As I watched the Oprah Winfrey special the last few days (a very special woman, human being and unique philanthropist), I found it to be very emotional, motivating and entertaining to say the least. What I heard directly and indirectly over and over, was her ability to pay it forward, to pass on knowledge, encouragement for the masses, to reach for the stars and not just settle (not to mention the importance of higher education and self-testimony of personal issues).
Immediately, I tied the NFL Rookie Symposium into the “pay it forward” project. The Rookie Symposium is a yearly event in which currently drafted rookies gather with NFL front-office personnel, coaches and both veteran and retired players to learn some of the finer points about being a professional athlete. This is a finely-tuned and well-designed program through role-playing situations that has steered and helped several thousand rookies from avoiding taking the wrong path while warning them about the dangers of temptation and exposing them to individuals that will come out from under the rocks to take what they can and suck them dry
Good friend and former Pittsburgh Steelers great Donnie Shell and I worked together for the Carolina Panthers. He told me on many occasions, that while all of the sessions were extremely intense, the importance of life after football, financially and dealing seriously with their careers as a professional football player, was the key to the program.
While sitting in my office, I remember watching Cris Carter on NFL Network a few years ago talking about the Rookie Symposium. His message was, “Don’t ask what I get from the league or what I’m going to take from the league.” He, in my opinion, was the best speaker at the symposium. He spoke from the heart, told the truth and related very well to the incoming players. Carter was the reality check these players needed. He tipped them off to what was coming down the road, what was about to impact their lives, careers and the continuation of becoming a man.
He explained that, “Coach Buddy Ryan cut me after starting three years for the Philadelphia Eagles, because he couldn’t depend on me.” He could not be trusted due to off-the-field personal issues that were affecting his on-field performance. Carter went on to tell the players that Michael Vick (jailed for killing dogs) was here, so was Chris Henry (off-field issues and died a few years ago after falling out of a pick-up) and Adam “Pacman” Jones (several off-field issues and suspensions) all sat right where you guys are today. He went on to say that, “Several of you won’t make it because you’re not listening to me now, just think about all your loved ones who made the contribution and sacrifices to help get you here, give back to your parents , family and coaches. Guys like me are cheering for you, cash in your lottery ticket, if it has four years or seven years on it, whatever it is go get it.”
Adolpho Birch, the league’s senior vice president for labor policy and player development, announced that the Rookie Symposium was canceled. The 2011 symposium was scheduled for June 26 in Canton, Ohio. It has been held in several other locations like Florida and California.
Current and retired players have sung the praises of this program. They have said that the symposium was a positive step in their transition from being a college football player to a professional football player. They are taught how to manage the large amounts of money they will receive and how to act on and off the field as representatives of one of the 32 NFL teams, the league and those players that came before them.
The first real event that rookies usually participate in during the offseason after they’re drafted has been deleted from the NFL calendar because of the ongoing labor dispute between the owners and players. It will be interesting to track this draft class for off-field issues, on-field performance and how this class is much different than those that came before them.