Next stop for NFL’s rookies: Mandatory symposium

BY Lindsay H. Jones, USA TODAY Sports

ARLINGTON, Texas — Randy Gregory was one of the final players to leave the AT&T Stadium field following the Dallas Cowboys’ final practice of the offseason Thursday, lingering to catch a few extra minutes with coach Jason Garrett.

The next six weeks are immensely important for all NFL rookies as they head into a brief stretch of calm before training camp. But navigating the downtime might be more critical for Gregory than most. The immensely talented pass rusher from the University of Nebraska saw his draft stock plummet to the bottom of the second round because of off-field concerns about his marijuana use in college.

Gregory completed Dallas’ offseason program feeling good about his future. He added 12 pounds onto his lanky frame, improved his conditioning and — perhaps most important — has been a model citizen and teammate.

Garrett’s message, Gregory said, was simple: just keep it up.

“Stay focused,” Gregory told USA TODAY Sports. “It was really just giving me feedback, telling me I’m doing well. There is still room for improvement. I’m making plays, doing what’s asked and trying to stay out of trouble.

“I think it’s key for everybody, not just me, but obviously I take it a little more serious.”

Gregory can expect Garrett’s message — about becoming a successful pro athlete and how to avoid trouble — to be reinforced at the league’s rookie symposium in Aurora, Ohio, next week. The annual event will include seminars with former players — Hall of Famers Cris Carter, Anthony Munoz and Curtis Martin among them — and current ones like New York Jets receiver Brandon Marshall and Pittsburgh Steelers cornerback William Gay.

Topics include the life transition to the NFL, mental health and wellness and the latest round of the NFL’s education program about domestic violence, sexual assault and child abuse.

All rookies should have received the league’s introductory education program earlier this spring from their teams. The next phase will include increased emphasis on bystander training — essentially learning to identify hazardous situations and helping others who might be at risk in one — and will also be expanded to include education about drunk driving prevention.

“What we hope to do — and what we will do — at the symposium is to continue to add to that baseline of knowledge that they have,” said Dwight Hollier, the league’s vice president of wellness and clinical services. “We are utilizing a lot of interactive, engaging ways of getting information to those rookies.

“There’s a lot of material upload that happens at the rookie symposium, at the big ballroom, with the different topics that we talk about. But then we take those topics and go into these smaller breakout rooms, and that’s where the download happens. That’s where the interaction, the engagement, the discussions — that’s where that information really sticks to those rookies.”

The symposium also includes a visit to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio, as well as a Play 60 event with children at the Cleveland Browns’ training facility in Berea, Ohio.

The hope is that rookies will embark on their summer and, ultimately, their first NFL season with an understanding of the league’s history, their new responsibilities as its representatives and the resources at their disposal.

“We want them to be successful as men long beyond this game,” said Hollier. “Long after they are done playing their last game, we want the information we provide to assist them along the way in that success.”

Hollier can count on Gregory to pay attention. The rookie’s expectations this week?

“Just gain a little bit of knowledge about the sport (while) talking to former players — they always have good things to say,” said Gregory. “They’ve been in the same spot as I have and the other rookies, so anything they can say to us, it is important to take it in.

“Any time you get a chance to hear what they have to say, that’s big. If you embrace it, it can really help you out in your career.”

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