During the 2000 Rookie Symposium out in San Diego, I, along with close to 300 other rookies, put condoms on bananas, sat through role-play sessions and watched as two beautiful women walked up on stage to reveal that they were HIV positive.
But as we move ahead 14 years, the NFL has progressed from the amateur exercises and scare tactics to improve, upgrade and present an overall better product for incoming rookies as they make the transition to the league.
The four-day mandatory event—which is taking place this week in Ohio—covers the entire NFL landscape with a focus on history, player expectations and social responsibility along with breakout sessions on financial planning, locker room conduct and off-the-field situations.
A crash course on how to act and play like a professional.
With handpicked former and current players delivering testimonies on success (or failure), there is a wealth of knowledge for these rookies to take in if they use the symposium as a learning tool.
“This is no longer an orientation of what not to do. Absolutely not,” NFL senior vice president Troy Vincent told me in a previous interview. “We are going to talk about this NFL experience.”
Samples of that “experience” are delivered through messages of players such as Chicago Bears offensive guard Kyle Long. The former first-round pick out of Oregon was at the symposium this week to talk with the 2014 draft class.
Long spoke on the importance of finding a mentor, a leader to follow in the locker room as a young player.
“My message was mentorship,” Long told me this week. “Find someone you want to be like and latch on to their habits and attitude. Mine are Roberto Garza and Matt Slauson.”
A simple yet strong message that might not really sound like much from an outside perspective. But I can attest to the value, the importance of building a relationship with a veteran in the locker room to learn from.
During my rookie year in St. Louis, that was veteran cornerback Todd Lyght. I tried my best to copy his approach to practice, training, etc. A true pro who taught me how to prepare for life in the NFL both on and off the field.
And it’s these type of messages from Long (a player who saw an enormous amount of success during his first season) that should resonate with rookies.
Along with the Bears offensive guard, these rookies will hear testimonies from the Cardinals’ Tyrann Mathieu and from former players such as Eddie George and Aeneas Williams this week.
More information, more knowledge.
Maybe it’s a lesson in surviving the demands of the NFL game, managing the nightlife, building a solid financial portfolio to fall back on or post-career options that can ease the transition into the real world once the game ends.
The symposium isn’t perfect, and it won’t guarantee success for rookies who come into the league with a sense of entitlement.
And if these first-year players treat the event as an obligation or something to sit through until it is time to fly back home for a break before training camp starts, it’s going to be bust.
I saw it for myself back in 2000.
Guys falling asleep, slumped back in chairs or talking about the amount of diamonds on the new watch of a first-round pick sitting two rows ahead of them while a former player talked up on the stage.
Yes, the event can feel drawn out, it can drag at times and some of the lessons can be defined as common sense.
But the rookies still have to buy in and use the information as a positive.
Find something, heck, find anything that can help you to stay in the league to become a vested veteran and collect your benefits (pension, annuity) while avoiding the situations off the field (DUIs, domestic incidents, etc.) that lead to major problems or an early exit from professional football.
“It’s definitely an individual experience. Everyone gets a different thing out of it,” Redskins second-round pick Trent Murphy told me on Wednesday. “For me personally, the message I took from it is ‘just do what makes sense.’"
And the focus, the attention to detail has to be there for these rookies as they work through the various avenues the symposium provides.
“If you go into it with the right attitude, you can definitely get something out of it,” Murphy said.
When I talked with Vincent, the 15-year veteran of the NFL explained to me that there are no more excuses for rookies after they leave the symposium.
That information (or that guidance) is right there.
“I want to hold them all accountable," said Vincent. "The days are over when you're going to say a kid 'did not know.' ...This stuff is in your face. No such thing as 'I didn't know.' Nope, you choose not to."
As I’ve said before, the NFL is the “business of winning.” That’s it. And rookies will learn this quickly once camp starts.
Because of that, coaches, scouts, general managers, etc. don’t have time to hold a player’s hand and walk him through the basics of making the jump to the league.
However, the NFL’s Rookie Symposium is a starting point to get these young players on the right path (with the right direction) that should be continued throughout the early stages of their careers under the guidance of the team's Director of Player Development.
And now it's on them to drop the excuses and make the proper decisions to succeed as pros.
Seven-year NFL veteran Matt Bowen is an NFL National Lead Writer for Bleacher Report.
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