For an athlete, being drafted by the NFL is a dream realized. Money, fame, celebrity – and of course the assumption of a career. Like Hollywood experience, however, all that glitters is not gold. Although everyone has a different perspective and unique experience, it helps to know what’s on the path ahead.
In my case, it wasn’t about making millions of dollars, the diamond encrusted super watch or the personalize Maybach. It wasn’t that life changing experience. It was something more deeply personal – recognizing it as a challenge and a major goal. Yes, being in the NFL did help me chart the course of my life in an ultimately fulfilling role. But there were many, many learning curves on that road.
The money trap is what one would expect: it doesn’t take long for most athletes to realize that, despite it probably being the first time they ever saw that much money, the expected instant happiness doesn’t usually materialize. Instead, it creates many meaningless distractions and attracts a lot of fake people. Believe it or not, depression is also a typical by-product, since the dream is not as imagined. Suddenly it’s not about playing football anymore, it’s clearly now a business – and not the game that used to be fun.
I was a free agent, which presented an entirely new set of issues and insecurities. Was I going to make it? You don’t know if your job is secure and if you’re performing to expectations. Are you there make the team or just to service the team? At least when drafted, you know because the front office invested money in you, and this afforded you more opportunities than the free agent they acquired for a $5,000 signing bonus. In my case, I witnessed many players drafted by the NFL of lesser talent who were picked in many instances to justify the financial investment. The moral of the story is that the best guy doesn’t always make the team.
When you’re a guy in the later rounds, it’s not too comfortable. I never unpacked my bags because you never know when you’re going to be cut from the team. Uncertainty reigns. You are constantly having to prove yourself because you didn’t get drafted in the first few rounds. You aren’t a returning player either, you’re basically a guy with jersey and a number who’s there to give the starters a break.
Every now and then you see a guy who works his butt off and goes through the grind with the practice squad and ends up making the 53-man roster. That’s the guy who deserves everything because he understands the value of attitude– the guy who started from the bottom, really worked his way up with a sense of humility. He was the one who learned to humble himself because he wasn’t a top draft pick. Think Tom Brady, even after six Super Bowl wins, he is still the guy who wasn’t drafted until the 6th round, let that sink in…. the most respected quarterback in history was a 6th round draft pick. 6 QBs were picked before Brady (Pennington, Carmazzi, Redman, Martin, Bulger and Wynn)
In short, it all comes down to attitude and persistence. My message to all rookies and kids breaking their backs trying to make it to the NFL – meet the right people, shake the right hands and remember it’s the people you meet along the way that count. Also, don’t lose sight of the value the NFL brand can offer after you hang up your jersey. Football may be just a business, and you need to treat it as one, even if it’s theoretically a “game.”
It’s about going from a child to a man. Being a 21 year old in the NFL can be both very exciting and very confusing at the same time. It’s the first time you have whatever you want, since you can make millions of dollars, yet you’ll soon find yourself surrounded by people who want something from you. A lot of kids get swallowed up by the league.
With that said, there are short and long term rewards to be gained – as long as you keep perspective and the right attitude.