The money can disappear, the fame can vanish. This week, NFL rookies are being reminded that the game’s hardest knocks often happen off the field.
During the league’s annual Rookie Symposium, first-year players are getting a crash course into everything that goes into being a professional athlete — the good, and the bad. The NFL wants its newest members to be prepared not only for what awaits them this season, but for the years ahead, especially those days when they’re no longer making big paychecks or big plays.
Through various educational seminars, candid, sometimes heartbreaking speeches and panel discussions, players are learning the X’s and O’s of life.
"It’s a great opportunity for us to be out here learning from players who’ve been here, been in our shoes and who are where we want to be," said San Diego Chargers linebacker Manti Te’o, the former Notre Dame star who this year was the target of a hoax involving a fake girlfriend. "As we get into the next phase of our lives, it’s a new phase, something we’re not used to, so to keep our circle small and remember the people who have always been there for you."
The AFC’s rookie class arrived in Aurora, Ohio, on Sunday to begin the four-day session, which the league has constructed as a teaching and bonding experience. The NFC rookies arrive Wednesday and stay through Sunday.
On Monday, players attended a seminar titled: "Are You Bigger Than The Game?" that featured Cincinnati cornerback Adam "Pacman" Jones and former Ohio State star running back Maurice Clarett as speakers.
Jones recently pleaded not guilty to a misdemeanor assault charge and has had other off-the-field issues that led to league suspensions. He talked frankly about his many errors and warned players about them.
"He’s always been a guy who has preached don’t do the same mistakes he’s done," said New York Jets rookie quarterback Geno Smith, who knows Jones because both played at West Virginia. "He’s made a lot of mistakes in his career, but he’s a guy who is still standing strong and still working hard. He’s using his past trials and tribulations to try and help us."
Because Jones is still an active player and Clarett’s story is well documented, their messages resonated with the young players.
"Growing up, those were the role models of their era," Steelers linebacker Jarvis Jones said. "Great players, tremendous players. Just to see where they’re at it in life now and the things they’ve been through, it opened our eyes because we’re no different from nobody else.
"For me, I always try to surround myself with positive people. I don’t do nothing negative, man. I can make the best decisions for me and my family and my team as well. What stuck out to me was just some of the decisions that they made, clearly it was caused by them just not thinking about it before they made it."
Clarett urged the players to stay straight. His promising pro career was derailed by legal troubles not long after he helped lead the Buckeyes to their first national title in 34 years. Clarett wound up serving 3 1-2 years in prison.
"His story was really deep," said Tennessee guard Chance Warmack while taking a break from teaching area school kids some football basics on the Browns’ practice fields. "He and Pacman reminded us there are obstacles you have to deal with as a professional and the standards you’ve got to hold yourself to because we’re not like everybody else."
Chris Herren had a more harrowing tale.
The former NBA player was invited by the league to talk of how substance abuse nearly cost him his life. Now sober for five years, Herren had his audience riveted with firsthand accounts of his perilous road before recovery.
"He was a guy that lost a lot," Browns linebacker Barkevious Mingo said. "He nearly lost his family for the choice that he made, and he was sitting in the same seat that we were saying that it wasn’t going to be him. I looked around and everybody was paying attention to what he had to say because it was real.
"This was a guy that said this wasn’t going to happen to him. He’s not going to get addicted to drugs, he’s not going to spend his money on this, he’s not going to do that, but he did. Everybody listened to that and it made them pay more attention to the events and the speakers."
On Wednesday, the AFC players will get a history lesson with a tour of the Pro Football Hall of Fame in nearby Canton. One of the reasons the league is holding the symposium in northeast Ohio is its proximity to football’s birthplace. It’s a chance for the players to connect with the game’s immortals who all began as wide-eyed rookies.
Following a two-hour tour of the shrine, the players will have a session with Hall of Fame cornerback Mike Haynes. Jim Brown was scheduled to speak but canceled. The 77-year-old NFL great has traveled extensively of late and said in a statement he needs to rest. Brown was recently rehired as a special adviser by the Browns following a separation from the team.
Bills quarterback EJ Manuel was most looking forward to seeing the bronze bust of his godfather, Bills end Bruce Smith.
"I’ve seen the replica one he’s got at his house," Manuel said. "I’m going to take a lot of pictures."