Breaking Down the Rookie-Veteran Relationship in an NFL Training Camp

Ryan Riddle@@Ryan_RiddleCorrespondent IAugust 1, 2014

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NFL training camp is an interesting environment comprised of men crammed together in close quarters for a month of fiercely competitive football. When it comes to the rookie-veteran relationship, this annual dynamic plays itself out in a variety of ways.

We're all familiar with the concept of rookie hazing—we also know these scrubs can use a ton of guidance making the transition to the NFL. But the relationship between the young and old during an NFL training camp often goes beyond our commonly held perceptions.

Some might think there would be more dissension between a group of veterans looking to stick around another year and a fresh crop of legs ready to replace them. After all, this is a cutthroat sport with millions of dollars at stake.

NFL training camps are a time when some careers are made while others come to an end. For the spectator, football is a fun sport loaded with names we admire and look up to. For the athlete, football is a stressful, short-lived way to support his family—if lucky, it's his livelihood and career.

As you can imagine, if your company was bringing in new talent annually to replace you, it would be a difficult situation to accept. The natural instinct in that environment is to see that person as a threat and adversary, so you would likely act accordingly.

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Yet the relationship between a rookie and his elder statesman is often one of trepidation from the former, and civility with a tinge of provocation from the latter. Over time this introductory dynamic begins to add layers.

The evolution of player interaction is all part of the magic that is training camp.

Taking a group of men away from their families and familiar environments and putting them through intense challenges with one unifying goal forges the way for some interesting relationships to emerge.  

As you would expect, a rookie must earn his stripes. In order for this to happen, his actions in practice and preseason games have to be significantly louder than his words or reputation. Essentially, if a rookie shuts his mouth and shows the established players that he can help them win football games, that player will quickly find his place among the team. But the true test for these young players is still to come.

Keep in mind, rookies will always be treated as second-class citizens to some extent—whether that means going to the back of a line, carrying the vet's pads after practice, taking the middle seat on planes or buying meals.

But with all of this, an interesting trust develops from both sides. Sure, the veterans are going to make life more difficult for the rookies, which is especially true during training camp, but this really does help the younger guys become more open-minded to the growth required in order to become a true professional.

Training camp is an important time for rookies more than any other players. They have only a few critical weeks of padded contact against NFL competition before the lucky ones are then thrown to the wolves in a game-time scenario where the stakes are high and the pressure is palpable.

Jun 17, 2014; Alameda, CA, USA; Oakland Raiders linebacker Khalil Mack (52) at minicamp at Raiders Practice Facility. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Trust me­—you don't want to be the rookie who misses the assignment on the punt-return team that leads to a blocked punt and a heart-wrenching loss. The fear of committing such a catastrophic mistake haunts every rookie more than you probably realize—unless, of course, you've been there before.

Veterans understand what it's like to be a rookie and are forever shaped by the experiences from that time. This endless cycle allows these fierce competitors to transcend that primal urge we talked about earlier, where one would be inclined to sabotage a rookie. In turn, there is interconnectedness in the rookie-veteran relationship that lends itself to something quite special.

Now inside the tunnel of a roaring NFL stadium—standing there for the first time, you wait to run onto the field before millions of spectators. Nervous is a word that doesn't quite cut it. It's game day, and a bloody battle of top-tier professional football is about to commence. This is the moment you prepared yourself for, but you don't know how to regain your composure.  

Like a deer in headlights, you have no idea what to expect. Your entire body is shaking under the meticulously arranged uniform you proudly put on while soaking up the image in the bathroom mirror. Not only do you not want to embarrass yourself out there, but letting your teammates and coaches down is even more strangling.

You try to settle the nerves and remember the things that got you this far, all while actively trying to suppress the reminders of the inherent dangers that accompany the sport.

Dec 29, 2013; Phoenix, AZ, USA; San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick (7) huddles with teammates in the tunnel prior to the game against the Arizona Cardinals at University of Phoenix Stadium. The 49ers defeated the Cardinals 23-20. Mandatory C

In this time of intensity and panic, that same vet who gave you a hard time all summer long is grabbing you by the facemask. You look up and peer through his facemask into his eyes. There is a calm intensity about him as he stares back into your eyes and says so much without having to utter a single word.

You realize in that moment why you were challenged, teased and humbled. You also realize your place on the roster is deserved and what this game is really all about. The concept of "team" is now clearer than it has ever been.

In this moment you feel his power and energy becoming your own. The panic dissipates. The fear subsides and quickly morphs into excitement. You understand on a whole new level that you're not alone. We're all connected as a team—and the battle that is about to ensue is intense.

In one isolated moment, the entire buildup of the rookie-veteran relationship is personified.

From my personal experience and observations, I've found that most seasoned pros are surprisingly willing to help a rookie succeed—especially the newbies who take the initiative to ask questions and remain humble. Unfounded arrogance from a rookie in training camp is quickly stomped out with a collective team effort.

Simply put, this type of behavior is just not tolerated.

As long as a rookie demonstrates a clear understanding of his place in the hierarchy, he will be treated with respect in return—to an extent.

Ultimately, when the time comes, veterans not only know what it's like to be a rookie, but they understand how much the team will need to stand as one—rookies and all—because the opponent on the other sideline will not lay down without a fight.


Ryan Riddle is a former NFL player writing for Bleacher Report.

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