By Cynthia Zordich, Player Engagement Insider
For Pittsburgh Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin, the new NFL Rookie Experience offers the opportunity to introduce his new players to the NFL the Pittsburgh way – the Steelers way – the Art Rooney way.
What does that mean? Family. Family who doesn’t talk at you - but to you; an owner who is not invisible, but there, at work, every day - contributing; a coaching staff that digs deep to get to know each team member on and off the field, who cares about you as a person and a player.
An advocate of the change in the rookie symposium from a combined three-day event that invited all 253 draft picks to Aurora, Ohio, Tomlin elaborates on the benefits of holding the symposiums in team cities.
“There are 32 teams that make up the National Football League and every team has issues that are specific to that location,” offers Tomlin. “Bringing the rookie experience home gives us the opportunity to prepare our players to be professionals in Pittsburgh, PA where we do things that are relevant here, but may not be in other cities. It is a smaller, more intimate group where we can cater the program to meet the specific needs of our guys and the culture of our city.”
Twelve-year NFL Pro and Steelers Director of Player Development, Terry Cousin, works hand-in-hand with Tomlin to create a program that transitions the young players into the NFL. To Cousin, an instrumental factor in determining the success of a player is the relationships he brings with him to the game. For this reason, for the past 7 years he has collaborated with motivational speaker Dr. Earl Suttle to help players define who they are as players, teammates, sons, brothers, friends, cousins and spouses.
During the early morning session, Dr. Suttle said this to the rookies gathered at the Omni William Penn Hotel in downtown Pittsburgh, “Your ability to choose the right relationship will determine who you become and the direction and destiny of your life. You have to step back and look at the people in your life and ask; who makes a positive impact on your life, who guides you, who helps you be better, who wants nothing from you? This is important because you take those people with you on the field. You take them with you wherever you go. You are never by yourself. You always take the people in your life with you.”
Cousin, a part of the league since 1997 when he signed as a free agent cornerback with the Chicago Bears, has seen too many great players get derailed because of their relationships with immediate and extended families.
“A lot of responsibility and burden is placed on these young guys,” says Cousin. “That’s why I want them to know themselves, first. The only thing that ties you to what you’re doing is your relationships with other people. As you grow, they grow and the ones that seem to affect players most are rarely the ones tied to the locker room. It’s everyone else. It’s like we’re Superman. We all have capes and we like to wear them well. We all want to be the ones making everything right. Being the guy in our family – probably the first in the family - to be in the position to make everything all right and that’s where it can all go wrong.”
While OTAs (organized team activities) dive in to the fundamentals of the game, the Steelers rookie experience takes on the fundamentals of life.
“More than anything the rookie experience is a ‘get to know,’ admits Tomlin. “Terry and I make it a point to spend a lot of time with each player talking about non-football topics in a non-football setting. We want them to know that they can trust us. There is a definitive separation between the football evaluation arm and what we are doing with them as individuals off the field, in their heads and in their homes. Players think there are consequences for seeking help with non-football related issues. That is not the case here.”
In all actuality, between the physical testing, skill testing, psychology evaluations, character reports and medical screening that a player endures coming in to the league, there is little that NFL teams do not know about each player. Still, without the willingness to open up, there is little help that can be offered. This is why trust and loyalty are so important to Tomlin, Cousin and the Steelers organization.
“What we see are a lot of young guys coming into the league with family issues,” says Tomlin. “We touch on those depending on their willingness to open up and address them. We do that because we know that leaving these issues unresolved might affect them immediately on the field, or later in life.”
Finding the balance between the field and life is a recurring theme at the Steelers rookie symposium. Having focused on the game for most of their lives, and now being in a position to play at the highest level, it is not surprising that many of these young athletes are ill-equipped at the new demands that NFL life brings.
“The leading cause for setbacks in NFL players are relationship and money issues,” shares Cousin. “Players have no practice, they don’t get their reps, they don’t get coached on it, they don’t lift it - like weights. It’s all just thrown at them.”
Tomlin and Cousin pride themselves in changing the narrative by offering solutions rather than simply outlining the problem, by talking to the players rather than talking at them.
“Public perception is that coaches are volatile and angry. You don’t see that here,” confirms Cousin. “Many of these young players have witnessed struggle in their lives and they have some broken relationships. So that’s where it is. Many rookie programs stem from that. To breakthrough to players, Coach Tomlin does not talk down to his players. He’s with them and when people know you are with them they work hard for you – with you. It is the Rooney way. It is the Steelers way. Coach Tomlin adopted it when he came here, I adopted it when I came here and I am sure that is why we are successful in Pittsburgh.”
For Tomlin every minute with his young players is an opportunity to make an impact on and off the field. His advice for an undrafted free agent trying to make the team? “Put everything you have into it. Listen and learn. There are lessons here that will carry you in life regardless of whether it is football or otherwise. Everything in your athletic life has led you to this point. Do not underscore that. Continue to live out your dream. Don’t look for escape hatches.”
His advice for the drafted players? “My advice for the first-round Draft choice is no different. We don’t worry about expectations and things associated with where a player was positioned and when they were drafted. Bottom line is, they are all in the same boat now.”
After the morning session, I had the opportunity to revisit Dr. Suttle’s first question with a few players asking each, “If not a football player – who are you?” The answers were interesting and varied as the players themselves.
“Often people only identify us as football players and you can get wrapped up in it. I think it is healthy to explore who you are outside of the game. My story is unique in that I didn’t play my senior year of high school or my freshman year in college. It was the first and only time that I didn’t play any sports so, I had to figure out who I was. I had to look in the mirror and say, ’You’re not an athlete anymore, so, who are you?’” shared long snapper Colin Holba
Quarterback Bart Houston said, “My Dad was a pitcher and a quarterback in college and my Mom played four sports in college. We are definitely sports people and competitive. Still, my Mom made it a point to throw us into everything and to show us that there are other things out there and more to us than sports.”
“That’s hard for me because growing up I was always taught that plan B detracts from plan A and this is what I’ve wanted to do my whole life. At some point, I’ll visit that. You always have to have your eye out for the future, obviously, but right now I’m just trying to be the best football player that I can be,” answered linebacker T.J. Watt.
Cynthia Zordich is the co-author of When The Clock Runs Out and founder of nflthread.net. She is the wife of Former NFL Safety/current UM DB Coach, Michael Zordich, and the mother of Former Fullback Michael Zordich (Carolina Panthers), Former D-1 QB Alex Zordich and Daughter Aidan Zordich (Assistant, Funny or Die).
Dr. Earl Suttle is the Founder and Chairman of Leadership Success International, LLC, an international training and consulting company based in Atlanta, GA, that specializes in working with businesses and organizations to increase their profits and productivity through developing their people.