How the NFL is prepping prospects at the high school level
AURORA, Ohio — High school football players Jacob Sirmon and Trevor Trout have already flashed the kind of talent and promise that could someday land them in the pros.
The NFL is doing its part to keep them headed in the right direction.
The league’s biggest outreach program remains the recently concluded Rookie Symposium where every member of the incoming draft class receives a crash-course introduction to life in the NFL. But the NFL’s Player Engagement Program is looking toward the future and past as well.
One initiative being launched in October is designed to help former players and their spouses make a successful transition to post-football life. The second is the Prep Academy, which debuted earlier this month at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania.
Forty of the top incoming high school sophomore football players from around the country as well as a parent or guardian attended four days of seminars designed to help further develop both leadership and life skills. Rather than discussions focused upon Xs and Os, there were classroom presentations with such titles as "Goal Setting," "Academic and Career Planning" and "Life Beyond Football."
"It’s not about football," said Charles Way, the NFL’s Vice President of Player Engagement. "We’re trying to teach them how to become better men and what it looks like to be a leader with the values we live by and what has made the NFL the best brand in America.
"We’re teaching them about leadership, respect, integrity, being responsible to their teammates and being resilient because we don’t have perfect lives."
For attendees like Sirmon and Trout, the Prep Academy reinforced some of what they have already learned while being among the most high-profile prospects on track to graduate in 2018. Like 38 of the 40 players at the Prep Academy, Sirmon and Trout already have received multiple scholarship offers even though three years remain in their high school careers.
The 6-foot-4, 209-pound Sirmon is on track to quarterback Bothell (Wash.) High, which won a state championship last season. The 6-foot-2, 260-pound Trout is only 14 but has generated so much buzz at football camps in the St. Louis area that the defensive lineman already has drawn strong attention from the University of Missouri and struck up friendships with former Tigers standouts Sheldon Richardson and Markus Golden, both of whom are now in the NFL.
The attention Sirmon and Trout have received is forcing both to grow up quicker than their fellow 10th graders-to-be. While on the surface both are handling such pressure well, Sirmon and Trout both admit there are areas where they can improve.
That’s where the NFL comes in.
When he was heading the player development program, Troy Vincent recognized the league had a problem. Some of the rookies being welcomed could have sorely used a mentorship program well before arriving in the NFL with potentially preventable financial, family and personal issues.
This helped lead to the creation of Prep Academy.
"It was really informative," Trout told FOX Sports in a telephone interview. "We didn’t just talk about one shade of things. Things were going both ways. A lot of people were asking a lot of questions, some of them uncomfortable questions. They got some decent answers."
The opportunity to lean on successful adults, let alone former NFL players, could prove especially valuable to prospects from single-parent homes or tough economic circumstances.
"Some of the kids come from some challenging situations," said Garry Cobb, a former NFL running back who participated as a mentor in the Prep Academy. "We’re already dealing with some of that. We’re able to talk to the mom and tell her what she’s going to be facing down the road and help them.
"In a lot of cases, we know somebody in their community and other players who are even closer from a geographical situation to where they’re living. We can kind of tag-team with guys and be there and be a support mechanism for some of these youngsters."
Way describes the talent pool in the Prep Academy as the "best of the best. If we can just follow them for these next three years, we will probably see a large number of them (in the NFL)."
While realizing not every Prep Academy scholar will someday be joining the NFL ranks, there are reasonable expectations the league expects each to uphold. This includes community service and setting an example that can make a positive impact on impressionable teammates.
"This is such a unique opportunity for me and all the other kids that it would be foolish not to take advantage of it," said Sirmon, who has already drawn strong interest from five Pac-12 schools. "I’m going to keep in touch with my mentors and consider all their wisdom and knowledge of the game."
As the years pass and the program grows, the NFL hopes Prep Academy products could become so "NFL-ready" in their off-field approach and mindset that the Rookie Symposium becomes more of a refresher than educational experience.
"They’re all promising youngsters in terms of size, athletic ability and things," Cobb said. "But we went in to talk them not so much about football but about being the best person they can be, learning what it means to be diligent about something and going after excellence.
"The thing about the NFL is that in a lot of other professions you can grow and get the chance to make some mistakes. The bright lights aren’t on you. In the NFL, it’s not like that. Right away you’ve got to be ready to avoid making the big mistakes and focused amidst a lot of things that could distract you. We start talking to them about this."
In the next decade, the NFL will find out how much of what was preached was taken to heart.
Charles Way and Garry Cobb were interviewed by Alex Marvez and co-host Gil Brandt on SiriusXM NFL Radio