Friday brings one of my favorite events of football season.
There's no game, there's no practice, the draft is past and no big free agent moves are expected. Instead, it's the day Eagles rookies check in to their new workplace and the city they will all soon call home. They get fitted for their helmets, meet their new bosses and maybe some new co-workers. For an afternoon, before they start cashing big checks, before they step into a stadium rattling with cheers, we get a glimpse of a very human moment for young men poised to step onto a huge stage.
The rookies arrive having just accomplished a dream – they've each been drafted or signed to play football at the highest level – but that joy is met with the nerves that accompany a whole new set of challenges. They have a new place to live, new supervisors to impress. After working their way to the top rung in college, they now return to the bottom in the NFL and have to prove themselves all over again. They are thrilled that years of work have given them the chance to play a game professionally, but they're also anxious about all the unknowns they are about to dive into.
Anyone who has moved to a new city or started a new job, and especially anyone who did so immediately after graduating college, can relate. A moment of achievement quickly blends into opportunity but also uncertainty. Some of the players who arrive Friday will go on to make millions, to become household names, stars we watch for years on national broadcasts. Unlike most of us, they'll get a shot to reach the highest level of their profession right away. Others will soon see their NFL dreams fade out, and be forced to turn to more routine jobs.
For now, all they know is they have a chance, and no one can be sure exactly what they will make of it. Many of us have been in the exact same place.
I first wrote about this two years ago, when the 2010 draft class arrived at the NovaCare Complex. It was still my first month on the Eagles beat and I was struck by two things. First was the great diversity of personalities and backgrounds that goes into building a team. I remember Mike Kafka, from Chicago, arriving in designer jeans and a navy blazer with a rolling suitcase in tow, and then Jeff Owens, a South Florida native, arriving in black gym shorts carrying a lumpy duffel bag. They were both now part of the same mix. The second observation that stuck with me was just how much these young men in their early 20s reminded me of how me and my friends felt leaving school for something new.
Here is what I wrote then (there was no comparable day last year because of the lock out):
From the Inquirer, April 30, 2010:
Rookies' first day is picture perfect
It looked so good, Brandon Graham had to take a picture.
Seeing his first NFL locker, with three pairs of shoes, a No. 54 jersey and his nameplate, the Eagles' top draft pick snapped two photos with his cell phone.
"That's going to be my screen saver," the defensive end said.
He was one of more than two dozen Eagles rookies soaking in the anticipation, expectations and jitters - along with the warm reality of lifelong goals met - as they arrived at the team's NovaCare Complex on Thursday on the eve of their first practices as professionals. The minicamp starts on Friday.
Having just left college, the mix of highly touted draft picks and undrafted rookies arrived with a feel of their first days at a new school.
"It's almost starting college all over again," said Kurt Coleman, a safety drafted in the seventh round out of Ohio State.
There were a few veterans looking quizzically at the new guys, asking reporters to help match names and faces. There were new plays to learn and coaches to impress. There was a sense of dreams fulfilled, mixed with the unease before the first day on a new job.
"Anxious, man," said linebacker Keenan Clayton, a fourth-round pick. "I can't sleep."
Clayton said he has been restless since Saturday, when he was awakened by a phone call from the Eagles saying they were about to draft him.
"I've just been thinking, I'm actually in the NFL now, I'm actually a part of an NFL organization," said Clayton, a Cowboys fan in his youth who said his family in Texas was switching allegiances. "When I got on the plane this morning, it was like, 'Oh, man, it's really happening.' "
The class of 13 draft picks and 14 undrafted rookie free agents makes up a youthful group coming to the team.
Wide receiver Riley Cooper, a fifth-round pick, talked about meeting Michael Vick and others whom, until now, he has known only through their characters on video games.
For many of the new arrivals in Philadelphia, it was the farthest east they had ever been.
Some still showed love for their college teams: cornerback Trevard Lindley, a fourth-round pick, wore a Kentucky sweatshirt and shorts, and Cooper had a Florida T-shirt.
Others dressed as if ready to start an office job. Linebacker Ricky Sapp, a fifth-round pick, wore a red polo shirt tucked into pleated khakis, with an ACC championship game watch shining on his wrist.
Sapp, a speedy defensive end in college, said that in the minicamp he is slated to play strong-side linebacker. He said his speed would help him with pass-coverage responsibilities.
"At the end of the day, I just want to get on the field," Sapp said. "I don't care if it's at nose tackle or long snapper. . . . I'm ready to play."
The rookies understand the importance of making a good impression on their bosses.
"I want to leave here and have the coaches say, 'Hey, this guy can do this,' " said running back Charles Scott, a sixth-round pick.
Graham talked about making big plays for his teammates at Michigan and now in Philadelphia.
"Yes, I'm nervous, but I like to be confident [too]," he said. "Even though I'm nervous, I know what I'm capable of."
Playing football is now a job, Coleman said.
"It's just so amazing and so surreal," he said of arriving at the Eagles' complex, "but I can't really be in awe too much because I've got to get to work."