Being drafted is the realization of something special, something that can never be taken away. But it also serves merely as a launching pad to becoming either a great success or a marginal flame-out. It is really the prelude to a dream.
From this point on, your journey proceeds with the expectation of the world weighing on your shoulders.
For every rookie, the story plays itself out in its own unique way. Some fly across the country into unfamiliar territory, while others land just a few miles from home. You can imagine the culture shock of a good ol’ farm boy from the heartlands suddenly whisked away to the Big Apple on a glory-filled journey to follow a dream and cement his legacy in history.
Or, visualize the excitement of experiencing the ocean for the first time upon arriving to a coastal city where you can peer across an endless sheet of glistening blue just outside your new, fully furnished condo.
Considering the tale for each rookie is unique, perhaps it’s best if I just tell you my experience of the days that followed after I was drafted by the Oakland Raiders.
Having your name called on draft day and talking to the coaches on the phone is obviously a wonderful and unforgettable moment. But it’s the thinking that occurs in the days after the draft which help remind you that this is the beginning of a stress-filled adventure, racing to stay one step ahead of the competition, a competition that pours in endlessly to nip at your heels.
The expectation of the NFL awaited me. Did I have what it takes to cut it?
I was expected to switch from defensive end to middle linebacker when I arrived in Oakland. This undoubtedly added an extra element of concern to the entire transition process for me. But I was not the only one who was concerned.
Every unproven NFL rookie deals with the stinging feeling of self-doubt. Am I big enough, strong enough, fast enough to play against the best in the world? I tell myself I have the ability; I’m confident, after all. When I put my mind to the game, I’m virtually unstoppable. I have no limits but the ones I set for myself.
Rookie minicamps come faster than you can imagine. I could be wrong, but for me, it seemed like only a few days after the draft had ended.
The day before we got to serious business, all the attending rookies were flown in and picked up at the airport. Then, we were escorted to a nearby hotel, which also happens to be a rock throw away from the practice facilities. My roommate there was former San Diego State linebacker Kirk Morrison, who was drafted in the third round that year and was expected to contribute early and often for the Raiders.
That first day of arrival is dedicated simply to traveling, getting checked into the hotel and then heading over to the Raiders headquarters on a shuttle filled with the excitement and nervousness of NFL hopefuls all looking to call the league home.
As we pulled into the parking lot, there were dozens of diehard Raider fans waiting outside the entrance gate, holding welcome signs as they hoped to get their first glance at the newest Raider rookies. Walking up to the entrance of the building, there was a large sign splashed across the top which read “The Team of the Decades.”
Once we walked in, we were greeted by coaches, staff members and several legendary Raiders such as Dave Casper, Jim Otto, George Atkinson, Jack Tatum, Robert Jenkins and Jim Plunkett. Norv Turner, Rob Ryan, Fred Biletnikoff and Willie Brown were also there.
Getting the opportunity to meet true legends of the game was a surreal experience. The entire wave of introductions and welcoming helped illustrate the gravity of the moment. The men who had once put these uniforms on were not imaginary characters out of a comic book. These were real men who had all achieved what each one of us were hoping to accomplish.
The day started with dinner and an orientation where all rookies were given VHS tapes (yes, this was back in 2005) and books on the history of the Oakland Raiders, as well as itineraries for the minicamp and schedules for the coming months.
Once we were all gathered into the cafeteria for lunch, we were greeted with an official welcome from head coach Norv Turner. He spoke to the team and spelled out in detail what the next few days were going to be like and what to expect. He also congratulated all of us for the honor of being invited to this minicamp. I would guess the feeling of honor was shared by everyone in that room.
After lunch, the first day of my professional career was spent taking care of practical matters such as a team physical, where they pretty much examine you from head to toe to make sure they aren’t investing time and money on players who are essentially damaged goods. Always inspect the merchandise before purchasing, and this entire camp is basically one long inspection.
After physicals, it’s on to the equipment room, where there's an obvious hierarchy slanted in favor of the top draft picks in this class. That group got to choose their jersey numbers first and make requests for specialized equipment.
The less important rookies, like the late-rounders and undrafted free agents, were basically ushered in and out of the process as quickly as possible. Considering the sheer volume of players needing equipment all at once, you really don’t want to give these equipment guys any added work or responsibilities, as they seem to convey an urgent nature toward guys who are not considered a priority.
I was just assigned a number without discussion and was thankful it was a number I’d worn my freshman year in junior college, No. 57.
Individual pictures were taken at some point throughout that day, and we had interviews with members of the team's official website.
When it was over, we were shuttled back to our hotels to get as much rest as possible. As you can imagine, no matter how much you needed the sleep that night, it was challenging to turn the thoughts off and fall asleep. The next day would be our first opportunity to prove ourselves in a Raider helmet.
Heading into this entire experience, I was aware I could fail to make a football team for the first time in my life. I wasn’t, however, expecting to show up to my locker for the first time only to find I was given one of several temporary lockers added to the center of the room to accommodate the added bodies.
From that moment on, I was hit with a stark and unsettling reality. No longer was I here simply hoping not to get cut; but rather, I was trying to squeeze my way onto a team that didn’t really expect me to make it. I realized that in order for me to make this roster, not only would I have to literally take a roster spot away from someone else, but I would also have to be better than the handful of other rookie hopefuls trying for the exact same thing.
At that point, the intensity and the anxiety kicked into another gear. Urgency became my daily inner monologue. I knew there would be a mountain to climb, but I had no idea how high it could reach.
As the days and practices of our first minicamp ground away, my confidence grew as well.
Despite having to learn an entirely new position from scratch, I was indeed fully gripped to the wheel, locked in the driver’s seat of my own destiny—a destiny where hard work, determination and the intellect to dissect the competition have driven me to unparalleled success up to this point.
By the conclusion of this first camp, I felt ready to take the NFL by storm.
Rookie minicamps can bring about a false sense of security. The guys who attend are not all rookies—though most are—some are lower-level free agents using the opportunity as an extended tryout for the team. Many of the rookies who attend this camp never receive an invite to training camp come July, so the environment can give off quite a misleading first impression of what to expect from the NFL.
Once OTAs with the complete roster started, I was finally able to see the veterans, and for the first time, this was the true representation of the NFL.
I’ll never forget what went through my mind the first time I stepped out on that practice field with those guys. My eyes must have been wide as saucers and my mouth hanging open like a cartoon character. These men were enormous. It seemed as if every player on the roster towered over me. I had always been undersized for my position, but for the first time in my life, I actually felt little.
Sure, these guys were big, but then to see them move...remarkable. I saw physical gifts up close and personal so impressive that I wondered how in the heck I’d ever compete against this. I was surrounded by guys who weighed 280 pounds and were equipped with blazing speed. There were acrobatic air displays from future Hall of Famers and muscles the size of my head popping out in every direction.
Every NFL rookie shares a commonality as they prepare for the accomplishments of a lifetime, true greatness but a tree branch away. Yet few realize the gravity of the words that follow: Hard workers come cheap in the NFL. How many “hard-working guys” do you think have passed through the halls of countless organizations throughout the years?
How do you defy the odds and become the few who actually latch on, find success on a field crammed tight with world-class talent?
These are questions every rookie will have to face as their challenges increase the closer they get to kickoff on opening day, if they're lucky enough to make it that far.
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