An Open Letter to the 2016 NFL Draft Class

To the Incoming NFL Draft Class of 2016,


I feel you.

I remember back when I was in your position. I felt that same excitement and the eagerness you’re experiencing right now. You’re so close, man. I also still recall the uneasiness that you’re probably feeling right now. There’s a lot of uncertainty about what the future holds. When many of you were looking at colleges, you had your pick of several schools and got to choose the right one for you. Now, all you can do is sit back, wait and hope that the right NFL team chooses you. That’s kind of daunting.

But try to take a step back and appreciate what’s about to happen. You’re going to become an employee of the most popular sports league on the planet. Not a lot of people get their dream job immediately out of college, but you’re one of the lucky few. That’s a pretty amazing accomplishment on its own, and one you can take pride in forever. From this day forward, regardless of what happens next, you will always have the distinction of being drafted to play in the NFL.

I know many of you have been preparing for this opportunity since you were little kids. You’ve dreamt of seeing your name flash across TV screens around the country after hearing it called from the podium. That’s the payoff for a lifetime of hustle and determination. But this next leap is unlike anything you’ve ever experienced before. We all went through that shock early in college when you realized that you weren’t playing against high school kids anymore. You adjusted, and eventually excelled. But now in the NFL, there are no weak links. You’re playing against men – against professionals – and every single one of them is probably just as driven and passionate about this game as you are.

If you’re a competitor, this is truly the opportunity of a lifetime. The NFL is the highest level of competition there is, and if you can prove it here, you’ll be remembered forever. There’s just no way to replicate Sundays. There’s nothing more satisfying than putting in the work throughout the course of the week — in the film room and on the practice field — and then going out there in front of tens of thousands of fans and millions of people on TV and showcasing your talent. That feeling of executing a game plan to perfection is a rush unlike any other. And if you can do that on a consistent basis, the rewards are numerous. Being big man on campus is great, but if you become a starter in the NFL that is a different level of notoriety entirely.

The past few weeks, I’m sure you’ve been reading different things online about your strengths and weaknesses as a player. You’ve spent your whole life playing this game, and people are trying to predict your future based on one drill you ran in a stuffy dome or on one measurement that came up an inch or two below average. I know this is easier said than done, but try to shut that stuff out. Nobody has a deeper understanding of your abilities than you do. You wouldn’t have made it this far if you weren’t your own harshest critic. Regardless of how good you are, and how good you eventually become, there will always be doubters. Don’t cloud your mind with what they say. You’ll have your chance to prove them wrong on the field.

Just as you should ignore the bad things said about you, it’s just as important not to buy into your own hype either. I never had any yes-men surround me when I was coming up. I only kept people around who were gonna keep it real with me — keep it 100, so to speak. All these years later I truly appreciate how important it was for me to stay close with people who weren’t constantly patting me on the back or telling me I was all that. If you do something bad, you need to have people in your life to call you out on it. If you’re blowing your first paycheck on flashy jewelry and taking out credit lines that you don’t even fully understand, you need someone to give you a damn wake up call. When I came into the league, I worked hard to keep my inner circle both small and honest. I recommend that you do the same. Some people won’t make the cut, but that’s just life.

I should tell you that the moment when you get the phone call that you’ve been waiting your whole life for — the one from the team that has selected you — well, it’s just as special as you’ve imagined. Maybe even beyond what you’ve imagined.

I didn’t attend the 2004 draft in person. Instead, I rented out a ballroom at a hotel and filled it with all the people who had been with me since Day One. When Dennis Green and Rod Graves called to tell me they were going to select me third overall, it was a surreal moment. At once, everyone in the ballroom, all the people I was closest to, erupted in cheers. People I love were shouting, crying and dancing around. It felt like we had all accomplished something great. It’s your name that gets called on draft day, but always remember that there were a lot of people who helped you along in your journey. This is a big day not only for you, but also for everyone who’s ever known you. That’s pretty cool.

Now this next part is particularly important.

Once you are picked, take a little time to celebrate, but then shift your focus to making sure that just getting drafted doesn’t turn out to be the biggest accomplishment of your professional career.

In regards to that, here’s a little advice.

When you do join your team for your rookie season, make sure you keep your mouth shut and your eyes open.

When I first came to the Cardinals, I tried to make sure I only caught the attention of the veterans because of my play on the field. I was fortunate to share a locker room with Emmitt Smith, and I was struck by the way he conducted himself. This guy was the leading rusher in NFL history, and he played 14 years in this league. I figured he must know a lot of things I didn’t, so I watched him closely. I watched the way he ate, how he trained and how he generally handled himself on a day-to-day basis. I learned so much just from watching Emmitt, and I’m really thankful that I had the opportunity to learn from him.

I advise you to find a guy on your new team that’s had the kind of career you’d like to experience, and then spend your first year in the league just observing him. Don’t badger him with questions (unless he’s open to that sort of thing), but instead make a note of the things he does right and try to replicate them. If you do things the right way, your teammates will notice and you’ll gain their respect.

I’ve worked with several guys who worked extremely hard. Two of the best players on our team right now are Patrick Peterson and Tyrann Mathieu. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that they were also two of the hardest working rookies I’ve ever been around. You never heard a thing from either of those guys. Never. They didn’t speak a lot, but when it came to practice and conditioning, they were always first. First guys in the building, last guys to leave. They had the mindset that they were going to come in and be productive players. They didn’t say it, they showed it. That’s a good example to follow.

Right now I’m sure many of you are daydreaming about what your life might be like if you get selected by a particular team. Thinking about where you’ll live, what it will be like to play for the coach and how you might mesh with the roster. All those possibilities running through your head at once can be overwhelming, but the truth is that this likely won’t be the last time in your professional career that you’ll have no idea where you’ll be playing next.

Uncertainty is a fact of this job. It’s the nature of the business. I’ve been fortunate to stay with one team for my entire career, but that doesn’t happen very often. If you have a long career in this league, it’s likely that you’ll make a few stops along the way. Fortunately, there are lots of great organizations out there. Every snap you take in this league is on your résumé. They’re watched not only by your team, but also by every other front office in the NFL. If you work hard and focus on your craft, even if one team doesn’t think you fit into their plans, there’s a chance another team will.

I understand the draft process is exhausting, but the real work is just about to begin. Continue to push yourself to become a better athlete and a better person every day. And recognize that you are now a pillar of your community. A lot of kids are going to look up to you, so recognize that and try to serve as a good example for them. Be an asset to your organization on and off the field, and you’ll have a very long career in this league. I promise you that.

Congratulations for what you’ve accomplished thus far and for what’s to come. You’ve earned it.

See you on Sunday,

Larry Fitzgerald