the doctor every time some kind of small health issue comes up.
It's hard to understand just how much time you have to invest in getting better to be even a good player.
First you have to learn the play book which is no easy task in and of itself. Then you have to be able to process the minor changes to the game plan every week that can be like learning a mini play book over and over. You also have to work at your skills every day, and that means going out before practice and staying behind after most of the other players are gone if necessary.
Watching film is also time consuming, especially if you are serious about your job. Not only do you watch it all day at the facility, but to really be prepared, you take it home and watch it there also. Just having it playing on your TV isn't enough either, you have to really pay attention to the details for it to make a difference.
All told, almost every day during the season I would put in at least 10 hours combined into preparing for the game. That was a far cry from college where I might put in five hours altogether every day getting ready to play. I would have never known it took that much time to be an NFL player if I hadn't gone through it myself.
When I was signed to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers I kept hearing about how great it was going to be to live and work in a place where there is no state tax. I had a rude awakening at the end of my rookie year, however, when I discovered that you still have to pay away tax when you play away games in cities where they have it.
As you can imagine, I was none to pleased to learn this after the fact, but there is no way to get around it. Unless I had become a travelling salesman out of college, I can't imagine I would have learned about those tax rules any other way.
The equipment managers are some of the most important cogs of an NFL team. Most of them are rarely seen in public however, as most of their work is done behind the scenes.
As a player, having a good relationship with the equipment managers can help in a variety of ways. For one, they will help you get every thing you could possibly need to feel comfortable playing the game. Whether it be socks or gloves or any other item you think helps you play better, those guys will find a way to get it for you if you're cool.
They can also help you with your game day routine by setting up all of your stuff just the way you like it. That way when you come into the locker room that's one less thing to distract you before you have to go out and play.
These guys are invisible to most of the people outside the NFL but every player knows their worth. If I had never played the game I wouldn't have had any clue how vital they are to keeping everything running smoothly.
There is this notion that veteran NFL players mentor the younger guys and to some extent that's true. The exception comes in when it's their backup, and the reality is, there aren't many guys that will help someone take their job.
I remember when some fans were upset to find out that Brett Favre wasn't mentoring Aaron Rodgers when he was still the starting quarterback for the Green Bay Packers. What it boils down to, is that the more tips you give your younger back up, the more you are aiding them in over taking you on the depth chart. It seems selfish from the outside of the situation, but think about it, would you willingly train someone to take your job?
I didn't understand this before I got to the league, but it made perfect sense as my career went on. You have competing interests as a professional football player and that's just an inherent part of the game. For the team to win, every player needs to be there best, but for you to continue to have a job on that team, you also have to continue to be the best option for your role. Whether you're the starter, a back up or a special teams player, once a younger guy has over taken you ability wise, the team is going to show you the door.
That doesn't mean you can't pull for your teammates, but pulling for them doesn't mean you have to teach them all of your tricks of the trade. If they are smart and you are above them on the depth chart, they will be watching you closely anyway, if they aren't, then it's really not your problem.
At some point every player has to leave the game and most aren't ready when that time comes. Something I learned from being in the NFL is very few players speed that process up by mentoring the guy behind them.
Being in the NFL means you're a professional and teams expect you to act that way. Most teams rent buses for travel to and from the airport, and also to get to the game on game day when you're playing an away game. The times that the buses are supposed to leave are written on your itinerary and if you are late they leave without you.
This was different from other level's of football where the coach wants every player to be accounted for before he leaves. We had situations where guys had to drive themselves to the airport, by their own plane ticket or take a cab to the game because they were late, back when I was playing. If you missed the bus it was then your responsibility to get where you needed to be, and not showing up was not an option.
I was already a very punctual person, but seeing other guys miss the bus when I was a rookie had me paranoid for the rest of my career. That's something that I wasn't aware of before I came into the NFL, but it definitely made me a more punctual person.
I, like most players who make it to the NFL, was a multi-year starter in college. Because of that I never really played on special teams much—as it was mostly for the back up players. Once I got to the NFL, there was a bit of role reversal, because now I was the back up and was the one who had to learn to play on special teams.
At first I had no idea how important this was, but I soon came to understand that no matter how well I played defensive end, I would never be active on game day if I didn't get better on special teams. I believe a lot of young NFL players take too long to get this in their head and that's why many of them never stick around.
Once I figured this out, I worked just as hard trying to block on punt team and kick off return as I did trying to work on my pass rush moves. That's how I was finally able to get on the active roster and it's part of the reason I was able to last seven years in the league. I never would have recognized just how important special teams are for back ups if I didn't go through that myself, however.