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Why the NFL Rookie Symposium wouldn't have saved Browns WR Josh Gordon

Jun 24, 2013 -- 6:00am

 Tony Grossi | ESPNCleveland.com

 

Photo/Getty

The Morning Kickoff …

Welcome, NFL rookies: The NFL Rookie Symposium, which kicked off Sunday at the Bertram Hotel in Aurora, is a well-meaning, well-run orientation program that does its best to introduce incoming NFL draft picks to the realities of their new profession.

This has nothing to do with playbooks, zone-read option offenses or 3-4 defensive concepts.

Over four days, the 254-member draft class of 2013 – split into AFC and NFC groupings – will hear real-life stories from veteran players. They will sit in on panel discussions with topics such as “Transitioning to the NFL,” “Are You Bigger than the Game?” and “What Defines Success?”

The symposium focuses on four themes: history of the NFL, total wellness, the NFL experience, and professionalism.

Guest speakers at this 16th symposium – the second in a row held in Aurora – include a balance of squeaky-clean former players such as Chad Pennington, Desmond Howard and Brian Dawkins and problem players such as Adam  “Pacman” Jones (repeated league suspensions and a recent assault charge) and Tank Johnson (two month jail term for probation violation).

“It’s about giving you the tools, the resources to win,” former NFL cornerback Troy Vincent, the NFL Senior Vice President of Player Engagement, said Sunday. “But the realities are it’s not always victories. There are challenges that come with it.

“The speakers are those who have walked in your shoes. We’ve learned through research that the peer-to-peer model is extremely effective. Adam spoke last year, and we had a great response. Adam’s authentic. Adam is still continuing to transition away from a lifestyle that hasn’t been very positive for him. We’re not giving up on Adam Jones, even after his last instance. What’s gonna happen to Adam beyond our control is going to happen. But I believe in this young man. Adam has a story to share and these men appreciate it. You’re not going to fool this group.”

It sounds all well and good. And then you have the experience of Josh Gordon.

Live and learn: Because he joined the Browns last year through the summer supplemental draft in July, Gordon did not attend the rookie symposium.

But Gordon did attend required weekly classroom meetings during the 2012 season as part of the league’s unpublicized Rookie Success Program. The nine-week program, which was conducted after regular-season practices, reinforced and advanced the principles discussed at the symposium.

Topics included lifestyle management, anger management, stress management, and social media.

As a rookie, Gordon was somewhat shy and a bit of a loner. He was force-fed into a starting role after not playing in college for two seasons due to suspensions and transfer. During the Browns season, Gordon had virtually no leisure time away from football. As a result, his phenomenal skills were directed to a productive first season. The third-youngest player in the NFL last year, Gordon took small steps on the road to stardom.

But when his first season ended, something happened to Gordon. He changed agents. According to a source, he gravitated to South Beach in south Florida – the party haven of young pro athletes -- and ran with a different crowd. He was influenced by the wrong people. He tested positive for a banned NFL substance -- codeine, Gordon said in a statement -- and was slapped with a two-game suspension to start the 2013 season, and fined a total of four game checks.

Two weeks after the suspension was announced, Gordon riled up Clevelanders by flaunting his allegiance to Cavaliers-deserter LeBron James and the Miami Heat on his Twitter account. He tweeted about “the haters creeping back into the couches right now” during the seventh game of the NBA Finals and then about attending the Heat’s “champions parade” after their victory.

It was poor form and incurred the wrath of native Clevelander and former Browns and NFL lineman LeCharles Bentley. Bentley tweeted back at Gordon: “YOU’RE suspended, YOU let YOUR team down but it’s a priority to party with guys WAY out of your tax bracket … “

In a span of two weeks, Gordon devolved from potential 2013 season fan favorite to target of fan “hate.” Gordon may have had the time of his life on his first summer vacation as an NFL receiver, but was it worth it?

Locker room police: In 15 NFL seasons, Vincent, 43, was a pillar of class and professionalism as a player. He was a team captain for 13 years on three different teams.

Vincent was not on top of Gordon's story, but as a father of sons aged 17 and 13 he knows that life is different from when he played.

“The game has evolved,” Vincent told me. “The difference between 1992 and 2013 … when I came in, my cellphone was still connected to my car. There was no such thing as Facebook, no such thing as Twitter, no such thing as bloggers. Digital IT has exploded. The way people receive and give information now is different. It’s just more challenging. In 1992, teams and leagues could control the message. Now, sometimes, we’re the last to get the message

“I have Troy Jr. (a high school senior) and Taron, a 13-year-old who every month is changing his social media name. One is listening and one is not. We have to be relative. You see it and go ‘why?’ I deal with it every day in my own household. I ask, ‘who cares what your lacrosse stick looks like?’ It’s the 21st Century child. The 21st Century athlete. It’s not going away.”

Vincent entered the NFL in 1992 – four years before the league created the Rookie Symposium. And he turned out pretty good.

“I had good family support, good structure around me, I managed resources well, and I had great leaders,” Vincent said. “We talked about that (Sunday night),  about identifying the right veteran. I had Dan Marino, John Offerdahl, Keith Sims. John Offerdahl took me and showed me how to actually take notes in a meeting.

“There’s not a locker room in the NFL, in all 32 cities, that doesn’t have great leaders. It’s up to us as individuals to identify them and gravitate to them.”

That’s who will have to save Josh Gordon. His teammates. This is why every NFL team needs a nucleus of strong veterans.

Tony Grossi covers the Browns for ESPN 850 WKNR, ESPN 1540 KNR2 and www.espncleveland.com.

He has covered the Browns with distinction since 1984 and is one of 46 voters for the National Football League Hall of Fame. Email your “Hey Tony” questions to tgrossi@espncleveland.com

Follow Tony on Twitter @tonygrossi

 

 

 

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