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Dallas Cowboys Rookies Oriented For Success: What Happens At The NFL's Rookie Symposium

As offseason programs across the league conclude every year, veteran players schedule family, recovery and vacation time as a way to gear up for the rigors of training camp. Rookies, however, have one more NFL-mandated event: a four-day symposium during which they are given tool to make the transition to the NFL.

Travis Frederick reaches out
Travis Frederick reaches out

In one of the articles highlighted in this morning's "News and Notes" post, O.C.C. links us to a blog posting by Cowboys first-rounder Zack Martin, who has been in attendance at the NFL Rookie Symposium. He offers up a couple of takeaways from his experience:

The biggest thing that stood out to me was talking about having a plan. You never think you are going to be that guy who gets hurt or that guy who makes a foolish investment, and that's why it's important to make a plan before something like that happens. Take precautionary measures to guard yourself from those types of things.

Martin's post appears on the webpage for the NFL's Player Engagement Office, the NFL office that organizes and runs the symposium. The PEO is tasked with enhancing the experience for all NFL players, whose experience they break down into three distinct phases: student athletes who have yet to make an NFL team; active players still in their tenure in the league, and former players, helping footballers after they retire. These three phases are represented on the Office's crest, in three words: prep; next; life.

Although the NFL Network offers some limited coverage of the symposium, there is only scant information about exactly what the would-be NFLers do in their four days in Aurora, Ohio. They participate in myriad panels and discussions, often led by former players, many now in the NFL's employ. Other former players serves as moderators. Luckily for us, one of these players is Ross Tucker, who now has his own, self-titled, thrice-weekly PodCast (for those of you not familiar with Tucker's on-air work, it's mandatory listening).

On Monday, the topic of his show was the Rookie Symposium, which he describes as the "most intense, elaborate job orientation you can imagine." The NFL, he continues, "realizes the amount of money and resources they've invested in these draft choices, and so they want to try to do whatever they can to maximize this opportunity for these young guys." Tucker, who has moderated several of the sessions in recent years, offers his listeners a detailed outline of the rookie's experience. As you read this, think of Zack Martin, Anthony Hitchens, Ken Bishop and all the other Cowboys hopefuls taking in and processing all this information.

Day One (Sunday):

The players are welcomed by David Tyree (yes, he of the helmet catch), who works for the NFL's Player Engagement Office. Then Patrick Kearney, who is now a Vice President with the NFL, gave some opening remarks, outlining what the Rookie Symposium will look like.

This is followed by former Patriots GM and current Falcons Assistant GM Scott Pioli, who delivered a 30-minute presentation on the expectations of an NFL player from management's perspective.  He told the players how they are perceived by front offices, what management wants to see from them, and what the expectations are from an organizational perspective. Apparently, he didn't sugarcoat things, telling the newbies that NFL teams won't hesitate to cut them for not meeting the above expectations.

After Pioli's presentation, the players attended a panel (hosted by Tucker) on transitioning into the NFL. Every year, this panel features second-year players who made successful transitions as rookies the year before. This year, the panel was comprised of Bears RG Kyle Long (16-game starter) and two running backs, the Rams Zac Stacy and Bengals Gio Bernard. They tackled several issues:

  • their biggest off-and on-field surprises
  • handling money, so they don't join the legion of broke former millionaire athletes
  • what they did with tickets (the NFL doesn't provide players with tickets gratis; they are deducted from their paychecks by team payroll departments)
  • how they dealt with significant others and groupies
  • discussed available resources to NFL players (NFL teams all have Player Engagement Directors, who are available to help new guys with any questions or needs that might arise from securing an apartment to finding a nanny for their children; Zac Stacy reported that he relies heavily on the Rams' head of security. Apparently, NFL teams will run a background check on anybody a player wants them to).
  • The importance of having a mentor on the team (Long's is 14-year vet OC/ OG Roberto Garza)
  • how crucial it is to take care of their bodies, as all reported hitting the rookie wall (Stacy goes to pilates three times a week; Bernard gets multiple weekly massages).
  • the importance of this next month-the "down month" in the NFL calendar (as Tucker notes, during this month, they will find out that "they're going to have a lot more friends than they ever had before").

The next step features breakout  sessions, where two teams worth of rookies at a time meet with former players (guys like Luther Elliss, Donovan Darius, Michael Haynes, and LaVar Arrington) and mental health professionals. These folks break down what was covered in the big presentation, clarifying points and answering specific questions.

Day Two (Monday)

The day kicks off with a session on "Respect at Work" - respecting colleagues and co-workers, a topic made all the more poignant and necessary in the wake of the Dolphins hazing scandal. Next, the rooks will attend a symposium on Financial Strength and dealing with sudden riches, followed by panels on DUI prevention (remember that all NFL players have access to car services that will drive them home free of charge), total wellness (physical personal, financial, and emotional strength), and on "Reaching Out," reminding players of the immense power that they have when lending a helping hand in the community.

Next, doctors come in to discuss substance abuse, performance-enhancing drugs, and review the NFL's substance and PED policies. After this, a representative from Gatorade speaks to the players about the importance of hydration. All these are followed by more breakout sessions wherein the broad topic of "knowing your resources" is discussed in greater specificity and detail. Some of the former players guiding the young'uns through all this information are Eddie George, Ricky Williams, and Michael Bennett

On Monday evening, they listen to former NBA player Chris Herren, whose promising career was derailed by substance abuse issues. Herren's story is fascinating and, ultimately, highly inspirational (and was the subject of a terrific 30 for 30 documentary). He led off his presentation in startling fashion: "in this room right now - fact - there's more future drug addicts than there are millionaires." He then went on to tell the story of his fall and recovery (he has several years sober and is now a motivational speaker on addiction). Go here for a snippet of his message to the rookies.

Day Three (Tuesday):

Leading off the third day is another session moderated by Tucker on dealing with the media; following this, the players are taken to the Browns' facility, where they engage in some community work with some underprivileged kids, an experience that provides a practical demonstration of the previous day's "Reaching Out" panel. The image that tops this article is of Travis Frederick at the same event during last year's symposium.

The rooks spend the bulk of the day at the Browns facility, then return to another Tucker-hosted panel (with former players Dion Branch, Ryan Mundy, and Jordan Palmer) on "Defining Success," where they will ask the rookies to consider what that really means, both on and off the field.

Day Four (Wednesday):

The symposium concludes today with a morning trip to Canton, OH, to visit the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Every year, we see footage of this trip, often with media check-ins with top draftees (you might recall a NFL Network one-on-one with Mo Claiborne from the 2012 visit to the Hall). The Player's Engagement Office states as its goal to orient all rookies according to four basic principles: NFL History, Total Wellness, Experience and Professionalism. The trip to Canton serves as the bulk of this first principle.

Now you can see why Tucker describes these four days as "intense": there's a lot of information to process. But, as he also points out, with the amount of money and resources teams spend in scouting and then paying these players, its critical that these young men, who are suddenly thrust into a new situation, in a new city, with bigger, more developed men who often resent that the rooks are there to take their jobs, are given every chance to make that transition as smoothly as possible. Its in everybody's best interests that they do, after all.

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