MIAMI -- It’s hard to tell which is less awake on this warm day in late June: the players or the sun. As a group of players pile into the van that takes them to their first stop on a day that will last at least 16 hours, there isn't a lot of chatter or laughter. There are a few yawns. Coffee and the adrenaline of the day are still trying to kick in. The sun remains hidden in darkness and, later, by clouds. While other NFL players vacationed during this period, one group of current and former players continued their quest for an MBA from the University of Miami.
They took a series of three two-week classes throughout the offseason and -- to appease their teams -- worked out with trainers in the morning to remain in shape. It made for long days, but it led to 31 current and former players graduating with an MBA on July 1 (with another, Will Smith, receiving his degree posthumously) and 30 more halfway to theirs.
Here’s a look at their day:
6:55 a.m.: Nine players work out at Gulliver Prep Academy in Miami on the field where late Redskins safety Sean Taylor once starred. His name is displayed on the scoreboard. It isn't a typical Miami morning; it’s cloudy, and rain is forecast for much of the day (not just at the usual 5 p.m. hour). Rumbles of thunder echo. The players ignore it and start their workouts. This is one of three sites in Miami conducting early-morning workouts for players in the class.
As the song “John Gotti” blares and players stretch, Titans linebacker Derrick Morgan introduces himself to free-agent guard Jahri Evans.
“We had some battles down there,” Morgan says. To which Evans replies, “Yeah, we did.”
For 30 minutes, players go through a series of drills heavy on resistance training and conditioning, then take a short break before heading to the weight room. As they sit in a dugout with rain falling, they start talking contracts, and one of them says, “I’ve got a cheap-ass organization.”
8:12 a.m.: The players are 12 minutes into their weight-room workouts; each has a folder containing a personalized regimen. There’s chatter, but not a lot. The instructor, Joe Ferrer, doesn’t miss much. As he scans the room, he implores Sergio Brown to drop his knee forward on his lunges. Twenty minutes in, Morgan’s T-shirt is drenched with sweat. Twenty-five minutes later, the workout is over and the van leaves. There are approximately 14 more hours before the day ends. After a return to the hotel to shower and grab a snack, the players split up into two vans, which transport them to the University of Miami, about 10 minutes away, for their 10:30 class.
11:27 a.m.: The second-year students are nearly an hour into a class on real estate and are listening to three speakers who are experts in the field. The topics, among other things: Uber’s impact on the real-estate industry, AirBNB, and Puerto Rico’s economy and whether it’s a good time to invest there. It’s heavy stuff.
At one point, former NFL receiver Lee Evans, in a discussion on loans, asks, “When you do a nonrecourse loan, is the rate higher?”
One of the guest speakers, Chris Drew, who's a managing director for HFF, a commercial real-estate firm, says, “Great question. We deal with some of the most successful and smart people. Our best clients do not sign a recourse loan. I can’t think of the last recourse deal I did.”
“Dang, now I’m pissed,” he says. “You got me feeling bad because I ate a candy bar and come in here and you’re eating an apple.”
“You hit a wall around lunch to where the exertion from the workout catches up to me,” Philadelphia defensive lineman Mike Martin says. “That’s what the old 2:15 coffee break is for.”
3:21 p.m.: While Xia Chekwa -- who is taking the class with her husband, Dolphins cornerback Chimdi Chekwa -- sips on coffee to get through the day, others rely on other means to stay awake, such as chewing tobacco. A can of the stuff travels among several players and gets passed around as the day progresses.
Later in the day, one player places some dip in his mouth just as a picture is taken. His request: “Please don’t use that picture. I don’t want my mom to see it.” It is simply part of the effort to stay awake.
The players agree that going through the long days of training camp prepares them for these situations: workouts followed by lengthy meetings, or, in this case, classes.
“The first [two-week period], I was a zombie,” Morgan says. “I was dying. I couldn’t make it through the class. It’s hard to focus for four hours at a time. But by this time, you’re conditioned to it.”
6:25 p.m.: The second class on strategic management is 22 minutes from ending and five minutes from a series of yawns. For now, though, Blanton, one of the more active participants in this class, is involved in a discussion about Amazon’s mission statement and drones. The discussion at this time centers on Amazon’s purchase of Kiva, which makes robots that service warehouses, for $775 million.
Blanton speaks up, “There’s almost a need for them to buy the company. Once they implement the technology, it will save them money. It does fit their mission statement. They want to enhance the buying experience and get the product to you as fast as possible. When the technology takes off, other companies will want to do this to be competitive, and they own the company now, so where are they going to have to get this technology? They’ll have to go to Amazon.”
Blanton is wearing a gray shirt that sort of announces his future intentions. It features one multicolored word: Google.
“One of my goals is to be CEO of Google,” he says. “That’s not a joke.”
But even a guy full of energy and impressive alertness admits that these days challenge him -- and everyone.
“It’s way tougher than undergrad,” he says. “You get physical taxation and then mental taxation. You treat it like training camp. Once you get started, you can do anything. The tough part is getting started. The tough part is waking up at 6.”
9:37 p.m.: Three round tables on the eighth floor of a Miami hotel are full of first-year students receiving help from two or three tutors per table. Eleven players, most of whom arrived at 7:45 p.m., are still here. Most of them will stay another 30 minutes. Sometimes they’ll stay longer, if there’s a test the next day. The study hall has been open as late as 11:30 p.m.
By the end, there is casual conversation between players and tutors. When one tutor finds out that Giants quarterback Ryan Nassib is at his table, he perks up and tells him, “I’ve followed you for years!” He and Nassib both have ties to Philadelphia: Nassib is from West Chester, Pennsylvania, and the tutor attended Temple. At another table, the discussion remains focused on ordinances and statutes of limitations.
10 p.m.: Nassib lets his group know he has hit that “10 o’clock wall,” so he and former San Diego offensive lineman Jeromey Clary get up to depart. Nassib received extra help in economics on the day he finished a paper on the Baltic Dry Index.
As Clary walks past a table, he grabs a taquito that has been sitting in a bowl for at least two hours. That fact is pointed out to him. His reply? “Doesn’t bother me.” He takes a bite and keeps walking.
The last student to leave, Martin, exits around 10:15 p.m. If the first-year students had a test the next day, the room would have remained full for another hour. Martin worked out at 7 a.m., sat in classes for nearly eight hours and then completed study table. There is no test the next day, but he isn't finished. His group has to present a court case in class on behalf of a client, trying to convince the plaintiff to negotiate in arbitration instead of going to court.
“It’s real-world stuff,” he says, “but it’s hard.”
A few minutes later, after some chitchat about his alma mater, Michigan, Jim Harbaugh and their Ohio State rivals, Martin heads to his room.
More work awaits. Another day remains.