With NFL training camps opening their doors, I thought now would be a good time to remind fans of what the key is to becoming a top NFL player. Yes, talent has a lot to do with it. But there are many talented players who fail to live up to expectations and disappoint their teams every year.
The players who are at the top of their games, year after year for a long period of time, are the players who have a high degree of football character.
What is character?
When scouts go out on the road every fall to evaluate the players in their area, they are looking for three different things that go into the makeup of a top player. The first, obviously, is talent. A player has to have the traits to play the game at a high level. Second, he has to have personal character. When a scout looks for personnel character, he is looking at how the player lives his life. Is he a good person? How does he get along and relate with people both inside and outside of football? Is he involved with community service? How important is school to him? What kind of teammate is he? What kind of personality does he have? When away from football, does he always do the right thing and stay out of trouble? Is he a drug abuser? Where does he come from? What was his family life like? Does he have a support system?
A scout must have answer for all of those questions and more as it relates to a prospect’s personal life.
What is football character?
The third component that goes into the evaluation process is a prospect’s football character. Football character is related to personal character, but they are not the same.
There are many factors that go into the makeup of a player’s football character. These factors include his love and passion for the game. Is the game important to the player and will he do everything that is possible to make himself a better player? No matter how talented a player is, if he doesn’t love playing the game it will eventually catch up to him. He may be successful for a short time, but it won’t last.
All eyes will be on Jadeveon Clowney this season to see if his character matches his talent.
Next, the player has to have a strong desire to be great. If he is satisfied with how good he is now and lacks the drive to become even better, he will never improve. He will reach a plateau and level off. A player’s work ethic has to be at a consistently high level.
A player who has strong football character is usually a highly competitive type of person. He hates to lose at anything and when playing in the game, he goes all out every play. You seldom, if ever, see this type of player take a play off. He is usually a physical, aggressive player who wants to win every battle over the course of the game.
A player with top football character can take and accept different types of coaching. Every coach has his own style on how to manage the game. Some are tough taskmasters, others are more cerebral. No matter the style, the player accepts it and tries to improve.
Another component of football character involves a player’s smarts and instincts to play the game. I’m not saying that every top player has to be a great student. But what I am saying is that he must have a strong desire to learn the mental part of the game. If he has limitations with learning, he will do whatever it takes to know and understand the scheme he is playing in. It is tied in closely with the player’s dedication and passion for the game.
Are football character and personal character tied together?
This can be a hard question to answer, but in many cases, yes, the two are tied together. There are many players who, because football is important to them and they never want it taken away, will lead good lives and stay out of trouble.
There are players who were brought up in difficult environments who overcome that situation because their drive to be a great player won’t let them do the wrong thing. The game and the benefits of playing the game are just too important.
There are players who have outstanding personal character who just don’t love football and lack a desire to be great. These types of players usually fail early in their careers. When I was with the Bears, we selected a player very high in the draft who was a great kid and excellent student, but he really didn’t love the game of football. He played in the league for a few years, but never lived up to his talent level because of that lack of desire. Like most in this category, he was labeled a bust.
There are other players I have been around who, mainly because of their love of the game, stayed out of the trouble that was always around them.
The player who has talent but lacks a high degree of both football and personal character will never have a chance. That type of player might not make it through college let alone get to the NFL.
The great players
When we study players like Aaron Rodgers, Tom Brady, J.J. Watt, Frank Gore and Charles Tillman, we see a common denominator in all of them. They not only are top citizens, but they also have outstanding football character, which has led to long and successful careers for each.
We can look at a player like Cleveland’s Josh Gordon and, while his natural talent is rare, he lacks the drive to stay away from the things that will keep him out of football. If he had stronger football character, Gordon’s drive to be one of the best would keep him away from substance abuse.
The first player selected in this year’s draft, Jadeveon Clowney, has rare talent. He has the natural talent to be one of the greatest players ever at his position. As rare as that talent is, he did not show it during the 2013 college season, but we did witness this talent in 2012. It remains to be seen what kind of pro Clowney will become. What you also have to look for is not only how he plays in 2014, but what happens going forward. Assuming he stays healthy, will he dominate for years, or will he become “just another guy.”
Follow Greg on Twitter: @greggabe