TAMPA, Fla. -- On a Wednesday morning this summer, as some veteran teammates jetted off to exotic vacations, Tampa Bay Buccaneers rookies quietly filed into a small classroom. The gathering had little do to with actual football and everything to do with what will now be expected of them as professionals on and off the field. It's the Buccaneer Rookie Academy, the Bucs’ version of the NFL rookie transition program.
"It's important we put a system in place that helps them navigate life and the professional world appropriately," Bucs director of player engagement Duke Preston said. "I think I've always gone by the saying that 'better men make better ballplayers.' When they're done, that's what they're gonna end up kind of owning as their core identity anyway -- who they are and their character as men."
In 2016, the league did away with the annual NFL rookie symposium, which was offered only to draft picks and not undrafted free-agent rookies, and replaced it with the transition program. All 32 teams conduct in-house, life-skills training for drafted and undrafted rookies. Topics range from developing good credit to building your brand on social media. Some parts of the curriculum are league-mandated, such as understanding the NFL’s personal conduct policy. Others are based on what individual teams believe is critical for their players.
The Bucs’ rookie transition program spanned a full six weeks -- from rookie minicamp in May until the three weeks following the end of mandatory minicamp.
'My whole body froze'
First up was the Citizens Academy training at the Tampa Police Department.
“It’s all about learning how to become a pro -- accountability, professionalism. ... You guys are pros at what you do. These guys [police officers] are too,” Preston told the group. “You guys are out there fighting for your professional lives. They’re fighting for their lives.”
The first exercise was a simulated traffic stop. Players were given masks, bulletproof vests and training guns and took turns portraying police officers, while two instructors acted as civilians.
“I thought I was going to be asking them for their license and registration, and as soon as I got out, they got out with a shotty [shotgun] -- BOOM! And I’m like, ‘Ohhh!’” Edwards said.
Hearts were racing.
“I definitely got out of there as soon as I heard those loud bangs,” said former University of Charleston outside linebacker Kahzin Daniels.
Said Brock Ruble, an offensive tackle out of Toledo: “My whole body froze.”
Next came a police training simulator. Players, armed with training guns and Tasers, were presented with real-life situations on an interactive screen that responded to their movements and commands.
Safety D’Cota Dixon responded to two simulated situations -- one involving a woman in a church holding a gun and pacing back and forth erratically, and another with a homeless man refusing to vacate a soup kitchen because it ran out of food to serve him.
Dixon, who has a bachelor’s degree in rehabilitative psychology, tried to calm the subjects down in both situations. He offered to buy the homeless man a meal somewhere else.
“Excellent. I think we need to give you an application if something ever happens," officer Whitney Kelley said.
"Obviously coming from a team background in football, you have to be able to communicate, especially as a safety. So just to see it from their perspective was really eye-opening," Dixon said. "I definitely have a new appreciation, a very high appreciation for what they do."
The visit also affirmed the desire of former CFL wide receiver Bryant Mitchell to pursue a career in law enforcement when football ends.
“I think that is something I can help people in and that’s my ultimate goal in life,” Mitchell said. “Honestly, I wanted to walk out of there with that, and getting those contacts -- it was a true blessing.”
The power of a handshake
Next up was a class with business etiquette expert Patricia Rossi at the Capital Grille.
First, there was a “mocktail” hour. Players wore button-down shirts with dress slacks and sipped on sparkling cider. A woman sat in the corner, playing a harp.
They then retreated to a dimly lit room upstairs, where they talked about first impressions, the power of a handshake and the importance of posture and what body language conveys.
Rossi had each player tape a piece of paper on his back and go up to teammates introducing themselves. Teammates were to then write their impressions.
“I had some really good ones -- inviting, awesome smile, warm, confident,” Mitchell said. “Those things are definitely attributes that I try to carry with me every day. It was really good things to hear from others.”
Afterward, they sat down for a dinner of potato soup, grilled chicken, steak and green beans.
“I want the guys to know that the new first impression is now social media, and I want them, no matter where they go in the globe, that they honor other people,” Rossi said. “So it’s the handshake, it’s eye contact, it’s repeating someone’s name -- there’s 21 soft social skills that are either attracting people to us or repelling them. So they’re gonna know those by heart when they leave.”
'They’re armed socially for the world'
After their etiquette class, players took part in a networking event with Rossi and representatives from 12 of the team’s corporate partners. It coincided with the players’ first trip to Raymond James Stadium.
Inside the locker room, groups of two and three players paired up with a corporate partner at a table and took turns asking each other questions. When Preston rang a bell, the players moved to the next table until they made their way around the room. They took turns asking questions that ranged from their favorite foods to their most embarrassing stories.
“I want them to win off the field as well as on it, because you’re off the field a lot more,” Rossi said. “So the person with the deepest, widest and most global relationships wins, and they’re going to take you so far in life -- the farthest you can go -- so that’s the No. 1 thing that I hammer home to them.”
“And 90 percent of people are nervous in networking, and they tell a story, they tell a fairy tale, they say they’re not. So I tell them, ‘Everybody’s nervous.’ ... When I teach them how to remember names, how to shake hands, how to trade a business card, they’re armed socially for the world.”
Wide receiver Scotty Miller tried to be mindful of the body language he was conveying, something Rossi emphasized.
“Probably just how you stand and the way you shake people’s hands -- you don’t really think about it at all,” Miller said. “Sometimes, I’ll be standing like this [arms folded across body], and that’s giving off bad vibes, so I thought that was interesting.”
They also went around the room with each partner offering the best piece of advice.
“The biggest lesson that I’ve learned so far is that passion will take you far in any career that you choose, out there on the field and off the field, as well. Just to be passionate in every single thing that you do is the biggest takeaway,” Daniels said.
'He got stuck'
One memorable moment from the program was the group’s visit to MacDill Air Force Base. No. 5 overall draft pick Devin White found himself in a precarious position when he was lifted into the air on an extended fire ladder and it wouldn’t come down.
“He got stuck,” Edwards said, laughing. “It was kind of bad.”
White was forced to climb down on his own.
“I was a little scared. I didn’t know what was going on,” Miller said. “But I’m happy he was able to get down OK.”
Players also took part in a cooking class at the Tampa Institute of Art culinary school, where they had a contest to see which team of players could prepare the best chicken, Greek salad, peanut butter dessert and potato ragout.
“It was super competitive,” Daniels said.
“My team didn’t win, but I think there [were] politics in it. We only had one bad dish,” White said with a smile. “My boy [Anthony] Johnson didn’t cut [any] of his ingredients up; he just put [them] in a bowl. So that’s why we lost.”
Lisa Friel, special counsel for investigations for the NFL, came to discuss the personal conduct policy. The Bucs also had guest speakers on developing good credit and how to build wealth, which Ruble believed was extremely beneficial.
“You hear people say, ‘Well, you’ve gotta take care of your money,’ but they don’t really give you anything after that,” Ruble said. “If you’ve been taking care of your money for a little while, you probably already know these things, but as a college athlete who came right from high school [to] college to now, and I’m not a finance major ... not just like ‘save your money,’ but where to save your money and also tips on the questions to ask financial advisers to trust them in the first place.”
‘They care and put you in spots you need to grow’
Former Bucs tight end Alan Cross took part in the first installment of Buccaneer Rookie Academy as an undrafted free agent in 2016. After three seasons and 36 career games, he retired after 2018, and said he believes the program not only helped him as a player but gave him confidence to tackle life outside the NFL.
“They care and put you in spots you need to grow,” said Cross, now a graduate assistant at the University of Memphis. “They do a great job exposing the rookies to things they never thought about, like a cooking class. They showed me that I can cook anything if I put my mind to it and be able to feed my family ‘food’ meals, and not Wendy’s every night.”
Ruble could see that too, but it also made him nervous.
"As a kid, you don’t know what you don’t know. So when you sit with experienced people [and talk] about what real life is about, they bring up a bunch of things you never thought about. Like I knew to put my money in savings, but I didn’t know how many different savings there were,” Ruble said. “I [know] that if I want to have a pretty good job one day, I’ll probably have to be in a fancy dinner situation and little things to not embarrass myself. It showed the amount of detail that’s out there when you’re trying to strive for greater things outside of football."
For Miller, the program gave him a more detailed approach to every aspect of his life.
"I’m really learning that I’m just gonna put my best foot forward and do everything I can so I can look myself in the mirror at the end of the day and say, ‘I gave it everything I got,'" Miller said. "If I do that in whatever profession I’m in, I think I’ll be all right.”
Upon completion of the program, and before they got to go home for a three weeks away, players took the field at the stadium for the first time. A highlight reel from the 2018 season played on the video boards.
As White came through the tunnel, he wrapped his arm around cornerback Sean Murphy-Bunting.
“We home, brother. We home,” White said. “We’re about to win a lot of games in here.”
Murphy-Bunting answered, “You already know.”