After returning from the NFL Draft in New York City, I ran across a piece on Yahoo! Sports about Rashaan Salaam, the 1994 Heisman Trophy winner at Colorado who was drafted in the first round by the Chicago Bears 17 years ago. Four years later his football career was finished. The piece takes its quotes mostly from a recent Chicago Tribune story on Salaam. To use the popular sports vernacular, he was a “bust.” According to the story, he partied a lot and used marijuana, which led to his downfall. “I had no discipline. I had all the talent in the world,” he said. How did the Chicago Bears miss so badly in their evaluation? How can anyone think they can treat their body like that and excel at their profession?
One guy you wouldn’t have to worry about is Michael Floyd, the Notre Dame grad from St. Paul, Minn., whom the Phoenix Cardinals selected with the 13th pick in the first round. Yes, he had brushes with the law during his college career over drinking, but I know the guy so I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt. I believe he’s gotten his wake up call and won’t wind up like Salaam. Move past that and you realize this is a guy who works at his craft. Moreover, he loves playing ball and doesn’t mind the training it takes to be an elite athlete. Blessed with natural talent, he’s worked hard to become a first round draft choice. Work ethic isn’t something you can easily measure though. It takes doing homework.
The NFL Combine, which happens in the dead of winter at the end of February, has become it’s own TV event. It’s kind of a cross between an old ABC-TV “Superstars competiton” and a job fair for prospective on-the-field NFL employees. And it serves its purpose: It’s a way management and scouts can get a last look at players before the draft and get last-minute information on players. The physical tests — 40 yard dash time, bench press test, etc. — serve as a way for NFL GMs to collect as much tangible information on the physical qualifications of their prospective employees. And, in a round about way, to justify their picks. Peter Lynch, the money manager who ran the Fidelity Magellan mutual fund in the ’80s, explained why so many on Wall Street invest in the big familiar names (IBM, GM, etc.) as opposed to the smaller, more unknown growth companies. The reasoning is simple. If IBM goes down, people will ask, “What’s wrong with IBM?” If you invest in a small regional auto parts retailer like Pep Boys and it goes down, people will wonder, “What’s wrong with you?!” Relating it to the draft, the Kansas City Chiefs took Dontari Poe with the 11th pick even though he didn’t have a great deal of production on the field during his career at Memphis. The guy proved to be an athletic freak at the combine, so if he doesn’t pan out the Chiefs can at least offer the excuse that the guy had all the physical tools but he couldn’t pick up the pro game. Ironically, that’s what you’re looking for — players!
Unfortunately, having great “measureables” doesn’t mean a guy can play let alone if they’d make an ideal team mate. What exactly does a work out in shorts and a t-shirt at the NFL Combine prove? Shouldn’t a concrete evaluation of every prospect’s talents already be in the hand by this time? Personal interviews are part of the combine, too, and there’s a benefit to a face-to-face conversation. However, in my experience if you want to find out about a player’s work ethic, one group of people you want to talk to are the equipment managers. They deal with the athletes every day on a personal level and will give you an unbiased evaluation. Unlike a coach, they have no ego invested in a player. But that’s where the effort on the part of the scout comes into play. You can’t just show up at the games and expect to get that sort of information. It takes more work than that. I seriously wonder how many scouts put it in that sort of effort.
Great talents like Michael Floyd in football are like great talents in other walks of life — they make things look easy. But it’s not. James Kaplan, the author of a recently-published biography on Frank Sinatra, “Frank: The Voice,” told Fox News he was struck by Sinatra’s work ethic. While Sinatra knew he was a gifted singer, he didn’t just rely on his talent to make it. “One of the big surprises working on this book for me was to learn how incredibly hard he worked on his singing, on the lyrics, on his breath control, on every part of his craft,” Kaplan said. “He made it look easy. It was not easy!”
Take from the Chairman of the Board. If you want to make it in New York, New York, or the NFL or anywhere else, work ethic can’t be replaced.