PALM BEACH GARDENS, Fla. -- Mike Tomlin, head coach of the Pittsburgh Steelers, had some sound advice for the young men seated before him in the large ballroom: "Make news on the field, not off the field."
That was among the many powerful messages that the 256 players selected in last April's draft heard during the 13th annual NFL Rookie Symposium at the PGA National Resort.
The group naturally included the Buffalo Bills' eight draft picks: Aaron Maybin, Eric Wood, Jairus Byrd, Andy Levitre, Shawn Nelson, Nic Harris, Cary Harris, and Ellis Lankster. Paul Lancaster, the Bills' director of player programs, also was on hand to lead the Buffalo contingent.
The four-day event, which ran from June 28 to July 1, helps prepare rookies for their NFL careers. Through a series of interactive meetings, it is made clear to them that they no longer are college students; they are now part of a business.
Tomlin's words tied into the theme of the symposium: "Own the moment." The Bills' rookies have been learning what it will take to do just that.
"All the meetings are really geared towards situations in life, and situations in your career," Maybin said. "These are situations that players like ourselves are going to encounter. At the same time, it really gives you a lot of insight as to what are the best ways to deal with them and what opportunities you have that are available to you.
"It really just gives all of us a chance to come together, to get to know each other a little bit better and really get to know the league a lot better as far as what we have available to us – all of the good things that are available, but also some of the pitfalls that we have to watch out for."
Wood appreciates the fact that the NFL and the NFL Players Association make the investment in money and time to help enhance the rookies' chances for success.
"It just seems like they're out there to help us," Wood said. "They want to help us prolong our career, stay out of trouble, and do the right thing."
Representatives from the NFL and the NFLPA covered topics such as life as a rookie, transitioning to the NFL, personal conduct, substance abuse, high-risk behavior, player rights and benefits, and financial education. With a mix of lectures, videos, skits, and player panels, there is plenty of information from which the rookies can benefit.
Former Bills offensive lineman Ross Tucker, who writes for SI.com and is a co-host on Sirius NFL Radio, moderated the "Transitioning to the NFL" panel. It included four 2008 rookies – St. Louis Rams DE Chris Long, New York Jets TE Dustin Keller, Denver Broncos WR Eddie Royal, and Atlanta Falcons WR Harry Douglas.
Douglas and Wood were teammates at Louisville. "Just hearing from their experiences and some of the struggles they had as rookies, and learning from them (was helpful)," said Wood.
Harold Henderson, the NFL's executive vice president of player programs, said the symposium is designed with two major goals in mind.
"One is to get ready for football, make the adjustment from college to the professional football level, help them make that transition," Henderson said. "And, two, the transition in their lives from being students with low income to professionals with high visibility personalities in the media all the time, with a lot of money in their pockets."
Four straight days of meetings can get repetitive for the rookies. However, the league and NFLPA do everything they can to keep the players involved and interested.
Zac Minor moderates life-skills presentations at the symposium. He works with a troupe of actors in creating skits that show the types of real-life problems NFL players typically face and how to avoid them. Minor tells the rookies of the options they have when they confront situations that could ruin their lives and careers. He constantly reminds them of three words: "Choices, decisions, and consequences."
"Over the years we've crafted the points that are important to make and have worked on polishing and refining the message, and the vehicle for the message," Henderson said.
Minor and the rest of the actors do a good job of keeping the rookies' attention.
"I think that the skits really helped out a lot, just because of the fact that the meetings are really long," Maybin said. "We've basically been inside all day, in the meeting rooms. When you actually have the people acting out the skits and you have the videos that they show, it just changes things up so it makes it a little less monotonous and everything. It really helps you to keep your attention focused. It allows you to see life situations where these skills and these different things that you're talking about are dealt with."
And now Buffalo's rookies feel that much more prepared to deal with the challenges they will face as first-year NFL players.