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NFLPA Collegiate Bowl: Beyond the Game

NFLPA COLLEGIATE BOWL Photos
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Ohio State senior defensive back Orhian Johnson is no stranger to the spotlight. As a three-year player on defense and special teams for the perennially ranked Buckeyes, the 6’3”, 211-pound Johnson has the tools and raw talent to be a contributor for an NFL team. By participating in last weekend’s NFLPA Collegiate Bowl at the Home Depot Center in Carson, Calif., Johnson made significant strides both on and off the field to achieve that goal.

Beyond the ability to showcase his talents in front of NFL scouts and team executives, Johnson had the rare opportunity to work with Pro Football Hall of Fame player Darrell Green, one of the many former NFL players assembled to provide one-on-one coaching with the 104+ draft-eligible seniors in attendance at this year’s game.

“I had the privilege to work with Darrell Green at the safety position and cornerback position,” Johnson said. “It’s a blessing to work with a guy who was in the league for 20 years and that knowledge that he has is pretty much priceless. They’ve been giving us advice from a player and coaching standpoint.”

While last weekend’s NFLPA Collegiate Bowl may not have been a thriller on the field (the National team shut out the American team, 34-0), the college all-star game provided significant lessons and experiences off the field for the players who participated, including Johnson and Kansas quarterback Dayne Crist (who threw for one touchdown and ran for another to earn MVP honors).

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The National Football League Players Association has invested significant time and resources into providing a holistic approach to preparation for the draft prospects who attend the Collegiate Bowl, now in its second year under the NFLPA’s leadership. The week leading up to Saturday’s game included exposure to NFL scouts, one-on-one coaching with former NFL players, an NFL-style mini-camp, media training, an opportunity to talk with current NFL players and an introduction to the many services the NFLPA provides its members if and when they make it to the next level.

“A lot of these young men that play in this game are obviously preparing for the biggest job interview of their lives,” NFLPA Assistant Executive Director for External Affairs George Atallah said. “Our goal this week is to prepare them for that job interview in a way that not only helps them from a football standpoint but for all other aspects of their professional life.”

This added layer of education and information sets the Collegiate Bowl apart from the other postseason all-star games like the Senior Bowl and East-West Shrine Game which typically showcase bigger names.

“What they don’t get in their job interview is an education about their workers’ compensation benefits, for example, and that’s something that we talk about with them this week,” Atallah said. “They also don’t get media training from their job interview. That’s something we talk to them about this week. Those are the things that I feel really separate us from the rest.”

The coaching staffs assembled for the two teams also stand out. The NFLPA brought in former NFL head coaches Dick Vermeil and Herm Edwards (now an ESPN analyst) to coach the teams on the field (Vermeil and Edwards have known each other for over 30 years). Each coach assembled an impressive cadre of assistants consisting of former NFL stars and current and future Hall of Famers like Isaac Bruce, Ray Crockett, Will Shields, Priest Holmes, Darrell Green, Kevin Mawae and Art Monk to work with the players on x’s and o’s and what to expect at the next level. Current NFL players DeSean Jackson of the Eagles and Eric Decker of the Broncos also spent time with the players.

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“These young men will have enough information when they leave here this week — they’ve been coached by former players,” Edwards said. “Experience is great to have but the problem with experience is this — you get the lesson first and the experience comes after the lesson. They’re fortunate they’re going to get a lot of experience from professional football players that played in this league. Knowledge you can’t buy. They’re being coached by these guys every day. If they use that to their advantage, they’ll have an opportunity to have some success.”

Texas Tech senior running back Eric Stephens, who tore his ACL in 2011, used the game to showcase his rebuilt knee (he ran for one touchdown and 33 yards on 13 carries, including a nice 22-yard run to set up an American score early in the game). More importantly, Stephens took advantage of the opportunity to gain valuable insights from the players and coaches.

“I met so many guys here that I wish I’d known for these last four years,” Stephens said. “But besides that, the information they gave us about not only just football but life and how to be successful, it meant a lot to me. It stuck with me and will stick with me.”

Coach Vermeil also recognizes the impact hearing from veteran players can have on the young men as they prepare for a future in the game.

“I think my favorite thing this week was Isaac Bruce’s presentation to the team,” Vermeil said of the future Hall of Fame wide receiver who played for the Rams from 1994-2007, including three years under Vermeil. “It was absolutely outstanding. And so real. And it was so exciting as his coach to sit there and listen to him talk to our young kids on our team about his faith and how important that was in creating opportunities for him and how it’s helped other athletes that he knows really well. When you’re really getting down deep inside yourself and hold yourself responsible for your own performance and work diligently.”

Most of the players who participated in the game weren’t household names, though a few may sound familiar to football fans. Among the notables who participated in this year’s game included Vanderbilt quarterback Jordan Rodgers (younger brother of Aaron), Wisconsin cornerback Marcus Cromartie (brother of Antonio and cousin to Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie), 2012 Olympian triple jumper and Texas wide receiver Marquise Goodwin, Virginia Tech standout linebacker Bruce Taylor and Miami running back Mike James.

Each player hopes to follow in the footsteps of Richard Crawford, a rookie defensive back with the Washington Redskins who played in last year’s inaugural NFLPA Collegiate Bowl. Crawford is one of five players from last year’s game to be drafted and one of over 20 players to make a 2012 NFL roster or practice squad.

“The NFLPA Collegiate Bowl got us ready to play in the league,” Crawford said. “I believe the game had a big impact in me getting drafted because our d-line coach Phillip Daniels is a player personnel director for the Redskins and he put in a great word for me.“

This year’s crop of seniors is “bigger, faster and stronger” than last year’s, according to Vermeil, which will only help to build up the credibility of the game. Also helping the game’s exposure is a new multi-year deal with ESPN which will continue for another two years, complete with involvement by ESPN draft expert Todd McShay, who attended last week’s game.

Jordan Rodgers, who led Vanderbilt to its first nine-win season since 1915 and a bowl win, appreciated the opportunity the Collegiate Bowl provided him on multiple levels, despite his American team being held scoreless in the game.

“It’s great for us to be able to showcase what we can do in front of scouts all week, but to learn from these coaches [is great],” Rodgers said during the postgame press conference. “Working with Coach Edwards — he could be explaining what’s for dinner and there’d be a life lesson in there somewhere. To be able to hear him speak every night in front of the team and soak up as much knowledge as he has that he can impart onto us.”

Orhian Johnson echoed Rodgers’ sentiments and those of the players who talked about their lessons from the week in Southern California.

“The biggest thing is the information they taught us outside the field and outside the game of football that I’ll take away,” Johnson said. “Those guys gave us life knowledge and things how to proceed in life even if it isn’t with football and I feel like that was very valuable for us and our situation with everything we’re doing. I feel like we’re leaving as better persons along with being better players.”

Amanda Rykoff is a New York City-based sports writer, sports fanatic, recovering lawyer, devoted aunt, Twitter fiend, proud Penn alum and TiVo junkie. She was a regular contributor to espnW.com, ESPN’s online destination for female sports fans and athletes.

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