It is somewhat fitting that the NFL season finishes in winter and that the Draft takes place in spring. It makes it feel as though there is some natural order to the timing and the manner in which some careers come to an end and others take their faltering baby steps.
The Draft Class of 2013 has had almost two months to work through all the adulation, celebration and congratulation. Now it is time for the motivation. And whatever drives each one of them as they set out for what they hope will be a 15-year career peppered with playoff games and Super Bowl rings, division titles and two big contracts down the line, a few things over the past week should act as an NFL life lesson for the young men with stars in their eyes.
One of the biggest changes to the NFL calendar since the 20th century faded is the introduction of the rookie symposium, a week-long series of speeches, clinics, seminars and all manner of advice from many different angles, all aimed at improving the chances of the latest crop of talent being able to handle what is about to happen to them, whether that is the fulfilment of that long-career dream or the crushing disappointment of a short life in the big time that flames out as quickly as it begins.
The AFC rookies were first in this week in Cleveland to listen to former player, and now NFL Players Association official, Troy Vincent, deliver a stark reality, intended not to shock or demoralise, merely to offer a home truth that every one of them has to understand and accept.
“We are not here to be dream killers,” Vincent said. “We have to be realistic, though, and you are now on the clock. So, of the drafted rookies, less than half will still be around three years from now. That doesn't mean life stops; it better not. While we are introducing them to the NFL, we’re also talking about life after football. There are life lessons that need to be learned right from the beginning.”
There are 254 players drafted each year. Half of that is 127. That is a big number to swallow. More than 127 of the players drafted this year, who whooped and hollered at the TV on Draft Day, high-fived and hugged family members, telephoned every friend they ever had and dreamed of many glorious years to come will in fact be out of football before the next Olympics are held in Brazil. Troy Vincent and the NFLPA may not be dream killers but for many of these young dreamers, the nightmare will happen. It is part of the natural order in the NFL.
The symposium serves many purposes and those rookies, who are forced to attend, would do well to listen to those who come to talk to them about health issues (it is a dangerous profession, after all); about outside influences who will try to attach themselves to them for the purpose of financial gain which could end in financial ruin; about living the fast life and losing more than just a few games; about the bad elements who like to associate with players and whose influence ultimately ends with players in jail for all manner of crimes; about taking care of themselves and preparing for a career after football.
The likes of Adam Jones and Terry Johnson were lined up to address the young men on just how quickly and easily life in the NFL can get out of control and where that can lead you. In far too many cases, that ‘where’ is a jail cell.
If they are unlucky, the new crop of rookies will be in that majority of players who are gone within three years, chewed up and spat out by a system that has such a competitive edge that dog eat dog seems a tame description. Many of the same players who were drafted eight weeks ago and will end someone else’s career in a training camp battle this summer will be the victim of that competitive fight within three short years.
If however, Lady Luck smiles on them and they are rewarded with a long career, they could do a lot worse and rarely better than to end up like Brian Urlacher. The ninth overall pick in the 2000 Draft played 13 years, all at the Chicago Bears and upheld a long tradition of great Bears linebackers. He got to the Super Bowl once but lost and will be one of those players for whom the ultimate was always just out of reach.
That however, was not enough to make him want to play on, hoping for a final shot at a Super Bowl ring. When he felt it was time to go at the end of last season, that is exactly what he did. And if he sticks to his latest pronouncement, I will have an awful lot of respect for the man.
Urlacher claims he has no desire to play any longer and does not want a job in television. Nor does he want to coach. At last, a former great player is able to take an objective look at his career and decide that he can walk away and enjoy life without feeling as though he has to follow the well-trampled path into television. Yes, there are plenty of former greats who are good on TV but simply having the knowledge from being one of the best on the field does not automatically qualify you for being the same behind a microphone despite how many seem to think it does.
Urlacher knows that and doesn’t want to be involved. Good for him. And he has no interest in the coaching profession either but for different reasons. He wants to enjoy himself rather than kill himself with stress.
On the question of being tempted out of retirement, he said: “My agent went through every scenario, what if so-and-so calls? What if they offer me $10 million? I don’t want to play. I don’t have a desire to play. I’m not in shape. I haven’t been doing football stuff. I’m sure I’ll miss it when it’s time to put the pads on. But I won’t miss how my body feels when I’m done.”
Then, on the subject of TV work, he added: “I don’t think I would be very good on TV broadcasting games. ‘He’s running left, he’s running right, 28 has the ball.’ I don’t know. We’ll see. I’ve got a lot of time to think about it.”
And finally, how he feels about the prospect of coaching: “I feel bad for them. During the season, they work 90 hours a week. I don’t want to do that.”
At long last, a player who played his heart out for one team his entire career. A player who will be revered in that city long after his retirement. A player who came to do nothing but play football and who leaves glad that he had the opportunity to do so. Along the way, he made plenty of money but doesn’t feel the need to milk the game for any more. He wants to retire, make up for the family time the game took away from him, and play a lot of golf.
If Brian Urlacher can hold to those promises he had made to himself, he will be the sort of working class hero all the new rookies should aspire to.
When you own an NFL team, you usually are afforded a fair degree of respect. When you own the New England Patriots, and you can boast five Super Bowl appearances and three wins in the past dozen seasons, you get your props from those in the game. When you also show a large degree of philanthropy and you participate in as many NFL committees and ventures as seems humanly possible, you are revered by your peers. And when you do all that while, in recent years, watching your wife die from cancer, you know you have done just about all you can.
But when you run one of the largest countries in the world and have nuclear weapons at the tip of your fingers, that kind of trumps owning an NFL team
The latest round of verbal pugilism between Pats owner Robert Kraft and Russian president Vladimir Putin went to the man in the Red corner when he came out swinging with a devastating put down.
I mentioned last week that Kraft had won the previous round by taking the moral high ground over the brewing scandal where Putin had all-but been accused of stealing Kraft’s Super Bowl XXXIX ring by asking to see it during a reception at the White House and then craftily (Kraftily?) putting it in his pocket and walking away when Kraft asked for it back.
Putin said: “You know, I do not remember either Mr. Kraft or the ring. They handed out some sorts of souvenirs. But if it is such a valuable thing to Mr. Kraft and his team, I have a proposal.
“We will ask our enterprises to craft a really good, noticeable thing - so it is clear that it is expensive, made of a good metal, with a rock - so that this jewel is passed on from generation to generation in the team whose interests Mr. Kraft represents.
“I think that this would be the most intelligent solution to such a difficult international problem.”
Oh, dear. I don’t think that ring is coming home, is it?
Three put downs in one go. First, he rocks Kraft back on his heels by pulling the old Ronald Reagan trick – ‘I don’t recall’. Robert Kraft is not the sort of man who is accustomed to people not remembering the day they met him, and I know from personal experience that a Super Bowl ring is not the sort of thing you forget having in your hands.
Then Putin bends Kraft over double with a low blow by suggesting a Super Bowl ring is a mere trinket, a worthless bauble by saying he will have his people create something worthwhile as a replacement.
And finally, he comes in with the knockout blow by suggesting that he is the one who has come up with an ‘intelligent solution’. Ouch!
Kraft has been a great supporter over many years of the international ambitions of the NFL but while the Kremlin may have acquired a prized American possession, perhaps Moscow just blew its chance at hosting an NFL game one day.