There is a natural learning curve inherent in making the jump from the college to the professional ranks for NFL players. The quality of competition is superior by exponential levels, with the pool of talent whittled down to just the top few percent of all college players in the nation.
They are bigger, faster, stronger, smarter, more experienced, and own just about every edge conceivable over the average rookie. It can be something of a culture shock for rookies to adjust to the intensity of an NFL game. While some have success early on, of course, it never comes easy, regardless of what Leonard Fournette might have said.
But there is another learning curve that is somewhat hidden, or at least obscured from the public eye, one that the average observer of the NFL doesn’t spend a great deal of time contemplating. Going from a student-athlete attending classes and playing against others who attend class for a living to becoming an independent adult with all the responsibilities that go along with not just your new job, but your new life, is frequently found to be daunting.
Which is why Pittsburgh Steelers rookie running back James Conner was so grateful for the access that he had to examples like Le’Veon Bell and other veterans in the locker room, who were able to show him the ropes and what it takes to be a professional athlete, a key aspect of which is simply learning how to take care of your body.
“I learned how to be a professional by seeing so many professionals work”, he told Missi Matthews of what he took away from his first season in the NFL. “Learning the basics of getting your mind and body ready for a game. The pounding it takes, the nutrition part of it. Working out, meetings, finding a routine. I have seen older guys do that and it helps them be successful”.
He talked specifically of the running backs room and of the example that Bell helps to set, mentioning “his routine, his nutrition, what he eats, his warmup before practice, getting his mind locked in. That taught me a lot”.
Of course, Conner already learned a number of life lessons the hard way before he ever made it to the NFL. His widely-known fight with Hodgkin’s lymphoma while he was still in college helped to provide him with perspective in everything that he does.
It is a life-changing process to move on from college to the pros, though the fact that he was able to stay close to home certainly made it easier. Not everybody, such as Artie Burns, gets to have it so easy in that regard.
At the moment, Conner is working to get right after suffering a torn MCL late in the season, and he is hoping to be fully up and running by training camp. In the meantime, he can focus on all of the off-the-field aspects that make up a great professional athlete as he prepares for his second NFL season.