Stars of today, tomorrow meet up

BEAVERTON, Ore. -- Look around the practice fields at The Opening. In every direction over the past four days, NFL stars mingled with high school players.

Eight first-round draft picks and icons of the game littered the field. From Darrelle Revis to Sean Weatherspoon, Joe Haden to Felix Jones. Maurkice and Mike Pouncey as well as Ndamukong Suh, Patrick Peterson and Ray Rice.

"Those guys are the best of the best," said defensive end Tyquan Lewis of Tarboro, N.C., who's considering Ohio State, Vanderbilt, North Carolina and LSU as college options. "They've been here. They've been to the next level. They are where we're trying to get."

The kids ate lunch with their football idols. Worked in small groups. Studied film. They stood around and talked.

"It's kind of crazy," Michigan-bound guard Kyle Bosch said, "seeing that they're the same type of people we are -- and they have the same mentality about football."

Superstardom, from so close up, appears within grasp.

To tomorrow's stars of college football, adversity isn't part of the plan.

They'll go to college, win awards, graduate to the NFL, sign lucrative contracts and play for decades. Isn't that how it's supposed to work?

Ask Troy Smith. Nine years ago as a quarterback out of Cleveland, he stood in these kids' Nike sneakers. Signed with Ohio State. Won the Heisman Trophy in 2006.

But last fall, he found himself as a backup for the Omaha Nighthawks of the United Football League. Smith has been cut three times from the NFL, most recently two weeks ago by the Steelers. He's waiting for an invite to an NFL training camp this month. Any camp.

"Adversity will come," said the 27-year-old Smith, another of the coaches at The Opening. "I'm living proof of that.

"Stay after it. The way to come through difficult times is to hunker down and just stay tough."

Many more of the players invited to The Opening will encounter turbulence in their football careers than a smooth track to stardom. Smith's message ranks as perhaps the most important they heard during the event in Oregon.

The young players, for their part, appeared appreciative of the advice.

"Stay grounded," Bosch said. "You stay grounded and hungry, work hard and there's no reason you can't succeed."

Linebacker Michael Hutchings of Concord (Calif.) De La Salle High School said he asked as many questions of the NFL players as he could devise.

"Just the experiences they've been through," Hutchings said, "I wanted to know all about them so I don't feel mindless in this process. Did they have highs and lows? What was their training like? I want to know how they rebounded from a low moment and got back to the top."

An easy answer doesn't always exist. Smith, a fifth-round pick of the Ravens in 2006, played in Baltimore and San Francisco before trying minor league football. So far, none of it has produced the results he seeks.

But Smith maintains a positive outlook.

"Always," he said. "There's no doubt, I'm excited and blessed to have every chance I get to play."

Smith helped coach Team Vapor Talon and Georgia QB recruit Brice Ramsey in the 7-on-7 tournament.

"The guys in my group have been very receptive and eager to learn what we've been trying to teach them," Smith said. "Their football diet -- their football thirst -- is now just starting."

Mike Pouncey, a former All-American at Florida and first-round pick in 2011 who started every game of his rookie year at center for the Dolphins, said he recognizes the importance of the past few days to the high school players.

"When I was in high school and the NFL guys came out, I just wanted to be around those guys," Pouncey said. "It was a dream come true, because those guys were living the dream."

Mike and twin brother Maurkice Pouncey, the Steelers' All-Pro center and 2010 first-rounder from Florida, worked with the offensive linemen throughout The Opening.

"We're not here to change anything their coaches have given them," Maurkice Pouncey said. "We're here to give them extra stuff to put in the toolbox."

Suh, the No. 2 overall pick by the Lions in 2010 out of Nebraska and an All-Pro as a rookie, urged the young players to get to know each other, because they're likely to meet again at higher levels of football.

"It's about the kids," Suh said, "seeing them grow and blossom. I understand exactly what they're going through. They're in a great position right now to learn and compete."

Peterson tied an NFL record as a rookie with four punt returns for touchdowns. The No. 5 pick in 2011 by the Cardinals and former LSU All-American, he won the Thorpe Award as the nation's best college defensive back in 2010 and earned All-Pro honors a year later.

"Stay on your grind," Peterson told the teenagers. "There's always room for improvement. A lot of young guys think they've reached their peak and they're the best at what they do."

And never get comfortable with success, Peterson said.

"Those coaches who recruit you," he said, "are always trying to bring another guy in to beat you out."

Yet another important message.