Maximizing the Potential of the Steelers' 2012 Draft Class, Part III

PITTSBURGH, PA - DECEMBER 24: Wide receiver Antonio Brown #84 of the Pittsburgh Steelers rushes for yards after a catch during the game against the St. Louis Rams at Heinz Field on December 24, 2011 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Brown broke the Pittsburgh Steelers single season all purpose yardage during the game. (Photo by Karl Walter/Getty Images)

When I posted Part I of this series, I don’t think it was quite what many people were expecting it to be when they clicked on the link. OR60faithfull commented "When I first read the title of the article I had pondered that you might be offering insight on how best to integrate our new influx of talent," and others may have well been thinking the same. That isn’t really my metier, though—many on this site are far more qualified to do that than I am. I was more interested in the psychological aspects, for the draftees but even more for the coaches.

One of the comments I found particularly interesting was, not surprisingly, from Ivan Cole. He said the following:

What I find missing from this Is the player’s own self concept. There is some complicated psychological territory that needs to be plowed here. I’m speaking of whether or not a player believes he can or should improve. Often players fail precisely because they believe that they are already good enough and think improvement is unnecessary (after all it got them this far) Or, because they have always been dominant to this point in their lives the possibility of improvement is beyond their ability to conceive.

When I walked on to my college football team one advantage I had relative to the scholarship players was that I knew that I had to function at a much higher level if I would have any chance at all. I was able to move past a number of my teammates who came to believe, perhaps with good reason, that they were good enough based upon past performance. In addition, once they found this was no longer true, many had a difficult time adapting to the new reality. This is not confined to athletics. Many students at schools like Tomlin’s alma mater William and Mary develop mental health issues, including suicidal impulses once they are placed in a competitive academic environment where they realize that they are no longer dominant.

Ivan is quite correct—this phenomena is by no means confined to sports. In my own field, music, the "success rate" for college grads from a music program is extremely low. Probably lower (depending on how you define "success" for a music student) than the rate of high school football players who make it into the NFL. This is partly because, unlike the NFL, a symphony musician who wins a job at age 25 may possibly continue to fill that same job, and fill it well, for the next 30 or 40 years.

Particularly in the top music schools, the kids who are accepted were the best at their high school. They made it into the All-State orchestra or band or chorus. They won local and even regional competitions. But all of a sudden they aren't the best anymore. Now they are just one among many, looking for a way to distinguish themselves from the crowd.

My elder daughter is an oboist. She is definitely talented, and for years had slid by on her innate abilities. The man who taught her in undergraduate school is a wonderful person and a great teacher. He sat her down one day and leveled with her. Scott went to undergraduate school at the Cleveland Conservatory, and the oboe studio was taught at that time by a famous player and teacher. Scott said he was clearly the least talented player in his class. He is also the only one who is working as a professional oboist. The reason? "I got to the end of my talent very early on, and I discovered I would have to substitute hard work for the lack of it." In other words, he learned from a relatively early age to apply himself and to be the first one in and the last one out of the practice room.

How far did hard work take him? He is a member of the Pittsburgh Symphony oboe section. Which contains three people. For those of you not into classical music, the Pittsburgh Symphony is as well-respected among musicians as the Pittsburgh Steelers are among football fans. The PSO is possibly more respected in Europe than it is in the US. Her teacher has obtained something only an extremely select group of oboists achieve, and he did it not by being the most gifted but with old-fashioned elbow grease.

Everyone gets to the "end of his talent" sooner or later. I think perhaps Ben Roethlisberger is realizing this. Things as natural to him as breathing are becoming less possible as age and injuries take their toll, and if he wants to cement his status as a top quarterback in the NFL and make it to Canton he is going to have to substitute harder work, more film study, and a more "cerebral" approach for some of the native ability he has relied on thus far. (I believe he would have gone even farther and been less injured at this point had he come to this understanding a bit earlier, but better late than never.)

But whatever natural gifts a player brings to the table, there is also the matter of how the coaching staff is going to view him. My speculations in Part I of this series about the Pygmalion Effect received a confirmation from this comment:

As a son of an alcoholic father and an abusive mother, I really didn’t give a crap in school and my grades proved it. All of my teachers said I had potential but nothing was done about it past the point that they expected me to do poorly. Out of the blue, I began studying and changed my grades from barely passing to top of the class. This caused more problems because now I must be cheating. After a test I was sent to the principals office and my mother was called in to explain how I cheated to get an A on this test. My desk and locker were constantly searched to find the cheat sheets I must have been using. I was moved to the desk in the front of the class so that I couldn’t copy from the desk next to me. No thought or credit was given to the fact that maybe I was studying. I definitely agree with your analogy on how the staff looks as lower draft picks. They will have a harder time proving they are the guy.

But, like this poster, one needn't accept other people's expectations as defining one's destiny. In Part II of the series I discussed some traits common to the few players who beat the odds and excelled as low-round draft picks. Those traits can probably be summed up, as PaVaSteeler did, by "strength of character."

I’ve written before, at my usual great length, about the balance between talent and effort, and won't attempt to reproduce the discussion now. The point is, for a late-round pick, this is where the rubber meets the road. So with that lengthy preamble, I would like to give Momma's charge to the 2012 class.

I welcome all of you fine gentlemen to Steeler Nation. You had the great good fortune to be chosen by the best organization, top to bottom, in the league. If you want to continue to be a Steeler for any appreciable length of time, the ball is in your court. Now is not the time to kick back and enjoy the feeling of being signed to a team. In fact, the time to do that is after you retire. Right now, this very moment, you are making the decision as to whether you want to be an NFL player or whether you will just be a statistic in my next series of posts about low-round draft failures.

You may have been blessed with every every advantage growing up, or you may have had an incredibly difficult life. You may have been the star of your high school football team, or you may have been a benchwarmer most of the time. You may be angry because you weren’t drafted higher, or you may be grateful you were drafted (or signed) at all. None of this matters now.

You can’t control where and when you were drafted, or who drafted you, or whether the coaching staff is high on you or just thought you would be a slightly-better-than-average camp body. This still leaves several critical things in your control. How hard are you going to work? What sort of attitude are you going to take? And how good a teammate are you going to be? It's up to you. Here are a few things to ponder:

Be humble and accept help. The Steelers are one of the few organizations in which the veterans will mentor the newbies, even possibly to their own detriment. There is no one who can help you more than the guy who's been doing it already. And if you succeed, remember to give back when the time comes and you are a vet welcoming a new class of youngsters.

Come to camp in the best shape of your life, work your tail off, and catch the coaches’ eye. Special Teams is where young guys get their chance. Take it. Brett Keisel started on Special Teams, and here’s what his coach had to say:

"He was a demon," remembered Mitchell. "Here's a guy who's 6-foot-6, close to 300 pounds, flying down the field and taking the heads off people. That's where he got his chance. Then when some guys left, Brett stepped in, and he never looked back."

Remember, one way or another you are catching the coaches' eyes. They aren’t only looking for stars, they are looking for the easy guys to put at the top of the list when it is time for the Turk to make his rounds.

And finally, find a way to finish your education if you didn't graduate. It's difficult for young adults paying off tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars in student loans to understand why so many athletes take their education for granted, or even fail to profit from it.

Your college scholarship was a huge blessing, whether you realize it or not, and it's worth the time and annoyance to get the benefit of it. Just this year your new QB, Ben Roethlisberger, finished his degree; possibly the best safety currently playing in the NFL, Troy Polamalu, finished his as well. And a 2010 rookie, Curtis Brown, returned to classes as soon as the season ended, although, as he tweeted, he "really didn't want to come back to school." These men are taking the long view. If Roethlisberger and Polamalu were to retire today, they will already have made more money than the vast majority of Americans could ever dream of. If they feel their education is valuable, what does that mean for you? As Curtis Brown said, "Never start something and not finish."

And now back to our regularly scheduled subject—football. Here is an example to encourage you as you set to work. One of the sixth round picks in 2010 was Antonio Brown. You may have heard of him. Not a lot of people had, in 2010. He was playing for Central Michigan University. The Steelers sent their scouts to look at another player on the team, and something about Brown caught their eye. When the draft came around, they had a hole at wide receiver and an extra pick, thanks to Santonio Holmes, so they took a flier on Brown.

The Steelers had drafted another receiver in the third round—Emmanuel Sanders. There were, as Mike Tomlin said, two dogs and one bone, and Tomlin continually played the two against each other. But by season’s end Brown had cemented his status as the returner and wowed the world with a few big catches in the postseason.

He chose not to rest on those laurels. Instead he came to training camp determined to outwork everyone. A nagging foot injury to Sanders gave Brown his chance to earn a roster spot. Last year, as a second-year receiver from a small school who was picked in the sixth round, he made NFL history as the only wide receiver to attain 1000 yards each as a receiver and a returner. He also made the Pro Bowl. Brown could, as a result, be a diva, but he's a great colleague. He and the other receivers help and support one another, something you will find throughout the team.

Even at the Pro Bowl Brown's relentless work ethic was noticable. While many of the players were phoning it in at best he was on the field for nearly every offensive snap, and then managed to persuade the defensive coaches to put him in as a DB late in the game. Okay, so Larry Fitzgerald completely toasted him, but at least he was trying.

But perhaps, you may say, this is because Antonio Brown had a loving, supportive family and good upbringing. It's a great theory, but it isn't the case. He grew up in Liberty City, one of the less salubrious neighborhoods of Miami, and as Teresa Varley, author of this article about Brown on Steelers.com said, "To get out of there in a way that involves neither a ride in the back of a police car nor a hearse is an accomplishment." He had a rather difficult early life, including a time on the streets at age 16 after his mother remarried and his stepfather didn’t want him around.

Brown had a choice. He could feel sorry for himself, he could decide the world owed him something, he could fall prey to the temptations of a young man without a home surrounded by a culture defined by drugs and gangs, or he could work his way out of Liberty City. He chose to work. He's still working.

You've made it this far, and congratulations for that. But this is not the pinnacle of your career, it's the first step. Do take the opportunity the Steelers have offered you and give it your very best shot, because it's entirely likely it's your only shot. Your odds of making it elsewhere if the Steelers cut you are even smaller. And if, despite your best efforts, you don't make it with the Steelers or anyone else, you've learned lessons which will serve you well in your life after football.

I look forward to seeing you all at training camp. I’m hoping to be able to give a glowing report about our new group of rookies. You have the luxury of a low ceiling of expectation. Steeler Nation loves rooting for an underdog. Come out and blow us all away!

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