This is the dream. The lights are bright. The stage is huge. New York City. Radio City Music Hall. Prime-time television. Two networks. The commissioner. The exhilaration of hearing your name called, of being chosen, of being wanted by one of the 32 teams in the National Football League.
For 253 young men, getting drafted on Thursday, Friday or Saturday will culminate a life dedicated to football. Peewee. High school. College. And now, The Show. For these fortunate few, they will have made it. They will have become professionals.
That is the dream. This is the reality: All that being drafted will assure is that the player has his first job out of college. It will not be his last. Two years from now, only 72 percent of the players drafted this week will remain on an active roster. By 2015, 35 percent will be done.
For the drafted rookie who has made an opening day roster in the last 10 years, the average playing career has been six years. In most cases, by his late 20s, a player's career will be over.
Getting drafted is the dream, and it is a wonderful one that should be celebrated by the player and his family and his friends. But it is fleeting. Careers are short. The great ones maximize their talents and all that the NFL affords. For the ones who lose perspective, who don't understand the reality of life in the league, the dream will die as quickly as hearing their names called at the draft.
This week is big. There is no question. But what a player does with his opportunity, how he approaches his first job, how he comports himself, what decisions he makes, how he treats people, that will determine whether the NFL stands for Not For Long.
Getting drafted in the NFL, as former 15-year veteran Troy Vincent knows, is a blessing, but it is also a curse. There is the hype, particularly for the first-round picks. There is the red carpet, the television, the new perception that a drafted player has made it. There is the money and the traps that come with it. There is the celebrity, the status, the adulation. And there are the expectations for greatness, for success.
"The blessing is you have a wonderful opportunity to be part of something that is special, and that's the National Football League," Vincent said. "That's a wonderful, wonderful opportunity. The actual curse is if your time, your talent, your treasures are not managed properly, it becomes a lifetime of recovery."
With the seventh overall pick in 1992, the Miami Dolphins selected Vincent out of Wisconsin. That day, as he held Miami's jersey up and smiled for a picture with then-commissioner Paul Tagliabue, Vincent thought he would be a Dolphin for life. A year later, when San Francisco traded Joe Montana to Kansas City and Oakland let Marcus Allen leave in free agency, Vincent knew. The NFL is a business. No one stays forever.
Vincent played 15 years: Four in Miami, eight in Philadelphia and three more in Buffalo and Washington before retiring in 2006. For the last two-and-a-half years, Vincent has been the NFL's vice president of player engagement, a position that allows him to teach players past, present and future about how to be a professional and how to make the NFL work for them.
The draft and how it has become this monstrous event makes it harder for Vincent to reach players with his message about reality. Temper expectations. Work for what you get.
"The ultimate goal is to try and educate an athlete and his parents for him to ask the question, 'Is this what it really is, and how do I keep the proper perspective and balance of celebration with expectation?'" Vincent said. "I'm not trying to say it's not a time to celebrate. What I am saying is it's a time to celebrate, but it's a time for you to set realistic expectations. What does this really mean for you and your family? You've got your first job. Great. You got your first job and guess what? It's not going to be your last. Where you begin is not where you finish."
What happens next, Vincent said, is entirely up to the player. Who does he surround himself with? Who is on his personal team? How does he manage his money? How does he dress? What does he say? What interviews does he give? What does he buy? Does he live in a bubble or interact with fans?
The NFL is Not For Long if he makes shortsighted choices, because for most, inevitably, injuries will happen. Expectations won't be met.
Self-regulation, as Vincent called it, is critical. What are you doing when no one is looking? Are you speeding? Are you partying two nights before a game? Do you need to be told what time practice is and when to go to meetings? How do you spend your Tuesdays, typically players' only day off during the season? Do you make time for your family? Do you participate with your kids?
How do you make the most of the little time you have in the league, because when it ends the people, the fans, the friends you thought you had will disappear.
There is the dream, and then there is the harsh reality.
"There are people that we, the athlete, gravitate toward that feeds that thing in us, that feeds that emotional, that feeds 'I'm the man,' that feeds 'I'm the greatest,' that feeds 'I'm going to do something no one else has done before,' and they continue to feed it until you don't get the call anymore," Vincent said. "They feed it until you get put on IR. Those people we have in that circle, your center of influencers, those are the same people we would hope are saying, 'Son, you have to go back and finish school. Son, there's some perks that only come along with this space, so you have to seize that moment. Son, you never get tired in this profession of telling somebody thank you.'"
Vincent's voice cracked.
"The kid in that wheelchair at training camp, don't turn your back on him. I don't care how hot it is, you go see that kid that's been waiting. He doesn't care what your name is. He sees that jersey you represent. Go see him. And if you can't do it, you don't belong here. That's what this is about."
Because before you know it, this career you thought you had will be over. Three years, four years, five years. Only the truly blessed retire like Brian Dawkins did Monday, 16 years after his career started. Dawkins is not the norm. The 27-year-old out on the street is.
These big dreams that will be realized this week will fade quickly. The players who seize their opportunity, who maximize the time they have, who manage the expectations will ensure that the dream lives forever.