After the draft comes the squeeze

After being drafted third overall in 1999 by the Bengals, Akili Smith's NFL career lasted only four years, 17 starts and five touchdown passes. Don Belisle/Icon SMI

They really don't care. Most current NFL players, I mean. They don't sweat the draft. They don't follow mock lists, don't tune in on draft day. They pay attention to contracts -- it's hard not to, when top picks make so much more than many vets -- but that's all.

I used to wonder why, if this nonchalance was out of arrogance, competitiveness or even insecurity, until I realized it was out of experience. After all, vets know the NFL. They know how the league works, how teams operate, what pro football takes and what it gives them.

And the rookies, no matter how much they're prepped, warned, advised and paid, have no idea.

With the draft just days away, most rookies -- especially probable first-rounders -- are being stroked, experts touting how they immediately fill a void for their new team. Not to salt the party, but many of these players can't -- and won't during their careers. Could be Matthew Stafford. Or Michael Crabtree. Or Aaron Curry. Or B.J. Raji. Or none of them. Or all and more.

Some won't be able to handle the pressure, like Akili Smith. Drafted third overall in 1999 by the Cincinnati Bengals, Smith had an NFL career that lasted only four years, 17 starts and five touchdown passes. Hearing the word "bust" unraveled his psyche as much as poor play dismantled his career. "It's agonizing, what people are constantly saying about you," says Smith, now 33. "It's just painful."

His antidote, he says, was partying. "I was drinking too much," he says. "I was running to alcohol to get my mind off my Cincinnati experience."

While in college at Oregon, Smith says he rarely drank. But in the pros, having the weight of the Bengals franchise on his shoulders, being paid millions, feeling pressure to fit in and bond with his teammates, he night-timed his way out of the league. He got arrested in 2001, for investigation of drunken driving. In 2007, after the CFL's Calgary Stampeders cut him, he finally realized his partying had to end. "When I woke up in the morning," he says, "I still had the same problems."

Many rookies -- quarterbacks, especially -- don't realize how much weight is on them. It's not that they underestimate it; they just don't know. Smith didn't know. He has been sober for 16 months now, living in San Diego, selling real estate and informally coaching the quarterbacks at Grossmont College. Draft season has always been the worst few months of the year -- too many bad memories -- but for the first time in 10 years, he says, it isn't so painful. "It used to be a dark time," he says. "But I can watch it now."

Other draftees will have their bodies break down, like Matt Stinchcomb. A first-rounder the same year as Smith, Stinchcomb played offensive tackle for eight years. He wasn't a bust, like Smith. But as Stinchcomb says, "My entire career was defined by injuries."

Stinchcomb says most rookies enter the NFL thinking it'll be an extension of college, only with more money. But it isn't. It's more physical than they can imagine. And no one is immune from injuries, whether major or minor. During his career, Stinchcomb had surgery on his left shoulder twice, his back once and his ankle once. "And that's nothing compared to some guys," he says.

Being injured in such a ruthless atmosphere -- where coaches ignore you if you can't help them, where another player is ready to take your spot -- hurts beyond anything Advil can fix. "It really affects your confidence," Stinchcomb says. "Every time you get injured, it's a small reminder that you're not indestructible. It's a painful reminder that things break and tear and snap."

Now 32 and out of football since 2006, Stinchcomb knows his career wasn't what he hoped for -- nor was it what many experts projected for him on draft day. But he's thankful for the little things. "I can't lift my two daughters over my head," he says of Janie, 4, and Addie, 2. "But I can lift them. That counts for something."

Other draftees, meanwhile, are hiding something. Tony Mandarich famously hid a lot: steroids, alcohol and painkillers. The details, by and large, are public: how he doped at Michigan State, how he cheated drug tests, how he quit steroids before the draft for fear of being caught, and how as an offensive tackle with the Packers and Colts he became addicted first to painkillers, then to alcohol.

Few players can match Mandarich in terms of magnitude of concealing demons. But he knows there are other players with secrets, and no matter how hard you try, he says, the NFL is a very hard place to hide things. "The NFL is demanding in that way," says Mandarich, now 42 and living in Scottsdale, Ariz.

None of these guys is rooting for anyone in the Class of 2009 to fail. But they know that no matter how can't-miss a prospect is, people miss. They're not bitter, just seasoned enough to know that in 10 years, they'll have company.

Seth Wickersham is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine and a columnist for ESPN.com.