NFLPA Rookie Premiere: Learning the business of playing football

@justRVB

A group of 40 NFL rookies descended on Los Angeles last week to learn more about the finer points of life in the NFL, the stuff that isn't covered in a playbook.

LOS ANGELES — No event centered around people in their early 20s can be without a DJ. Saturday's festivities at the Rose Bowl, part of the annual NFLPA Rookie Premiere, were no different. There was a DJ set up on the 50-yard line of the field. Music shot forth from the speakers. At times, the bass from various remixes made it impossible for us to talk.

Vikings receiver Cordarrelle Patterson walked behind the table holding the turntables. The music stopped, and the DJ handed him the microphone. Soon enough, he started rapping. Something about "starting at the bottom and climbing to the top" (all rap songs apparently incorporate this line, making it the most top-heavy genre). Patterson beckoned some of his fellow players, teasing a few of them about being "country." A few others tried their hand on the mic, but the rap game that day belonged to Seahawks running back Christine Michael, as you can see.

Impromptu rapping instantly became the highlight of the day. I especially appreciated it having watched most of these players on their forced march around Indianapolis during the NFL scouting combine three months before, answering the same tedious questions from weathered newspaper men about what kind of 40 time they would produce.

If Patterson or Michael had dared step in front of a microphone in March, Bob McGinn would have certainly published tsk-tsking anonymous quotes from humorless pro scouts. Mike Florio would have warned us about the dangerous mix of youth culture and pro football.

Saturday at the Rose Bowl marks the first time these rookies have worn their NFL uniforms. The clothes are props for running more than 30 players through six stations to be photographed, videotaped, sign things and talk to the cameras (which will be really, really entertaining, I promise you). This is the Combine for player marketability.

Star-divide

"I've been to the team facility and to the hotel," Raiders quarterback Tyler Wilson admits. "That's about as far as I've ventured so far."

Four days in Los Angeles does actually represent something of a break for these players. Since being drafted just over three weeks ago, they've been to rookie minicamp, on media tours, and in the process of relocating for a new job in a new city. It would be overwhelming for most people, much less kids in their early 20s.

In talking to players, what stands out the most is their maturity and just how well they're handling the transition. Of course, they aren't alone in the process. Some players are making the jump with friends from college, either guys that are already on the team or fellow rookies. Other rookies and veterans are helping them ease into it, too.

"You come in as a rookie," 49ers running back Marcus Lattimore said. "It's just like a freshman at college. You're a little scared, but once you warm up to the guys, it's all family again."

They're family, but also coworkers striving toward a common goal of building a winning team, an annual effort that those of us on the outside can take for granted. For the new players, this means learning the playbook, something veteran teammates are eager to help them with.

Wide receiver Aaron Dobson was welcomed to the Patriots by quarterback Tom Brady.

"He came to me with open arms," Dobson said. "If I need anything, any help with the playbook or anything like that, come to him and he'd help me."

Learning the playbook and diving headlong into the pro game is the most important thing on the rookies' agenda at this point in their careers.

"You've definitely got to stay on top of your playbook," Dobson said. "It's a little challenging to learn. You gotta stay focused."

Nose in the playbook is how these rookies are spending their spare time. In fact, it's an all-consuming process that's even taking away from their ability to appreciate the fact that they will actually be paid to play football for the first time in their careers.

Players were asked about what indulgence they might allow themselves once they sign a contract. The banality of the answers from newly minted 22-year-old millionaires would shock you.

"Nothing really."

"I'm going to put some in savings."

"A new watch."

There are no cars, no houses, no jewelry on the list. As a former 22-year-old myself, I was tempted to tell them about all the wonderful things money can in fact buy. However, a new NFL player has considerably less time on his hands than the average kid just out of college.

Star-divide

Football is a game. The NFL is a business. As part of that, players are expected to be more than just quarterbacks or linebackers or receivers these days. They are public personalities in addition to role models, pitch men, employees, and community members. Each one is a celebrity to a varying extent.

We're a mile away from the big white letters that spell out Hollywood, a fitting reminder that professional football is just another branch of the entertainment industry.

The Rookie Premiere orients the players to the business side of the game. Here, they connect with marketing partners and licensees. They also learn the finer points of controlling their personal brand and how its value intersects with others, beyond the team owners, who turn a profit via professional football.

This event also offered players a moment to breathe a little, to cut up in front of a microphone before going back to the all-consuming business of being a professional athlete.

"Just try to enjoy it, as overwhelming as it can be sometimes," Bengals Tyler Eifert advised future players. "Try to have fun with it and not take it too seriously. This is supposed to be fun."

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