Because NFL employment can hinge on the delicate nature of a knee ligament and taxes tend to significantly reduce those million-dollar signing bonuses, having a game plan beyond the next play is imperative.
Almost half the players in the league have earned an undergraduate degree. However, the percentage of college graduates among rookies in recent years has dropped since 1992 when college juniors became eligible for the NFL draft. Of the group lacking degrees, about half are less than a semester or two from completing their studies.
"When I walked up on the stage to get my diploma, I kept asking myself, 'Am I really done?'" said Ravens defensive back Gary Baxter, who went back to Baylor this spring to finish up a major in speech communications. "It feels great. It was a promise I made not so much to my mom, but to myself. I always want to finish what I started. "I was so close and it just wouldn't have made sense for me to not do it. I applied myself really hard."
Now, every team employs someone to coordinate four kinds of service: continuing education, counseling, financial management and internships. Past studies have indicated that players with degrees last longer in the NFL, too.
"I try to plant a seed by asking them questions: 'Have you thought about going back to school? Have you thought about doing an internship," said Ravens director of player development Earnest Byner, a former running back for the club who doubles as assistant running backs coach. "It's important to develop a relationship with them so I know what they're interested in. When I came into the league, we didn't have player development. "Sad stories are still prevalent, but with each team having a person in this position to help the transition to life after football, hopefully, we'll have those stories dwindle."
One major adjustment for Baxter was his unsuccessful attempt to maintain a low profile upon returning to college. He was a reluctant celebrity in Waco, Texas.
"I wanted to be low-key, but it was tough with the professors talking about you in the classroom, the press on campus, the girls," Baxter said. "In general, it was real cool. Yes, Baylor had already asked me to donate money even before I graduated."
Defensive end Adalius Thomas (Southern Mississippi), receiver Milton Wynn (Washington St.) and defensive back Ray Perryman (Northern Arizona) were high school football coaching interns at McDonogh, Park School and Randallstown, respectively.
"Education is a vital component of this, but internships are very important, too," Byner said. "It's hard to get a guy to think about what they want to do after the game while they're in their prime and young. Typically, the best time to get them to go back to school or do an internship is while they're young and it's fresh in their mind."
Each year, Byner shows the Ravens' rookie class a team picture taken before the previous season. He places dots over the faces of players no longer with the club to illustrate how turnover is commonplace in the NFL.
"It's a similar analogy to life and death," Byner said. "Eventually, you will die just as football will end for you. When that will happen we don't know, but it's best to be prepared."
Aaron Wilson writes for The Carroll County Times.