NFL reaches out to rookies at symposium


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Some rookie mistakes are more disastrous than others.

A muffed punt or missed tackle can be corrected, even forgiven, but you’ve heard the other stories. A rookie inks his first multimillion-dollar contract and before you can blink the same guy is filing for bankruptcy.

“There’s a lot of horror stories out there,” Steelers rookie tight end Rob Blanchflower said last week at minicamp. “Stories about things that happened to people coming into situations unprepared. [There’s] a lot of pressure, a lot of money and a lot of temptations.”

With the transition from college football to the NFL comes an expected increase in talent and competition, but also the fame, fortune and off-the-field responsibilities that go with being a professional athlete.

For many NFL rookies, it takes plenty of advice from family, teammates and executives to adapt to the new lifestyle. Some will still buckle under the pressure of superstardom.

That’s why the NFL introduced the rookie symposium. The symposium is held every year for all rookies entering the league and it focuses on NFL history, total wellness, professional experience and workplace conduct.

While the NFC rookies will finish their time at the symposium this morning, the AFC rookies will arrive for their stay. The weeklong event in suburban Cleveland is filled with guest speakers, videos, presentations and workshops. These activities provide information about player health, maintaining relationships, professionalism, substance abuse, mental health, workplace etiquette and decision-making.

“It’s an introduction into the NFL, the business of football,” said Dwight Hollier, director of the NFL’s transition and clinical services. “It gives them an expectation and how to get the most out of their careers.”

Hollier is also a former NFL player who spent the majority of his career for the Miami Dolphins. In his rookie year in 1992, the symposium didn’t exist.

“I wish I did have it [back then],” he said. “There were principles at the organization that helped encourage rookie development, but having something like this directly geared to rookies would’ve been beneficial.”

The guest speakers at this year’s symposium include LaVar Arrington, Cris Carter, Eddie George and Warren Sapp. Former players share their experiences and the mistakes they made upon entering the league.

Steelers wide receiver Markus Wheaton, only a year removed from attending the symposium, still has those anecdotes fresh in his head.

“We got to hear the stories of past players that went through some past struggles,” Wheaton said. “Hearing their stories, for me, was what had the most impact on me — what they went through and how they pulled through it. We can learn from them and the mistakes they made.”

“The current and former players are extremely impactful,” Hollier said. “Over the years, peer-to-peer is more likely to make these guys pay attention.”

Although the symposium aims to guide rookies in the right direction early in their careers, the event alone can’t entirely dictate the importance of off-the-field responsibilities and behavior.

Many rookies will lean on veteran players within the locker room to provide mentorship.

“I feel like Lawrence Timmons, Will Allen, William Gay and Antonio Brown help out a lot,” said linebacker Ryan Shazier, the Steelers’ first-round selection this year. “I really talk to them a lot.”

Blanchflower said fellow tight ends have helped him tremendously and even an offensive lineman has been there for him.

“Heath [Miller], Matt Spaeth, those guys in my position group are clear cut. [Center] Cody Wallace, too, he’s my locker mate, my life coach,” Blanchflower said with a smile. “[There’s] a lot of good veterans out here looking out for the younger guys.”

On the flip side, most veterans don’t mind offering some direction to the rookies.

“That’s my family,” cornerback Ike Taylor said, “I love football. I love my teammates, I love the progression, I love the process. I love everything about this.

“My young guys, I look to them as my little brothers. I take care of them on and off the field like my little brothers because it’s all love and no one will understand what we do except the guys who go through it.”

Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger — once notorious for his own off-the-field behavior — might understand more than most the importance of veteran guidance.

When Roethlisberger entered the league in 2004, former Steelers running back Jerome Bettis wrote down his name and number and told Roethlisberger to call him any time.

“For a guy like [Bettis] to do that to a young guy like me, it’s amazing,” Roethlisberger said last week. “I still call the rookies when we draft them and do the same thing.”


Ryan Petrovich: rpetrovich@post-gazette.com and Twitter @RyanPetrovich.

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