May 28, 2007

For a Rookie Linebacker, It’s Like Going to Work

The first day on the job is always a little scary, even if you are a professional football player.

Much like the rest of his fellow collegians preparing to enter the work force, Stewart Bradley had concerns: fitting in with his co-workers, getting to know his bosses and dealing with the anxiety of starting a new career.

Though he puts on a helmet and pads instead of a suit and tie, it is still a job.

“Someone asks you where you were today, you’re like, I had to go to work,” Bradley said last week, putting in a little overtime after his first N.F.L. minicamp. “It’s your job.”

It is not a bad career for someone who walked on at Nebraska because a rash of injuries in high school ruined his senior season. But Bradley, like any driven young professional, knows he cannot rest on his laurels.

“You can’t get too hyped up in this ritzy lifestyle that everyone talks about and reads about,” he said, “because when it comes down to it, you’re just a regular guy going to work.”

A third-round pick by the Philadelphia Eagles in last month’s draft, Bradley had his first N.F.L. day when the team assembled the night before minicamp. As in any other workplace, it was hard to figure out where to fit in on his first day.

“You really feel like, when you first come into a team and try to become one of them, it’s hard to really integrate,” he said. “They all know each other and have common experience and have played games with each other.

“When you go to war with someone like that, when you get on the field and battle other teams with a player, you become close.”

Bradley, the 87th overall draft pick, led Nebraska with 76 tackles as a senior after sitting out 2005 with a knee injury. A three-year starter a strong-side linebacker, Bradley had 175 tackles and 4 sacks in 43 games for the Cornhuskers.

A good attitude and an active imagination conjuring up worst-case scenarios can ease the transition.

“You can’t duplicate or prepare someone for the experience of coming to a new team until they actually do it,” Bradley said. “Until you actually come here and experience it, there’s some anxiety of the unknown.

“The good thing is that you always build it up worse than it is. It couldn’t be as bad as you could possibly imagine it. You could always imagine it worse.”

The uncertainty a new player feels is hard to grasp, Bradley said. “It’s not as black and white,” Bradley said. “It’s more ambiguous.

“You don’t even know what you’re really worrying about. You don’t even know enough to know what could go wrong.”

Bradley might push for playing time right away at the strongside linebacker spot. The Eagles released Dhani Jones before minicamp and placed converted defensive end Chris Gocong, who missed his rookie season last year with an injury, at the top of the depth chart.

If Bradley wants to get on the field early, he must master the playbook of the defensive coordinator, Jim Johnson, known for its baffling number of blitzes. To ease the learning process, Sean McDermott, Bradley’s position coach, has been working with him, breaking down the Eagles’ scheme.

“As you put all those little pieces together, you start to build the whole thing as a little mosaic of little puzzle pieces,” Bradley said. “And as you complete them and really know them, you can build on them.”

But his transition from a collegian to a young professional is still a work in progress.
“I’ll know more about the transition after the first year is really complete,” he said. “The whole year you’re still a rookie.”

Being an N.F.L. rookie has one big advantage over most other jobs: the paycheck. A former walk-on, Bradley signed a four-year contract with the Eagles last Thursday.

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