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Off-the-field adjustment not easy

Draftees must learn whom to trust and whom not to, be it friends, family members or agents.

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By ERNEST HOOPER

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 15, 2001


BRADENTON -- It's not uncommon for prospective NFL players to fancy themselves as some kind of powerful, destructive machine: wrecking ball, bulldozer, A-Train.

Yet Florida State linebacker Tommy Polley realizes some people are going to see him as something entirely different: an ATM.

"Instead of other people being the bank machine for me, now I'm going to be the bank machine in some kind of way," said Polley, one of several Tom Condon clients who prepared for post-season workouts at the IMG Academies this year. "People think you have money right now. I imagine things are going to change even more after draft day."

The players who will be drafted Saturday, particularly those in the first round, can look forward to some life-altering experiences thanks to the instant riches they will receive. In many ways, the changes will be rewards for years of work on the college level and a lifetime of hard knocks.

Texas A&M fullback Ja'Mar Toombs will carry the memories of hand-me-down clothes, low-income housing and food stamps into the NFL. And he'll pack those memories in a Cadillac Escalade he already has purchased.

"My life is a sob story," Toombs said at the NFL Scouting Combine in February. "It was tough, but it makes you a strong person. It makes you want things more. I know I didn't want to live that life for the rest of my life, and I didn't want my family to. I especially don't want my children to."

The opportunity to enrich their lives and the lives of family members is tremendous, but it comes with caveats. Players must beware of unscrupulous agents, fair-weather friends and a lifestyle change that can be overwhelming.

"I wouldn't say it scares me, but I have thought, "Wow, what is my lifestyle going to be like, how is it going to change?' " Michigan tackle Maurice Williams said. "It most definitely will."

The greatest concern for some players revolves around choosing the right friends. Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis, who was charged with murder after two nightclub patrons were stabbed the night of Super Bowl XXXIV in Atlanta, attributed part of his plight to "hanging with the wrong crowd."

A lot of players find that celebrity status draws men and women with bad intentions. Even the rookies, some of whom have borrowed substantial money from their agents to acquire cars and clothes, have noticed a change in how friends and family treat them.

Veteran players advise that some uncles, aunts and cousins can be as big a problem as friends in asking for money for business ventures and loans.

"You're going to have a lot of people trying to get a piece of you because you have a little bit of money," said Syracuse cornerback Will Allen, who is already married and has a son. "I think that's going to be the scariest thing, trying to figure out who you can trust. And, that goes for family, too."

Players have to be equally leery of agents and financial advisers. Former agent Tank Black is notorious in Florida for allegedly losing millions for his clients in an illegal Ponzi scheme. Still, investments are the best way for players to ensure their futures.

"Getting all this money, you should find a way to try to set yourself up for life," said Miami defensive tackle Damione Lewis. "Football is a short-lived dream. You need to be able to take advantage of the things they give you while you can."

The league tries to help rookies by presenting a mandatory seminar which covers all kinds of pitfalls. Each team also has a director of player programs, who tries to shepherd the rookies during their first year.

"We have a pretty good program," Bucs coach Tony Dungy said. "We try to introduce them to the Tampa area. We try to have the veterans talk to them ... about what it means to be a professional player, what some of the pitfalls are.

"Even more so than the money is the lifestyle and the time. All of sudden, you don't have everything structured for you, you don't have to go to class, you don't have to go to study hall ... whereas in four years of college everything is regimented. Now you have a lot of decisions to make about what you're going to do with your time, and it's in a city you usually don't know a whole lot about."

Williams said the key is being grounded: "The best piece of advice I got was to remember where I came from, be myself and understand that I couldn't do anything without God."

- Staff writer Roger Mills and wire reports contributed to this story.

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