Symposium puts rookies on right path

The NFL’s rookie symposium is designed to help incoming college players adjust to life at the pro level and prepare for life after football.

This year, it may have done even more.

After hearing Tuesday from one of the guest speakers who addressed all of the NFC’s draft picks, 22 rookies from three different teams (New Orleans, Green Bay and Philadelphia) headed to what the league calls a “breakout session” for further discussion. This intimate setting is more conducive for getting players to share some of the personal struggles they now face while trying to make what for some isn’t an easy transition.

One of them did just that — and Harold Carmichael was so touched that he was reduced to tears.

“We’re in a big circle and our clinician asked, ‘What did you get out of the rookie symposium?’” said Carmichael, the former Eagles wide receiver who is now the team’s director of player development.

“One of the guys said, ‘The rookie symposium saved my life.’”

Knowing what resources are available to address mental-health issues is just one of the symposium’s intents. But what that player, whose name is being withheld for privacy reasons, also learned is that he’s not alone in feeling the on- and off-field pressures inherent in trying to forge an NFL career.

“He probably came in with a lot of preconceived notions being a college star that he’s just going to walk right into this league and do what he did in college,” said Green Bay’s director of player development Rob Davis, who was also touched by the admission. “I think being able to see these other players, hear the stories and see just how tough this environment is (helps).

“We’ve seen too many horror stories about guys when they leave the game. I think that’s one of the most important components of the rookie symposium. If you follow the herd, your coach is pretty much going to get you ready to play. But the game within the game is teaching you the idiosyncrasies of the league, the small things, the resources available to you and how to take advantage.”

To that extent, the NFL has significantly changed how this year’s symposium was structured compared to others since the event began in the 1990s.

Gone is the cattle-call approach of inviting more than 250 rookies to the conference at the same time. Players are now divided by conferences for four separate days of seminars and events. The NFL also booked an entire hotel in a small city of roughly 15,000 residents like Aurora to prevent outside distractions.

Carmichael admits that the conference had become enough of a drag that veterans were telling rookies beforehand, “Oh, the rookie symposium. It is so long.” That sentiment helped lead to the symposium agenda being pared greatly when financial literary seminars were eliminated. NFL vice president of player engagement Troy Vincent said the league is instead addressing that issue through a mandatory 12-week “rookie success” program being held by every team.

“You’d have a jam-packed agenda with about 300 men you’re trying to educate and move around with 18 or 19 different subjects,” Vincent said of prior symposiums. “You’d really walk away with nothing because it’s clouded. There are a lot of things going through your mind.”

Vincent still wants players to think and absorb, which is why speakers were booked related to four focal points: “The history of the game, the NFL experience you’re about to be part of, the social and professional responsibility, and player policies — what we expect from you as an employee.”

The responsibility aspect is one that Cincinnati Bengals cornerback Adam “Pacman” Jones and Philadelphia quarterback Michael Vick didn’t handle well earlier in their NFL careers. Jones and Vick both shared their stories earlier this week while urging rookies to avoid the pitfalls that left them in both legal and financial trouble.

“Adam talked about doing things that, he used the term, were just stupid,” Vincent said. “He was asking and challenging the audience not to make the same mistakes. Many of the guys he hung around were from his neighborhood or same school.

“I couldn’t have scripted it any better. It was real.”

Robert Griffin III is already dealing with the trappings of fame. A former basketball player at Baylor University was arrested earlier this week on charges he was trying to extort money out of Griffin under the threat that he would release information that would damage the quarterback’s image.

Washington Redskins director of player development Phillip Daniels has spoken with Griffin about how to best handle the incident and express that the franchise will offer its full support.

“It is tough on him,” Daniels said. “People like that scare you because if he came out and did something crazy like that, he could easily come back and do something else crazy.

“RG3 — he’s got a lot of love in his heart. He doesn’t want to send anybody off to prison or anything like that. But you’ve got to be careful. His thing to worry about is his fiancé and him and make sure they’ve got everything they need to be safe.”

The May suicide of star linebacker Junior Seau brought additional attention to the potential long-term effect of concussions and the post-NFL struggles that some experience finding a new line of work. The league had speakers address both topics. The same guidance was offered in regards to substance-abuse, which became another black eye for the NFL this offseason when a slew of current and former players were arrested on DUI charges.

The trip to the Hall of Fame is designed to emphasize football’s history, but it also provides a sobering reminder: Few NFL players ever reach those heights. That makes trying to take advantage of the resources the league offers even more important.

“I tell players to understand the game was built on the backs of other players,” said former NFL cornerback Terry Cousin, who is now Tampa Bay’s director of player engagement. “You have to understand what guys did to stay in this league a long time.”

Troy Vincent, Harold Carmichael, Rob Davis, Phillip Daniels and Terry Cousin were interviewed by Alex Marvez and co-host Jim Miller on SiriusXM NFL Radio