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Always a Play Away: Clayton Holmes on Paying Dues as an NFL Rookie

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Once a week leading up to the 2008 NFL Draft, three-time Super Bowl winner Clayton Holmes will personally explain some of the pitfalls he fell into as a player: Money problems, inability to say “no,” the gold diggers, the party culture, his own demons from childhood. As told to BC sportswriter James David Dickson.

A Word on Expectations

Imagine, if you will, two NFL rookies. Let’s call them Tom and Joe.

Joe was a regular fixture on Mel Kiper’s draft board before failing a drug test at the Combine. He was lucky to get drafted at all, let alone so early — third round — but he doesn’t see it that way. All he sees are the millions of dollars that should’ve been his but aren’t.

Tom wasn’t even drafted out of college. His old college coach called in a favor and scored him a tryout with the local team. He finds the learning curve tougher than some of the guys who came from more complex systems in college, but he sticks with it and improves a little each day. He stays late and does extra film study, which his coaches notice and his fellow rookies emulate.

Tom’s just happy to be there, and gives it his all every day to maintain that opportunity. Because Tom expects nothing — except that he’ll give his best effort and show initiative — he’s happy when the coaches finally start riding him, because that means they feel invested in his progress. Scrubs don’t get yelled at in the NFL; only would-be contributors who are playing like scrubs do.

Joe gets off on the wrong foot with his teammates — veterans and rookies alike — by repeatedly “forgetting” to bring breakfast for his fellow DBs. This leads to a verbal confrontation with a few of the veterans which ends with Joe tied to the goal posts for 45 minutes after practice, as much time as it took for him to wriggle loose.

He doesn’t take the rebuke well. “Fuck that shit, man,” he says to another rookie the next day, well in earshot of his defensive captain. “What’s fetching sandwiches got to do with football?”

The other rookie shrugs his shoulders – “I’m just trying to play ‘ball, man” — and walks away.

By the end of training camp Joe’s become an outcast in the locker room and, not surprisingly, he doesn’t make the final cut. Tom’s coach, meanwhile, admires how the kid gets downfield on special teams and seems to have a nose for the ball. He makes the practice squad and lands a starting job a quarter through the season.

Today Joe and his top 5 talent are sitting on his mother’s couch, still complaining. Today Tom’s heart pays off as his teammates elect him special teams captain.

No one in the NFL owes you anything. Not playing time nor the time of day. Tom appreciates the privilege of being a part of it. Joe thinks the world owes him something.

Welcome to the Big Leagues

The toughest part about being an NFL rookie isn’t all the extra games. It’s not the speed of the game — though that does take getting used to. No, the toughest thing about being a rookie is that, for the first time in your athletic life, you’re not The Man anymore.

You were the stuff of legend in high school. Your 4.3 speed caused a mini-recruiting war that allowed you to write your own ticket to any college in the country. You performed well enough to be drafted into the game of games. And now you’re getting yelled at for forgetting to bring enough grape jelly packets.

But no matter how rough things go, after you make the team you must remember that you were drafted for a reason: the team saw in you a potential contributor.

What separates players in the NFL isn’t usually talent, but their attitude and their ability to understand and implement their coach’s system. Take, for example, LB Jonathan Vilma. Vilma came into the League like a flash, recording 100+ tackles and making the Pro Bowl his second year. But then coach Eric Mangini came to the Jets and switched to a 3-4 defense; Vilma was better in the 4-3 and found the transition difficult. Just this off season he was traded to the New Orleans Saints.

Does anyone actually think that Vilma can’t play? No one who knows football. But the 3-4 just wasn’t a good fit. He knew it and the Jets knew it. If things don’t click you can’t start doubting yourself as a player before considering whether it’s the system that’s your problem. Vilma is lucky that his successes came before his struggles, or else he might not have gotten another shot. If things go the other way around for you, remember that you’re in the League for a reason. Now you’re just looking for a better fit.

Speak Up

If you feel the rookie haze is coming on too thick from your coaches, I’d suggest speaking to your position coach. Tell him, in a calm, one-on-one setting, that you don’t respond to unconstructive criticism and get the most out of constructive coaching and encouragement. NFL coaches are hard men but remember: they’re not there to be a badass, they’re there to win football games.

A guy like Tom might see his coach’s yelling as a sign of endearment and interest, while a guy like Joe might wilt under public criticism. Everyone’s different. You might find it tough to approach your coaches but consider: (1) Unless the team has a lot of money or expectations tied up into you, they absolutely won’t approach you and (2) Being assertive — not pushy, assertive — will help you in football and in life. As the book says, you have not because you ask not.

If you’re a true player, believe me, your skills will be recognized – it might even be by another team, years later, but recognized just the same. That part of it you can’t control – all you can affect is the effort you put in. But you’ll never give your best if you’re walking around with a long face. Long-faced guys don’t tend to be the most thorough or enthusiastic in their preparations.

Proven veterans have the luxury of cutting a 75% practice; as a rookie you have to lay out 100%. Not only on the practice field, but in the film room, and, yeah, even while making bagel runs or picking up dry cleaning. It’s called paying dues.

Your opportunities will come, believe that. Your attitude will determine what you do with them. When your number is called, will you be struggling to play catch-up or will you make an immediate impact?

In the words of my old DBs coach Dave Campo: “you’re always a play away from starting.” Whether you’re ready when your name is called is the only question.

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About James David Dickson