Training camps around the NFL are nearly underway. For the rookies, this will be their first of hopefully many in a long fruitful career. In the spirit of trying to make a dream a reality, I offer up a bit of unusual advice.
As of recently, concussions have become a hot-button topic around the league, as well as the country, but in order to survive in the NFL there’s a sad but realistic truth you must face.
As a football player, you have to take risks. The NFL is a high-stakes game of legacy-making and fortune-building. In order to play, you have to be willing to come to terms with the inherent dangers this sport comes with. In a society where violence and hazards are becoming an endangered taboo pleasure, the aforementioned is the best advice worth giving.
The resounding theme of any training camp is relentless competition. If it were a movie, a worthy title would be “The Never-ending Story.” Which ironically is exactly what you’ll wish it was called once the hammer drops on the day of final roster cuts.
In camp, competition begins before your breakfast reaches the lower intestine on the morning you arrive and doesn’t stop until you’re either sent home or you make your family proud. But before you ever see a single snap against another jersey color, the real competition is fought tirelessly within the confines of the organization, among the many you’ve come to admire, respect and even befriend.
Now, under the baking sun, you fight.
If the summer temperatures prove too intense for you, well, go home before you're seared by the scorching microscope of NFL evaluators ready to jump on every imperfection with reckless abandon. Some coaches can even conjure up images of the drill sergeant in Full Metal Jacket.
Training camp is a contest of will, a battle of attrition—one which exists far beyond the realms of safety and free from the shackles of equality—or at least some version of it that society presumes to prescribe to.
Those spring minicamps you powered through with a smile while wearing a pair of shorts, yeah those, are extremely misleading. This, my dear rookie, is a whole new ball of wax.
No longer are you going against college kids often more eager to hit up the frat parties after a game. These are full-grown men with fully-developed man-strength and finely-tuned technique—true masters of their craft, whittled down to the best-of-the-best.
The size of these men alone could demand its own article.
So what’s my advice to all you rookies out there (even you imaginary ones)?
I could hit you up with some standard guidance like “stay hydrated out there, fellas,” or “make sure you get a lot of rest, study your playbooks and listen to those vets who’ve been there before.” But haven’t we been satiated with that same ol’ rhetoric before? I mean, what rookie or fan for that matter really needs to hear that stuff? I should also tell you to listen to your coaches as well—seems kind of obvious right?
If I’m going to sit here and dispense something of any value, something perhaps worth reading—well this would be it.
The media and NFL’s mega PR machines would like us to think player safety is a top priority and that players would be acting in their own best interest by being honest and forthright in regard to all head injuries—but truth be told, a player’s real interests are rarely centered around long-term safety.
For some, making the most of a rare opportunity to generate millions for yourself and family, immortalizing your name and legacy throughout history, should easily outweigh the potential dangers of reoccurring head injuries or other possible disabilities.
It cannot be assumed that those rare few who play football in the NFL are willing to sacrifice career ambitions, fortune and fame for potential health risks.
As both the league and the media emphasize player safety to unprecedented levels, often in reaction to tragedy and lawsuits, the culture of toughness defined by playing through pain and injuries continues to become a thing of the past, an archaic mindset now long forgotten.
Now, when a player receives or delivers a hard hit and hears the ringing in his ears, he’s strongly encouraged to find a member of the medical staff for an examination. This indeed is the responsible thing to do in the name of health for the player and litigation for the league, especially considering the ongoing lawsuit between the league and players.
Long-term bodily harm accumulated from years of football is absolutely a serious issue and a very real threat. The discourse surrounding the violent nature of football is a worthy subject which we must vigorously continue in the pursuit of seeking out ways to make the game safer.
With that said, the advice I offer here is specifically targeting a rookie entering his first NFL training camp. From this specific perspective, political correctness and overt caution must go by the wayside.
The bottom line here is this: Most rookies entering training camp are struggling against incredible odds to make an NFL roster. Often the challenge at hand is to unseat an established veteran intensely fighting to keep a dream alive and support a family. With so much at stake and so many obstacles to overcome, every possible edge against the competition must be considered and utilized.
My advice may appear to be callous upon first glance, but given the circumstances, the NFL is not an environment which caters for long to those who intend on having a nice, safe career, free of major injuries or pain.
So as you enter into this rite of passage known as training camp, do so with the mindset of a warrior. You must be somewhat careless with ideas such as health. Remember, up to this point you have done nothing to prove yourself to your coaches or teammates in any way.
Throw your body around and make some plays.
Expect to bleed, expect pain, prepare to experience strength and speed like never before.
As you do this, know that helmets will collide like thunder, they’ll bounce off turf as if it were cement and bash into knees with regularity. During this process you can almost guarantee your “bell will be rung.”
This will be the moment of truth in the advancement of your NFL career. Choices will have to be made. Do you buy into the league-mandated, head-injury policies like Alex Smith did during the season, or do you play through the moment and hope it’s nothing to worry about?
Unfortunately, we all know the answer to this if the rookie's true intent is to establish a productive NFL career.
You suck it up and keep fighting like the tough, son-of-a-gun you are. You don’t just do this once, but over and over again until eventually you have proven yourself and can afford to tone it down and save the damage for Sundays.
This is the reality of the NFL. Good luck, rookies.
Ryan Riddle is an NFL Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report and a contributor to Footballguys.com. Before B/R, Ryan played defensive end at the University of California, where he still holds the single-sack record. Afterward, he was drafted by the Oakland Raiders and spent time with the New York Jets, Atlanta Falcons and Baltimore Ravens.