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Rookie Development Program Critical For Ravens


The Ravens rookie class filed into to the auditorium Monday night after a full day of practice, workouts and playbook study.

All of their football responsibilities were done, but they still had work left to do.

As they will do every day for the next month, the rookies settled in for an hour-long daily seminar with Ravens Director of Player Development Harry Swayne. The program features a series of courses to help them make the transition to the NFL and all of the challenges that come with being a professional athlete.

"For a lot of them, this is their first job, unless they were a paper boy, or delivered pizza, or grocery bagger," Swayne said. "This is really their first legitimate workplace, so there is a lot to transition. And it's not's just getting them comfortable in this workplace, it's also to get them thriving."

Swayne is the instructor for the seminars, which touch on a number of topics including financial management, media training, relationship advice and just general workplace information. He'll also bring in speakers from a variety of fields to provide different perspectives.

"More than anything, it instills in your mind that football is not forever," rookie fullback Kyle Juszczyk said. "Even while we are here playing football, we still have to be looking toward things we can do after football. While you're here, all you're really thinking about is football, but these seminars kind of open your eyes."

The bulk of the program focuses on finances, or as Swayne likes to put it, "learning to manage your money so that your money doesn't manage you."

It's a critical area for rookies who find themselves in a position where they're making more money than they ever have before. They have a short window of opportunity to make a lot of money – the average NFL career is still less than four years – and Swayne's priority is to provide education on how to make that money last long after they're done playing.

Sports Illustrated estimated in 2009 that 78 percent of NFL players are bankrupt or facing serious financial stress within two years of ending their playing careers, and Swayne's goal is to keep players from being part of that statistic.

"We try to get the topics where they're most likely to fail," Swayne said. "We do banking 101. I don't take anything for granted, that a kid knows how to set up a bank account, open a savings account, what to use a savings account for, a checking account, what goes on a check. I don't take any of that for granted."

Financial education isn't the only focus of the program.

The rookies get an overview of some general office behavior, and they also delve into more sensitive topics such as sex and relationships.

"We do a sexually transmitted disease workshop on the first Friday that they're here on purpose to ruin their weekend," Swayne said with a laugh. "It's kind of an in-your-face presentation. They thank me a lot after that."

Swayne, who was a 15-year NFL veteran, has an ability to connect with the rookies. He commands respect when he steps to the front of the room, and the players identify with his message.

"He's been through it," tackle Michael Oher said. "I'm sure that he made a lot of mistakes that a lot of young guys make, so he can steer you in the right direction before something bad happens."

Swayne's ability to mentor young players has been pointed to by members of the Ravens brass lately as a part of the leadership dynamic within the locker room.

He meets with every rookie and new signing when they come into the organization, and spends time getting to know them on a personal level. He watches practice every day to see how players carry themselves in competition, and he regularly meets with them during meals in the team cafeteria.

From the time the rookies step foot in Baltimore, Swayne is there to greet them and ensure they have support.

"When they come here they figure out that the Ravens care," Swayne said. "And it's not just from afar, but up close and personal. You can care about a guy and say 'We're going to send you some emails, so you have the right contact information and the resources to get it done.' Or you can go up to him, and ask him specifically what he needs to figure out how to best deliver it."

Part of Swayne's responsibility is to connect with players with troubled backgrounds. He works to determine which players need more attention, and tries to help keep them from repeating mistakes.

When he meets with a player who has been in trouble, the message he stresses is honesty.

"We just put it right out there. This is how the Ravens do it, even though sometimes the truth hurts," Swayne said. "One part about being the Ravens is that we speak the truth. We're not averse to hearing bad news about ourselves. We can handle it.  We can take it. We got broad shoulders. Tell me what I'm doing wrong and give me a chance to correct it. That's a very Raven way to go about things."

The other key component of the rookie development program is pairing every rookie with a veteran mentor. A handful of veterans are asked to be mentors by Swayne, O.J. Brigance and team chaplain Rod Hairston, and they meet with their rookie mentees each week throughout the season.

They talk about a variety of issues, whether it's football topics, relationship advice or guidance on buying a car.

"I think it helps the rookies just simply because there's an accountability naturally set up when they agree to put themselves under the authority of another man," Swayne said. "Right off the bat they're trying to do the right thing."

The mentorships continue driving home the message that Swayne begins delivering from the time the rookies first arrive.  They create accountability and foster relationships, and help give young players a big picture of how to maximize their time in the NFL.

That's the focus for Swayne, and it's one of the most important facets of the incoming players becoming true professionals.

"What I'm trying to do with them in the short amount of time that I've got them is get them ready to change their mindset from a student-athlete on scholarship, to a professional athlete in a workplace," Swayne said. "At the same time, we're also getting them ready to leave because the average player career is still less than four years. And we get all that done in 20 total hours, one hour a day."

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