NFL draft picks put on new hats while inheriting old storylines
Although they won the ‘genetic lotto,’ their time in the NFL will likely end soon
On Saturday, the 2018 NFL draft at AT&T Stadium in Texas ended. Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Baker Mayfield was home in Austin when the former Oklahoma Sooner’s name was called as the first overall pick of the Cleveland Browns. So it was up to Penn State running back Saquon Barkley, picked second overall by the New York Giants, to kick off a familiar ritual.
Barkley and the players who followed stood behind the jerseys of their new pro teams. They donned their new teams’ caps and a smile. They embraced the NFL commissioner or other league officials. They embraced their families, their friends and their new lives, lives they’ve aspired to live since they were children.
The drafted players have won what a friend once called the “genetic lotto.” They were born into the possibility of NFL stardom. And their hard work and determination have helped give them the chance.
Meanwhile, the sports scribes and pundits have measured the newest NFL players for the old stories that new rookies inherit from previous rookies: the stories about players who have used sports to escape struggling communities, the stories about talented players who might not live up to expectations and the stories about hardworking players with less talent who might exceed expectations.
No matter which story defines incoming rookies, as their playing careers unfold, a series of other stories could be draped over them, including one written in scarlet letters and in ink that only a championship can remove: “Can’t win the big one.”
Careers in the NFL often speed by, quick, brutal and frenzied, just like a kickoff. Nevertheless, the players and the stories they wear, proudly or awkwardly, have much to teach us about our own lives.
Like the players, we can all be challenged to come back from injuries, illnesses or bad decisions. Like the players, we must play hurt or in circumstances that are not conducive to our success. And like the players, even the most celebrated of us are ultimately disposable workers, our fates determined as much by the whims, dictates and needs of others as by our own hard work, talent and determination.
To survive our working lives, we will be called upon to wear many hats, some ill-fitting.
Over time, NFL players wear football helmets as if they are crowns. Symbolically, they wear different hats, cocked one way and then another, as their roles on their teams change. They also wear hats and jerseys too often stamped with unfair labels: malcontent, greedy, diva — labels they must struggle to shed. Again, like the players, many of us have had to struggle to shed glibly applied and false labels in our personal or workday lives, from the middle school lunchrooms to the corporate boardrooms.
During the NFL draft, the aspiring players accepted team hats and jerseys as if they were the degrees too many of them left college without earning. For a time, the most talented, skilled, hardworking and lucky will earn a lot of money. They will see how much happiness money can buy for themselves and their loved ones. They will see that responsibility and potential pitfalls come with the money. They will see that NFL athletes, even the most diligent and lucky, march through their careers double time. Along the way, they will be loved and hated by strangers.
And their careers, guts and glory, aches and pain, end so soon: in the blink of an eye, or about the time it takes to put on a new hat.