By John Ingoldsby, Player Engagement Insider
Sometimes, keeping it simple works wonders. So believe the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who follow the modest maxim that “Better men make better ballplayers.”
With this principle as the pillar of their Player Engagement Department, the Bucs are all-in from the top down to build the best platform possible.
“We help all our players maximize the opportunities within their careers so that they exit the game as well-developed men,” stated Director of PE Duke Preston. “Fortunately, our organization’s leadership and coaching staff believe in the value of our high vision.”
That vision starts with helping players understand their purpose and identify their goals during their career so they are prepared when that phase ends and they already know what’s NEXT.
It begins with not only the Rookie Academy, but uniquely continues in their second year with an advanced education of sorts at Buccaneer University.
“This is something we started for our second year guys as a pilot program to help them with things they may encounter in year two, such as buying a house, understanding the coaching approach, and getting their Master’s degree,” explained Preston, who fittingly is in his second year himself at the helm of the program.
“These guys are actually not that far from my age so I do my homework in aligning my thoughts with theirs in building relationships,” said the former center who in his five-year career played with the Bills, and Cowboys and who retired in 2010. “Then once I have that relationship equity, I show my heart to these players to gain and build their trust, and it’s awesome to see the results blossom in their second year as they come together.”
An example of this is the all-important completion of a college degree.
“I listen carefully to what they’re saying and when I hear they may be considering going back to graduate or perhaps obtaining a Master’s degree, I get them the information they need regarding admissions and such and keep it in front of them,” Preston said. “This helps ease the process, which can include, for instance, transferring transcripts from their institution to perhaps one in Tampa, but with them eligible for tuition reimbursement from the NFL, I am vigilant in planting the seed for when they are ready.”
But before they are admitted to Buccaneer University, the sophomores would have completed their rookie years, including graduation from the Rookie Academy.
“We provide a six-week program for the rookies that starts the first week in May right after the Draft and runs until late June, and includes about 25 sessions in all,” said Preston, a 2005 graduate from the University of Illinois.
The Academy kicks off in week one with the theme of Purpose, that Preston said teaches them that “sometimes your talent can take you to places where your character can’t sustain you,” so the emphasis is on the importance of character.
From there, Preston said they are introduce to Professionalism, where they learn how to be an external employee of a high-end organization like any in America, which encompasses everything from the General Manager and Head Coach addressing the newcomers to interacting with the Bucs’ Pewter Partners group and participating in a golf event.
Another week highlights Traps & Threats, so that the rookies understand security and situations to steer clear of so that they do not allow themselves to be disqualified before they get started.
Preston said that other Rookie Academy themes include Mental Wellness, where they see the full picture of themselves as men and football players and even take a culinary class, and also Finances & the Future, which delves in depth into how to handle money with an eye toward their NEXT career.
“Last year, we had 25 rookies in the Academy and ended up keeping six, and this year we have 23, so we shall see how many stick,” Preston said.
For the ones that do stay, the off-field education will continue during the season when they meet on their Tuesday off-day for 10 weeks in a classroom setting to cover, for example, community service that they can perform in their first season so that they understand how they fit into the big picture of life in Tampa Bay.
For some, that can ultimately lead to legendary status in the community, like it has for former players like Hall-of-Fame linebacker Derrick Brooks and running back Warrick Dunn.
“We have a true emphasis on connecting our current guys with our Legends, who are turning into a network of mentors by forming organic relationships with our players,” Preston said. “Our Alumni Coordinator, and longest-tenured employee, Jill Hobbs (Player Benefits and Alumni Program Manager) keeps a roster and helps everybody stay in touch through, for example, organized events ranging from community charity events to golf tournaments for Foundations.
Preston understands another type of foundation, since he received the perfect one for his work today from his father Ray.
“My dad played nine years as a linebacker with the Chargers, so I was so exposed to flesh and blood Chargers that I almost saw myself as a player, and learned the value of a connected alumni base,” Preston recalled.
That upbringing also helped the future center see the foundation that the NFL can become.
“We value the ability to help our guys grow into their trajectory as men, and are creating a transformative culture that impacts both wins and losses and, most importantly, the whole man.”