Every first-year player entering the NFL comes with the distinct understanding that rookie hazing is a rite of passage designed to humiliate. What they don’t know, however, is just what exactly that process will look like.
When you think of an NFL athlete, the last thing you’d expect to be lacking in that player’s life is respect. Yet for an unproven rookie barely finding his way within the confines of the organization, respect comes few and far between.
For first-year guys, the road toward acceptance is not one likely to be traveled smoothly. Respect among coaches and peers is akin to currency. In order to access those bargaining chips in this league, you first better make some substantial deposits.
Until that moment arrives, the plight of rookies around the league may feel more like indentured servitude rather than the typical glitz and glamor usually associated with the pro-football lifestyle.
One of the first and most common hazing experiences a rookie encounters around this time of year is intended to strip away any remaining ego you may have held onto from the star-studded college days. What better way to do that than to attack one of the most identifiable visual elements of our character—our hair?
When the veterans gather around the locker room equipped with a pair of clippers and a series of bad fashion ideas, rookies can be seen fleeing the scene like roaches scattering when the lights come on. Unfortunately, there’s really no escaping the inevitable. In fact, the rooks who fight the hardest to preserve their precious locks or manicured waves typically are the ones who get it the worst.
Veterans love holding “a fighter” down and watching him squirm as they take away something dear to his heart. The psychology behind this must be fascinating. A player is only given mercy on rare occasions. Religious reasons and things of that nature tend to be the only exceptions.
Some guys end up being adorned with intricate designs etched into their head with the craftsmanship of a true artist, while others, like myself, were transformed into a disease-ridden transient, suffering from a multitude of psychological and, perhaps, dermatological issues.
I personally was one of the guys who went quietly into the barber’s chair from hell. Realizing the futility of a struggle, I figured this could all be viewed in a positive light. After all, it’s not every day that one gets to say they were defaced by NFL football players.
It also meant that any humiliation regarding my appearance would be null and void considering it was manufactured by the very guys who would be initiating the ridicule. Besides, we’re essentially isolated from society, so any worry of public criticism is not really a factor, except for when my first game in the NFL happens to be played with giant patches of hair missing from all over my head.
For some, messing with their hair is about as bad as it gets. But generally, the hazing process tends to get progressively more unpleasant for rookies and more enjoyable for veterans as the boredom of training camp take its toll on the psyche.
One of the more regular rookie responsibilities throughout camp is forcing the newbies of each positional group to carry any helmets or shoulder pads belonging to the vets at the end of practice and making sure they’re placed back at their locker. Trying to carry 10 shoulder pads and eight helmets all at once is not easy, especially after a tough practice.
This daily hazing ritual can be somewhat stressful because, if either the helmet or shoulder pads of a veteran happens to be left out on the practice field, well, there might be a few rookies taped to the goalpost at the end of practice the next day.
This isn’t a good situation to find yourself in because, once taped down, you’re essentially at the mercy of any and everything that may come your way. Rarely does being taped down not come with some extracurricular fun. Some of the common avenues of mischief are to dump ice-cold water on the players strapped to the post.
Covering the helpless rookie with shaving cream is a classic go-to as well—the possibilities are limited only to what a guy can get his hands on and his imagination.
Along the same vein of the daily expectations for a rookie are little things to remind them of their status. This can come in the form of always having to be the last one in line for every drill. Rookies are rarely allowed to go in front of veterans in position drills. This means they’re expected to go to the back of the line for nearly everything.
Each rookie in the Raiders organization was expected to drive to a fried chicken restaurant called Popeye’s to pick up enough food to feed your entire position group every road game. The worst-case scenario, under the circumstances, was being forced to write down specific order requests from guys who wanted to be picky.
It’s worth noting that the established veterans never paid for the food. Instead, mostly broke rookies looking to gain traction in the NFL had to foot the bill. As backward as this may seem, the younger guys could always use some of their per diem or get help from the higher draft picks who had the extra cash from their signing bonus.
Like most things in the relationship between veterans and rookies, failure to deliver could result in some serious repercussions from the older guys. Avoidance of those conflicts will almost always be the best option.
The most embarrassing hazing tactic, in my opinion, generally came with any request calling for us to stand up and perform. Whether it was singing, telling a joke or doing a magic trick, it didn’t really matter. What mattered most was that you listened to the vets. Every team has this on some level.
The Raiders had an annual rookie show toward the end of training camp where every rookie stood up in front of the team and performed. Guys were given the choice to perform with a group or do something solo.
The audience for these performances was not expected to be a forgiving one, considering a huge part of the fun from it all is to be a tough crowd and give the performer a hard time. The most common outcome of a performance was to be booed off stage while balled up papers were being thrown at you.
My performance at the rookie show was actually something of legends. Coaches and players would go on to talk about my impersonation of defensive line coach Keith Millard nearly every day for almost two full years. Here is an excerpt from a previous article (link above) describing the experience for me:
I was begged and harassed on a daily basis to get back up on stage to do an encore performance. I constantly declined this request, as it seemed unfair for me to give multiple performances as my reward for doing a great job.
Funnily enough, yet also sadly, the most memorable legacy I left as an Oakland Raider was my ability to give the greatest coach impersonation that anyone had ever witnessed. I was never able to escape the abundant requests and powerful reactions created by that performance.
I look back on it now with a smile and sense of pride. After all, it isn’t every day you can have a room full of guys—many of whom you grew up admiring—on the floor, laughing with tears in their eyes.
When it’s all said and done, rookie hazing serves primarily as a fun tradition which helps to build team chemistry while establishing a hierarchy among 53 men all vying for stardom—players acclimated to being “the man” at their respective colleges now being forced to the bottom of the totem pole.
The best thing to do throughout the process is to ride the wave and learn to laugh at yourself along the way.
Trust me, it goes by a lot easier if you don’t resist or put up a fight.
Ryan Riddle is an NFL Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report and a contributor to Footballguys.com. Before B/R, Ryan played DE at the University of California. Afterward, he was drafted by the Oakland Raiders and spent time with the New York Jets, Atlanta Falcons, Baltimore Ravens and Los Angeles Avengers.