Baltimore Ravens

Orientation program helps rookies transition into NFL, helps team to 'develop a Raven'

The Ravens' rookie class, 23 players in all, filed into the team auditorium late Thursday afternoon and settled into the first three rows. For the next hour, they shared what magical power they'd most like to have, debated the meaning of a Muhammad Ali quote and donned superhero masks.

After another long day of organized team activities and meetings, the newest Ravens were active and engaged. That's exactly how Harry Swayne wanted them for a discussion of mental health and wellness.

"Their football day alone is at least 11 hours, and typically, like today, I get the last hour," said Swayne, the Ravens director of player engagement. "Sometimes it isn't the best time, but we have to give them something that they can use immediately. Usually, at this juncture, even though they're tired, a little sore, maybe a little homesick, not sleeping well, they are wide awake for something like this."

Over the past two months, rookies from 32 NFL teams have started the process of acclimating to a new job in a new city. The focus of fans and the media is on the strides rookies are making on the field. For the league and the individual teams, though, there are the additional concerns of how rookies are handling new roles and responsibilities off it.

That's why each team is required to maintain a thorough rookie orientation program, which includes three more days of sessions later this month while NFL facilities otherwise have emptied out until closer to the start of training camps in late July.

"You're talking about 550 to 600 new employees, new members, new players inside the locker rooms, the stadiums, the workplaces," said Troy Vincent, the NFL's executive vice president of football operations. "You want to make sure that they are transitioning properly. This is unlike other occupations. Nothing prepares them for what they are about to face at this level, so it's important that in working with the clubs, we provide the necessary assistance, resources and networks to support the clubs in their onboarding of their new employees."

Swayne, who won three Super Bowl rings during a 15-season playing career, including one with the 2000 Ravens, customizes the team's orientation program and involves owner Steve Bisciotti, general manager Ozzie Newsome and coach John Harbaugh in the process.

The initial "offseason" six-week program, which began after the rookie minicamp last month, featured 27 mandatory sessions that lasted an hour each weekday. Ravens rookies already have attended presentations on alcohol and drugs, car buying, investing money, maintaining good credit, avoiding sexually transmitted diseases and using social media, among other wide-ranging topics.

The range of speakers has included Swayne, team chaplain Johnny Shelton, team nutritionist Sue James, "Call to Men" activist Tony Porter and former Ravens running back Ray Rice.

"You have to learn how to manage everything else, because while you're trying to do this full-time job, you're also trying to move into an apartment, set up everything else," said wide receiver Chris Moore, a fourth-round pick. "If you're here by yourself, you just got to learn how to juggle it all. … This is new for us, but there are people who have been there and there are people here to help us with it so we don't have to do it by ourselves."

Improving the program

In early April, three weeks before hundreds of rookies would realize their NFL dreams, the league announced a change in its transition program. In the past, the NFL hosted a centrally located rookie symposium that was open only to drafted rookies.

Under the league's new "onboarding" platform, teams can customize their programs and involve undrafted rookies. The NFL requires teams to cover 15 topics, including mental health, social responsibility, workplace conduct, and character and values. The individual player-engagement directors can tailor the rest of the organization's program to best suit the needs of the rookie class.

"You were only touching 40 to 45 percent of the population with the old model. This allows us to touch 100 percent," Vincent said. "Every club has its own culture, its own unique brand. Every club is unique to their community. In this case, in Baltimore, it allows Ozzie, John and Harry to develop a Raven."

Swayne has kept many of the same programs for the seven years he's been in his position. The Ravens discussed domestic violence and sexual assault with their rookies long before Rice struck his future wife, Janay, in February 2014, an incident that led to the running back's release by the Ravens.

While Swayne makes alterations to Ravens' program each year — and constantly is discussing new ideas with other player-engagement directors around the league — the end goal remains the same.

"Some people say that younger guys come in with a sense of entitlement. I think it's more that younger guys come in with a sense of, 'I'm already supposed to know,' so the fear is, 'I don't want you to know that I don't,'" Swayne said. "We have programs to kind of facilitate that and say, 'It's OK to be 22 years old and make a 22-year-old mistake,' and let me give you something to help you to continue to grow."

Providing resources

Dr. Tricia Bent-Goodley, the Ravens' clinician, ran Thursday's session on "Total Wellness." She asked all 23 players about the superpower they'd most like to possess, partly as an icebreaker and partly as an attempt to learn more about each player. She then put a quote on the screen from Ali, the legendary boxer who died June 3: "It isn't the mountains ahead to climb that wear you out; it's the pebble in your shoe."

The quote led to a discussion about what can prevent athletes from reaching their maximum potential.

"Think about what your pebble is, the thing that may slow you down," Bent-Goodley said. "We've got to tackle it and we're going to tackle it together."

The rookies watched an interview with New York Jets wide receiver Brandon Marshall, who has been open about his battle with borderline personality disorder, and discussed the dichotomy of being mentally tough and not showing signs of weakness on the field. They talked about the importance of being open and honest about issues affecting them.

With the passing out of superhero masks, rookies were encouraged to confront "what's behind the mask."

"When I hear a young guy say in a small group that he's glad he can go to Dr. Tricia to talk about some of his issues, inside, I'm pumping my fist like I'm Tiger Woods on the putting green. That's like the home run in the ninth inning for me," Swayne said. "We've got some people like her in the building that have the players' best interest at heart, and the player has the confidence that they do. We've really helped ourselves before the issue or the problem comes up."

Times are changing

Swayne's "orientation" when he broke into the league in 1987 consisted of following around two veterans and being their mentee. Now, Swayne says, the most effective part of the Ravens' rookie success program is assigning each rookie one veteran player to follow.

Vincent, who played in the NFL from 1992 to 2006, said executives from other sports leagues call him all the time to inquire about the NFL's rookie programs.

"There's no question: it's the most comprehensive onboarding of rookies in all of sports," he said.

Ravens rookies, meanwhile, said they have benefited from the team's programs. Several cited the talk by Rice, who hadn't been at the team facility since his release and who remains out of the NFL, as the most impactful.

"He told us some great things, like, 'You have to learn how to manage your home life, your football and every other thing that you got to deal with,'" Moore said. "It was great to learn from him."

Wide receiver Keenan Reynolds, a sixth-round pick, acknowledged that his college career at Navy was good preparation for the NFL, though he, too, has found the orientation program to be a learning experience.

"Obviously, the conduct issue goes without saying, but at the same time, there's a lot of different things about this league, about this profession, that I don't know," Reynolds said. "It was a nice introduction, a nice opportunity to learn from guys that have played in the league and have done it."

Baltimore Sun reporters Don Markus and Jake Lourim contributed to this article.