From the moment they arrived in Pittsburgh for the team’s rookie minicamp, the learning process began for this year’s group of rookies.
Sure, there were a lot of football lessons to learn, a lot of X’s and O’s. But it’s been more than that. Much more as a matter of fact.
The group has taken part in “Pittsburgh Steelers Rookie University,” an education like no other that helps them transition from college to the NFL, learning lessons in what NFL players need to know for survival in so many areas.
“It’s just learning what you are about to experience and what could possibly happen,” said first-round pick Devin Bush. “Just getting a beat on how to handle different situations. What to look for when you are setting up your life after football. Certain situations, things you can do to help yourself throughout the process of playing football and after.
“It’s all been a life-learning experience. You learn about what you can and can’t do, the lifestyle you want to live, what kind of person you are.”
The topics focused, but weren’t limited to, money management, portfolios, credit and financial management, insurance, relationships, and much more.
“You get to learn about the good, the bad and the ugly when you come into these meetings,” said Sutton Smith. “It was fun. I liked it. It’s a lot of learning about investing and stuff like that. It’s all a good learning experience. You get to learn about financial responsibility. You want to be financially stable after your rookie year. You want to be ahead of the curve in any which way you can.”
There are also lessons about the ramifications of poor decision-making, whether it be financially, in relationships or socially. Some of the classes include ‘games’ where the rookies quickly learn one bad decision can impact their career and lives.
“It teaches you that life can throw you a curveball and you have to make the best decision not for the moment, but for the long run,” said Bush.
Like with any education the learning hasn’t been limited to the classroom. The rookie class visited UPMC Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh and took part in the Urban Impact Football Camp and Mel Blount Youth Home Initiative Camp, visited Saint Vincent College and packed meals for the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank, learning all the way what kind of impact they can have.
The lessons learned are ones that the players will carry with them forever, and also let them know that the team looks at them not just as players, but as people.
“Pittsburgh has accepted me so far so the least I can do is help out in the community and leave my mark on somebody else,” said Justin Layne. “It’s been huge. It’s a lot of stuff we haven’t learned before, things we ignore. It’s stuff you don’t think about much. It’s eye opening. I didn’t know a lot of the stuff. It’s a lot. It’s like the stuff I learn on the field, you keep learning something new, but this stuff is in the classroom.”
It culminated with the Rookie Transition Program, three days of instruction that included NFL rule changes, player resources, NFL player benefits, and sportsmanship.
“It’s really valuable,” said Terry Cousin, player engagement coordinator. “The more you do it, the more you see how much they don’t come prepared with a lot of that knowledge. Some get experience at home, but it’s eye opening for some of those guys honing in on some of the details and issues they might have coming into the National Football League.
“Coach (Mike) Tomlin stresses it. Your awareness has to grow in this business. It’s good to offer something, to spend time developing. To have a guy say, wow, I really appreciated that, I never knew it. Or someone to say they learned something new. That means you are having a good program, we are focusing on the right things based on what we have seen. Coach Tomlin, the coaches, Kevin Colbert, we have all put this together based on our experience with players.”
Tomlin makes sure to stop in to the meetings, but also gives the players the chance to grow without him looking over their shoulder the whole time.
“It’s so important,” said Tomlin. “It’s the first time for them, but it’s a rerun for us. We do it every year with the new rookie class. We are trying to impart our experience and wisdom on them in as many ways as we can through life skills sessions. You have to give credit to a lot of our veteran guys. They do a good job of giving life and credibility to the seminars and sessions we are taking guys though. When you have guys like James Conner, Terrell Edmunds say things like this is significant, it is a real thing for me, it’s going to play out for you in a couple of months, it did for me. I think that is what adds credibility to the program, the reinforcement the older guys provide the younger guys.”
Through it all the group has formed a bond, one that you can see on the field, in the locker room and in everything they do.
“It keeps us together,” said Layne. “Our rookie class, it keeps us together. We talk about all kinds of stuff when we are in the room. Get to know each other. It’s a bonding thing.”