Observing 20 NFL players going through their offseason paces at Gaines Performance in West Hollywood, it would be easy to imagine that these young men aren't mortal. While we all understand in theory that professional athletes are by definition capable of physical feats beyond those of regular folk, it's an entirely different matter to watch men the size of adolescent oak trees literally bounding three feet into the air -- multiple times and from a standing start. Or defensive and running backs racing through nylon ladders stretched on the turf at such speed that their feet are almost a blur. It's practically like seeing jump-speed film. The gym seems filled with people who'd fit right into a Hollywood studio's latest Marvel Comics incarnation.
Add in high (in some cases astronomical) salaries and plain old-fashioned envy and one can see why fans would tend to hold NFL players as a breed apart: different, other, almost an enhanced species of hominid. Surely it's fair to expect a higher standard from these blessed young men? Haven't they heard of "noblesse oblige" for Pete's sake? Don't they expect to receive unfair amounts of criticism to go with their unfair amounts of privileges? Isn't that the implicit athlete/fan contract?
At least that's the theory. And it works -- right up to the point where one actually talks to a few players. Helmet-less and at ease in Travelle Gaines' classic, old-school collegial training environment, Denver RB Ronnie Hillman, Seattle MLB Bobby Wagner and New York DB Terrell Thomas suddenly appear younger, more human and less "other." They patiently wait after their workout to speak with a total stranger about personal issues because legions of fans want to know the status of Thomas' anterior cruciate ligament, Hillman's weight and whether Wagner will have a sophomore slump in Seattle.
Maybe it's just me, but if some random blogger started quizzing me about my newly acquired 15 pounds, I might go postal. Not Ronnie Hillman. He flashes a shyish smile and acknowledges that spending his offseason methodically "beefing up" is a brain trust decision with the Denver Broncos, his representation and his trainers. While (through sheer force of non-sexist will) I resist the urge to give him a "pat down," fantasy enthusiasts should take note that said poundage certainly appears to be solid muscle. He's also actually carrying the ball "high and tight" through every drill in his workout routine. Come on, don't they only do that in the movies? When asked if he thought this might truly help his grip, he chuckles: "We'll find out."
It's hard to believe that this quiet, polite, unprepossessing young man (still the youngest player on his team) is the same punishing runner splashing across our TV screens in training camp coverage. That the guy practically calling me "ma'am" set a Broncos postseason rookie rushing record and is assiduously working to improve pass coverage for you-know-who.
The former San Diego State back has been drawing comparisons to fellow Aztec Marshall Faulk. But, hey, no pressure kid. Ronnie may not look stressed, but he readily admits that he left college early in order to provide for his young son.
This family focus extends to Hillman's philanthropic mission: a private foundation supporting medical research at the Institute for Myeloma & Bone Cancer Research. This bone cancer claimed Hillman's grandmother and he is dedicated to finding better treatments and ultimately a cure. Not exactly the normal pursuits of a 22-year-old American kid.
The serious young running back finally cracks up when Seattle's newest star linebacker intervenes to give him grief about the Faulk comparisons. Bobby Wagner's style is expansive and friendly, with an easy humor that undoubtedly helped this rookie from a small college become a "Day One" starter at middle linebacker and finish his first NFL season as Pro Football Focus' top-ranked rookie ILB. His genial personality comes with a level of instinctive play and non-stop effort that somehow eluded every college except Utah State.
Wagner's broad smile and garrulous gym attitude overlay a pragmatic and professional mindset that has defensive coordinator Dan Quinn publicly praising him already in 2013: "He's totally trying to get his game to a spot that he aspires to go to, which a cool thing." With 140 tackles in 2012, 86 of which were all by his lonesome, one wonders whether those rumored comparisons to Ray Lewis aren't all that outlandish.
Wagner credits that small-school chip on the shoulder with creating his relentless work ethic on the field and during the offseason: "You feel the younger guys behind you--you have to keep working or they'll take your spot." Did I mention that he just turned 23? And that instead of lighting up a strip club, Mr. Wagner chose to spend his birthday at Lucky Strike bowling where "This is How We Roll" doubled as a benefit for the Boys and Girls Clubs?
The elder statesman among this player assembly (at age 28) is the Giants' DB Terrell Thomas. Trying to return from two consecutive ACL surgeries, Terrell's focus and effort are flawless; he was already working out at the facility a good half hour ahead of his training group. Every ounce of his energy is channeled into the training regimen. And yet he finds time to mentor the younger players as they arrive. He introduces himself to a rookie:
"Where you playing?"
"Congratulations. Where you from?"
"Oh man. Help me out here, man - don't be going out every night. Not every night."
He's the big brotherly sergeant in every war movie: looking out for his guys. Except that these aren't his teammates and he's not their coach. He's just extending a hand and setting an example. "It's important. Guys mentored me when I first came up. T. J. Houshmandzadeh really pushed me and helped me out and showed me how to be a pro."
Terrell has been rehabbing his knee almost every single day for two years. He never takes more than a few days off, even when completely healthy. "I never want to get out of shape -- it's too hard to get back in."
Thomas appreciates the Giants' loyalty in sticking with a player who hasn't set foot on the field in a regular season game since 2010, when he played in all 16 games with 101 tackles, four forced fumbles and five interceptions. He believes the team's loyalty is one part "class" and one part that the Giants know the kind of player and person that they have in him. Not that Terrell's character is hard to miss: commitment and dedication to his profession surround him like an aura.
He seems equally dedicated to his humanity: talking about his daughter, his gratitude to his mother and his community service events. The sixth-year pro has held a football camp in his hometown of Rancho Cucamonga for the past five years. When he was a kid, his mother had to work and sacrifice so that he could attend expensive football camps. His camp? $20. "T2" also runs a Thanksgiving event for the Boys and Girls Clubs and sponsors a Christmas toy drive with Big Blue teammate Justin Tuck.
Thomas did a few broadcast guest spots this summer, testing the waters for a post-playing career. He's so articulate, intelligent, smooth and downright hip that this seems like a no-brainer. Frankly, though, it wouldn't be surprising to see this remarkably poised young man put his USC degree in Public Police and Development to work for some lucky congressional district.
Thomas, Wagner and Hillman are distinctly individual guys. However, none of them exhibit the thoughtless, carefree immaturity usually associated with American males in their 20's. Shy or outgoing, easy to laugh or thoughtful in response, their maturity is reminiscent of young men in the military. These are young men with a lot of responsibility. They're all under 30 and they are all heads of their own businesses, representatives of a huge and very public industry and active forces for good in their communities. "Up close and personal" they are downright impressive.
So the next time the bad behavior of one player makes headlines, I'll remember that I had a chance to actually spend a few minutes with some members of the NFL Players' fraternity. Three completely different personalities and paths. Three completely different professional athletes who spent time talking to a stranger so that I could see them as people and not just members of an idealized (or vilified) societal subset. And that has made all the difference. Doesn't it always?
Special Thanks to Peggy Iralson, public relations specialist, and Travelle Gaines of Gaines Performance.