Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Life Lessons From the NFL Draft

You may have noticed that, from time to time, I post something that is related to sports.  This is because, in addition to being a fan of personal finance, I am a sports fan.  Not only do I enjoy the action and excitement of rooting for my favorite teams, but there is a lot to learn about life from what happens on the field.  It never amazes me how sport imitates life and vice versa.

As any football fan knows, tomorrow night is the first round of the annual NFL Draft.  For those of you who aren't sports fan, the NFL Draft is an event where National Football League teams select new players from among college players who are leaving school.  Teams take turns selecting the players they want, with the worst team from the previous year (Carolina Panthers) getting the first pick and the Super Bowl champion team (Green Bay Packers) getting the last pick.  This continues for seven rounds.  Obviously, having the first pick gives you a huge advantage in that you can select the best college player to join your team.  A bad team can get better in a hurry if they select the right player.  On the other hand, bad teams have been known to squander this opportunity by selecting a player who ends up being a "bust".

Consider the fate of the Oakland Raiders.  In 2006, the Raiders were the worst team in the League with a record of two wins and 14 losses.  Because they were so bad, they were given the opportunity to pick first in the 2007 NFL Draft.  Oakland used their top pick on a quarterback by the name of JaMarcus Russell.  Russell was coming off a great final season as a college player.  He led LSU to a 10 win season and an appearance in the Sugar Bowl, one of college football's premiere postseason games.  In the Sugar Bowl, he led his team to a convincing win over Notre Dame and was the Most Valuable Player of the game.  During the player evaluation process preceding the Draft in 2007, teams fawned over him.  He was big man with good foot speed and an extremely strong arm.  In short, he had all of the physical attributes necessary to be a successful NFL quarterback.  The Raiders picked him with their #1 choice, and most football experts at the time said that the choice was a no-brainer.

However, his career did not go very well.  While he had all of the physical tools, he did not have much success in professional football.  To make a long story short, he ended up being "fired" by the Raiders, and now he is out of football.  By all accounts, his main problem was that he did not have a good work ethic.  When you are in college, you can get by on talent along.  However, in the NFL where everybody is talented, the difference between the best player and the worst player isn't necessarily talent but preparation.

Contrast Russell with a player like Tom Brady.  When Brady came out of college, he was not projected to be a star player in the NFL.  He was drafted in the sixth round of the NFL Draft.  For those who don't follow football, usually players drafted in the sixth round don't last in the league for very long.  Many don't even make the team's roster in the fall.  Brady obviously did not have the physical tools that Russell had when he came out of college.  However, he possessed one thing that Russell did not have:  the desire to work.  The fact that he was not considered to be an elite quarterback only made him want to work harder in order to prove the doubters wrong.  Obviously, Brady has had the last laugh as he has three Super Bowl championships to his name.

The moral of the story is that talent can only get you so far.  In fact, too much talent can be a liability.  In the case of JaMarcus Russell, his immense talent meant that he could coast through his high school and college football careers.  Because he could slide by on talent alone, he never developed the work ethic that is required to take his talent to the next level. 

On the other hand, hard work can overcome lack of talent.  Tom Brady certainly did not possess elite talent when he left college.  However, through hard work, he was able to compensate for this and now he is considered to be one of the best quarterbacks in the game today.

This morality play resonates with me personally.  As a boy, I discovered that I had a "talent" for academics.  Even at a young age, I observed that school lessons came much more easily to me than to most of my peers.  This pattern continued through high school.  While many of my peers had to study for hours to get B's, I could walk into class cold and get A's.  Because of my "talent", I did not develop a very strong work ethic when it came to school.  I could get by doing the minimum amount of work and still get straight A's.

Because of my "talent", I was fortunate enough to be accepted to an elite college.  While I will refrain from naming the college, it is one that would be immediately recognizable as being a top-tier institution.  My first semester in college was a wake-up call for me.  In high school I took advanced placement (AP) classes which had the top students in my town.  In college I was side-by-side with the top students from all around the country.  Needless to say, the academic bar had been raised by several order of magnitudes.  During my first semester, I struggled considerably.  I started off the semester with the same type of work effort that I gave in high school (i.e. not much of an effort).  Instead of being rewarded with A's because of my talent, I was rewarded with grades that were commensurate with my effort.  I remember actually getting an F on one of my early mathematics exams.  Up until then, I had considered math to be one of my strongest subjects, so getting an F on a test was a big slap in the face.

At that point, I was at a crossroads.  It was clear to me that talent alone was not going to cut it in college.  If I wanted to get by, I had to reinvent my work habits.  I had to open up the book rather than just showing up to class.  I had to go to study groups rather blowing them off.  In a nutshell, I had to discover how to work.

Fortunately, I was able to turn myself around.  My first year grades were nothing to write home about, but I was able to get by while I developing my work ethic.  While it wasn't my usual straight A's, they were good enough to make me start to believe that I could do this.  Each year that passed got better and better.  My grades steadily improved with year passing semester and my confidence grew.  I noticed that by combining my talent with my hard work, I was not only able to compete with my fellow students, but I could surpass them.  In my junior year, I won an award for the top third year student in my department.  In my senior year, I was inducted into the engineering honor society.  I concluded by undergraduate career by graduating with honors.  I could not have achieved these honors without the lessons I learned in my first year:  that talent can only carry you so far in life.  At a certain point, hard work trumps talent.

Whenever I am asked about an experience that changed my life, I always point to my first year of college.  Too bad JaMarcus Russell could not learn this lesson.  Otherwise, he might have become the elite quarterback rather than promise unfulfilled.

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