CLEMSON – Life in the National Football League might sound glamorous, but rookies quickly discover the grind is anything but.
Crowd won’t roar on Sundays for another three months, and for players who don’t force their way onto those coveted 53-man rosters, they won’t feel the glory or earn the riches that come with being an NFL player.
Throughout the summer of 2015, The Post and Courier will check in with former Clemson players continuing to chase their dreams as professionals.
We begin with St. George’s own Robert Smith, a former Woodland quarterback and Clemson safety who signed with the Colts as an undrafted free agent. He has been in Indianapolis since May 5, and spoke with The Post and Courier on Wednesday about his experiences through two weeks with the 2015 AFC Championship participant.
“The day I started, I got off the airplane, and they took me right to the practice facility. Met with Coach (Chuck) Pagano in the team meeting room, everybody introduced themselves. Surprisingly, I knew about 4 or 5 guys that were here. That’s kind of comforting, not being somewhere you don’t know anyone. After I went through a physical and signed the papers, the first thing I asked for, I need to get my hands on a playbook.
“To be honest with you, at this level, that playbook is the most important thing there is. People want to talk about big, strong NFL players; the players are strong, but at this level, you’re only going to get so much stronger. It’s not like when you’re a freshman going to college, you’re going to gain 100 pounds on the bench press. You may get 15-20 more pounds. Now it’s more about building the body for longevity.
“Getting that new playbook, it’s like when I got to college. You’re sitting down as a rookie, trying to learn this on the first night. It’s almost impossible. That gives you the impression of what pro life is like. You’re like, ‘wow, this is terrible, what have I gotten myself into?’ I probably studied the last two or three weeks more than I studied in college. That’s how it feels. It’s more mental than physical.
“The next three days were rookie minicamp. It is a job. Every day, I’m up at 5:45 and I didn’t get home until about 6 o’clock (in the evening.) During rookie minicamp, it was a complete grind. I felt like it was my freshman year in college. You just don’t know what’s going on. You’re struggling out there. You don’t want to mess up, because the first thing you’re thinking is, I’ve got to make this team. I’ve got to impress the coach. I’ve got to find a way to put my name out there.
“You kind of calm down after the first day or two. You look at film and realize, I didn’t do as bad as I thought I did. It’s just something new; you don’t feel comfortable with it. After the first or second day, I really started feeling – I don’t want to say comfortable, because I never want to get comfortable and I always want to keep that edge – but after rookie minicamp, I got a great impression of how it’s going to be. In order for me to be on this team, I know what I got to do and how I got to do it.
“You wake up in the mornings, you go to meetings, you go to practice, you go to more meetings, you go lift, you go to more meetings, and you go home and you study your playbook for at least two hours. That’s how it went the first two weeks. Right now, we’ve gone through all the plays, so we’re familiar with it. But when you don’t know what you’re doing, you’re literally sitting there trying to learn what to do and get an upper hand on it.
“For me, a guy who’s a free agent, when the coach says something in the meetings, I’m trying to catch his attention. So they can say, ‘this guy, he’s been studying. It means something to him. He cares.’ Coaches at this level, they evaluate everything – from the way to hold your bag to going through a drill. They evaluate every little single thing that you do, because if they feel like you’re not contributing to this team and this organization, they’re going to get rid of you. It’s a business.
“That’s the thing I meant by, I never want to get comfortable, because the minute I relax, somebody else passes you. You feel like you’ve arrived, you’ve done this and you’ve done that? You’re just getting started. We hear the veterans talk about it all the time. They’re like, ‘yeah, we know why y’all here. You’re here to replace us, to take our jobs.’ They know that.
“The difference is, at Clemson, I knew everything. You can ask the coaches – I knew where to be, I could tell you where everybody was at. Here, I’m starting from the bottom. I’m striving for reps. When I get in for reps, I’ve got to make it count. I can’t have a bunch of busts. They know you’re going to mess up, but I can’t afford to mess up too much. And if I mess up, I better mess up going full speed. That’s the reality of it. You’ve got to catch their eye. You’ve got to get noticed. They talk about it all the time, is being noticed, being on top of my game, knowing my playbook and staying healthy. That’s my main thing.