When the Steelers' rookies first arrived in Pittsburgh in early May, most of them thought their 'school days' were behind them.
What they didn't realize, though, was they were about to embark on 'Steelers University.'
The first few days were what they expected, on-field instruction as a part of rookie minicamp. But since then they have taken part in classroom instruction, and not just football. They have been learning the ins and outs of what NFL players need to know, from financial planning and investments to community involvement and everything in between.
It culminated recently with the Rookie Transition Program, three days of instruction that included NFL rule changes, player resources, NFL player benefits, sportsmanship, hearing from former players Mel Blount and Ike Taylor and more.
"We are preparing them for the season," said Terry Cousin, the Steelers' Player Engagement Coordinator. "We got to embark on some new programming specifically designed for them. What we really did was give them the opportunity to become Pittsburgh Steelers, what it's like to do that. It was the conclusion of all of the programs that we have done since they have been here.
"It's extremely valuable. For those guys to be able to get a hands on approach about what it's like to be a pro, how do we access information, what resources or help are available. It's a special time for them."
Steelers President Art Rooney II opened the program, addressing the rookies about the importance of having respect, for the game, for those who came before them, for teammates, for the organization and for the people around them.
"One of the values that is important to us at the Steelers is respect," said Rooney. "It comes in a lot of different ways. Number one, respecting the people that laid the foundation we are standing on today. We had a lot of players come through here and build the reputation of the Steelers into what it is today. We are fortunate to have that foundation. We need to continue to build on that.
"We really only have one goal every year. It's pretty simple. It's to try and win an NFL Championship. In order to do that everybody on the team is going to have to make a contribution somewhere along the line. It's not easy. It's not easy to be an NFL player. Day in and day out you need to be at your best to help us achieve our goal. Along the way you are going to identify your goals. What this is all about is starting that conversation so you get your priorities in a place where distractions don't come up and get in the way of you being successful and us being successful."
Coach Mike Tomlin is passionate about getting the rookies acclimated and helping them understand the importance of seizing every opportunity that is presented, both on and off the field. And he likes the new format it's taken as well. In the past 'Rookie Orientation' was held in Ohio and included the draft picks for all 32 NFL teams. This year, each team has an individual program in their city and all rookies, draft picks and free agents, attend.
"This is something we have been fighting for for some time," said Tomlin. "Having an opportunity to take this transition program locally to focus on the guys we specifically work with. Also the fact that we are doing it locally allows all of the guys in the rookie class to participate. That is a significant thing for us."
Tomlin was hands on during the instruction, giving the players his perspective and encouraging them to never let an opportunity slide by.
"This is about taking advantage of the opportunity," Tomlin told them. "Absorb the information. You guys are transitioning from being amateurs to professionals. And in most cases from being younger men to grown men. From being dependents, to independent. You are transitioning in life. If you are too prideful to acknowledge that, you are missing something.
"The first rule to getting better is showing up. The second rule is to acknowledge who you are. You are going through a transition in life that is much bigger than the transition in football. We are laying a foundation for the rest of your lives. Hopefully your experience with us will position you to maximize opportunities and teach you how to use the skills you are developing here to fight for what you are dreaming about, to use those skills in other areas as well. We are trying to bite off something really big."
The rookies listened intently, took in every bit of knowledge that was shared with them, and didn't hesitate to ask questions.
"This was great," said Artie Burns, the team's number one draft pick. "Coming from college to the NFL there are a lot of things we don't know. They are giving us all the tools we need. We just have to tune in and make sure we come to work every day."
And while a lot of the time was spent on instruction, there was some fun too. The players bonded during a trip to the movies and took in a Pirates baseball game as well.
"We are definitely learning a lot," said number two pick Sean Davis. "We are new to the NFL game and we are learning the rule changes, things I didn't have any idea about. It's also a time for the rookie class to bond together and gain the knowledge that the next level requires."