Straight talk puts scare into NFL rookies
By CEDRIC GOLDEN
c.2009 Cox Newspapers
AUSTIN, Texas -- Think “Scared Straight!” meets the NFL.
In case you missed the reference, “Scared Straight!” was a 1978 documentary about convicts at New Jersey’s Rahway State Prison who warned juvenile delinquents about the brutal realities of prison life. The documentary spawned programs nationwide designed to steer youngsters away from a life of crime.
Now, the NFL isn’t Rahway, but commissioner Roger Goodell would make a mighty fine warden. He would be a lot more believable than that thieving, fake Bible thumper in Shawshank. Anyway, his league’s answer to “Scared Straight!” comes in the form of the NFL rookie symposium, an event that’s one part seminar and one part freshman orientation.
There were times last week when former Texas defensive end Brian Orakpo didn’t know if he was at a league function or a tent revival, but he and the other 255 draft picks had a truckload of literature dropped on their collective domes over four days in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla.
One of the featured speakers was ESPN studio analyst Cris Carter, a Hall of Fame wide receiver who testified about the trappings that can kill a promising career.
The young Carter was a mess. He was thrown out of Ohio State for dealing with an agent, then became a cocaine abuser early in his NFL career, prompting Philadelphia Eagles coach Buddy Ryan to release him after a season in which he caught 11 touchdown passes. It was the best thing that ever happened to him, Carter has said on more than one occasion.
Others in his line of work have fallen prey to numerous temptations: drugs, shady business deals, sexual indiscretions, drunken driving, steroids, street crime, and yes, dogfighting.
Carter’s message was simple: Do what I say, not what I did.
“This is a grown man’s league,” he barked. “This ain’t no little boys’ league.”
Then he yelled at a player he caught napping during the speech. Beautiful.
“It was something to hear him talk about his drug situation and being released,” said Orakpo, who went to the Washington Redskins with the 12th pick of the first round. “He said he had to get his life together because he had lost his job and couldn’t feed his family.”
Orakpo didn’t know the name of the rookie who drew Carter’s ire, but he knew attendance at the symposium was mandatory and to blow off the function would have resulted in a $50,000 fine from warden Goodell. And you thought that $100 for missing a Cowboys team meeting was scary.
Carter was a polarizing presence in the NFL because his off-the field problems nearly derailed his extraordinary career. Carter said he doubted if hardcore partiers like him and fellow Hall of Fame receiver Michael Irvin would survive in the Goodell era. The commish has dictatorial power in the personal conduct department, and NFL players know his brand of justice and the legal system’s can be mutually exclusive.
That’s part of the reason why the rookie symposium is one of the best things the league does. Invariably, there’s bound to be a couple of dumbbells who will go crazy when presented with two things that separate professional athletes from us regular folks -- an unlimited supply of cash and free time.
With that said, we know for every Pacman Jones or Chris Henry who gets arrested, there are a hundred Brian Orakpos and Jason Smiths who won’t see the backseat of a police cruiser. On Saturday, Orakpo and Smith -- the St. Louis Rams’ rookie offensive tackle from Baylor -- will join Tennessee Titans safety Michael Griffin at Akins High School, where Griffin, a former Longhorn, will hold his second annual Orange and White Football Camp.
Smith, the second overall pick behind Detroit Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford, said he didn’t get as much out of Carter’s speech, and that’s understandable because he’s not about to go out and shoot up a strip club any time soon.
“I’m not speaking for (Orakpo), but I know him well enough to say the chances of one of us coming into the league and getting strung out on cocaine next season is slim to none,” he said. “I was more affected by (Pittsburgh Steelers coach) Mike Tomlin’s speech. When a person like him is speaking about a place I’m trying to go (winning a Super Bowl), I take it very personally and if he tells me to jump, I’m going to jump.”
The players were given pamphlets outlining the dangers they face as young millionaires, along with pens to take notes. While rifling through his pamphlet, Orakpo saw a reference to Travis Henry, a running back who has fathered 11 children by 10 women while battling drug and financial problems. Henry is a sad illustration of how making it to the NFL doesn’t guarantee you’ve made it in life.
Former NFL cornerback Rod Babers said one session from the league’s 2003 rookie symposium stood out in his mind.
“This beautiful woman came up on the stage and we were looking around at each other and going, ’Man, she’s fine,”’ said Babers, a former Longhorn. “The first thing she said was, ’You shouldn’t judge a book by its cover.’ Then she told us she had been diagnosed with HIV two years ago.”
While some rookies will be helped by what they witnessed last week, the league could do a symposium every week and it wouldn’t prevent some players from falling into the same traps that have claimed others.
That said, give the league a thumbs up for its part in arming its newcomers with knowledge delivered by those who have been there before.
It’s not exactly “Scared Straight!” but Instructed Straight will do for now.
Cedric Golden writes for the Austin American-Statesman. E-mail: cgolden(at)statesman.com.
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