Uncontrollable tears streaming down faces only somewhat reveal the profound effect a contract in the NFL means to young players. Yet celebrations of dreams realised at the draft are short-lived in this league, which can brutally spit you out to the streets within months of the ink drying on multi-million dollar contracts.
The troubled tale of Jachai Polite is just one that illustrates the consequences of not acknowledging the fearsome competition just to become a guy of one of the NFL’s 32 rosters. Selected No 68 overall in April by the Jets, Polite was given a rude awakening in August when he was waived, before briefly emerging in Seattle for three weeks only for the Seahawks to send him packing. Now with the Los Angeles Rams, Polite is already scrambling to salvage a career that has barely begun.
One harsh lesson for the former Florida Gator has long-since been acknowledged by 14-year veteran Johnathan Joseph.
“You never take it for granted,” the Houston Texan explains to The Independent. “You just have to try and stay in this league.
“It’s all about the simple things: Be where you’re supposed to be, do what you say you’re going to do. Be on time, don’t be late, be a great teammate and be productive.”
In a sport overflowing with cliches and endlessly-recited quotes, it only takes a handful of conversations with those playing to realise why so many become amateur philosophers. As Al Pacino proclaimed in Any Given Sunday, this really is a “Game of Inches”. The incredible detail to success even includes drinking the right water at the right time. Players now check on the acidity; high alkaline water is now consumed in copious amounts at training to accelerate washing out lactic acid lingering from Sunday.
Young athletes are quickly burdened with an increased workload on the field compared to college, in addition to remaining scholars off it.
“It’s a lot busier than I thought,” Samson Ebukam admits when reflecting on his first two years with the Rams. “When I came in I wasn’t taking classes anymore, but in their place there were meetings the whole time. I felt my body would be worse off as the games double from the college season, but they take such good care of you to be able to last the whole season and avoid major injuries. Flexibility is key and soft tissue work, I have to make sure when I tackle I keep my head out of the way.”
Just like students beginning university, NFL rookies are handed responsibility to manage their schedules, with Baltimore Ravens sensation Marquise Brown, already with two touchdowns and more than 300 yards from just four games, underlining the importance of becoming organised.
“I need to firstly learn how to be a pro, train and ultimately be consistent,” ‘Hollywood’ remarks. “There’s a lot more time now, at college they set your schedule and now you set your own.”
For most, the road to the pinnacle of the sport and being recognised as an All Pro is arduous and rarely handed out in the infancy of a career. This has been true of Akiem Hicks, who enjoyed his best year yet after seven years in 2018, working in tandem with the ferocious Khalil Mack and the formidable Chicago Bears defence. For Hicks, a valuable analogy learned growing up came to fruition.
“You take a step forward every day,” the 29-year-old All Pro defensive end explains. “It’s personal, putting work in and applying yourself, whatever you think is a weakness in your game, you take a moment to make it a little bit better, you collect enough of those days. My old coach had a metaphor for it: ‘Put a bean in the jar’, every day you put a bean in the jar and after a while you’re going to have a big-time meal.”
In such a violent sport, injuries are commonplace though, putting greater emphasis on the mindset and mental health of players when separated from their teammates for lengthy periods. Tampa Bay Bucaneers’ Cameron Brate sustained a hip injury last year, with the tight end admitting to developing a claustrophobic tendency while stuck in the treatment room during spring training camp.
“Learning a new offence is hard without the physical reps,” Brate admits having since returned to the field this season. “It was a different challenge, the best thing was to make note cards of all the plays and constantly go over them. I worked extra hard with the tight end coach to learn the nuances, there’s so much that goes into a single play, adjustments based on what the defence is doing.”
The pattern that soon develops is the mountain of information every player is required to consume. Rookies therefore focus on improving one or two aspects of their game at a time, with both Denver Bronco Drew Lock and Buffalo Bill Cody Ford emphasising the importance of their footwork.
“I need to focus on my footwork,” Ford explains while contributing in his debut season. “I was able to get away with it in college, but I have to tighten it up right now. I also still watch film of the best offensive tackles in the league: Andrew Whitworth, Trent Williams and Lane Johnson.”
Intelligence in the league is as high as it has ever been, with hundreds of coaches scrutinising tape in order to plot the downfall of players. So after a promising start to life in Seattle, DK Metcalf is not getting carried away, insisting he must remain “humble”, a trap Cleveland Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield has been accused of falling into this season.
The blueprint might not be out there yet, but Michael Irving, a perennial All Pro, who won three Super Bowls with the Dallas Cowboys in an 11-year career, insists intangible skills override everything else.
“If you want to play in this league, you have to match the hunger of the guy across from you,” the 53-year-old insists. “It’s not about a physical skill set, it’s about what’s in your belly, what’s in your heart and your mind.
“What you need to do, is no matter who you are up against, you don’t lose. The only way this guy beats me is if he out-hungers me. Don’t let them beat you.”
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