#TGW: Learning What It Takes

Matt Winkeljohn | The Good Word

Former Duke safety and NFL player, scout and executive Ray Farmer recently returned to Atlanta, and he had plenty to say to Georgia Tech football student-athletes about making it as a professional football player and the importance of planning for life beyond the game.

Working as an ambassador for the NFL’s Player Engagement program, Farmer told the Yellow Jackets that making it to the League is about more than statistics and measurables. Their futures, the former general manager of the Cleveland Browns said, are being shaped by the work they’re doing now, in and out of the game.

“Putting your best foot forward today allows you the best chances for tomorrow . . . ” he said. “The question becomes how do you grow where you’re at? How do you demonstrate that you’re capable? It’s not just how you play, it’s where you play, how you practice, how you work.

“You’ve got to learn how to be your best you, on and off the field. Talk to all the people around you to get a better idea of who you are . . . Are you talking to people outside of football about an internship? Are you looking for opportunities?”

Farmer brought plenty of perspective to The Flats.

He earned all-ACC honors twice while at Duke from 1992-’96, and graduated with a degree in sociology before being drafted in the fourth round of the NFL Draft by the Philadelphia Eagles.

A knee injury expedited the end of his playing career and, after three seasons as a linebacker, he worked for a few years in television and radio. Then, after a short stint as an academic advisor at his alma mater, he retraced another set of steps when he returned to the NFL as a scout with the Atlanta Falcons.

Four years later, he joined the pro personnel department with the Kansas City Chiefs, and after seven years there, he served as the Browns’ assistant general manager for a year, then as the GM for two (2015-16).

This is a man who has lived the process of making it from college football to the NFL and worked it as well.

“Those guys need to understand, if I don’t go pro, where am I going to go? Only 256 get drafted every year,” he said. “I get questions from guys who truly think they have a chance to work in the NFL. I may have led my team in rushing, or been elected as a captain . . . what are the other boxes that I need to check?”

Farmer’s message came layered with nuances.

He advised all student-athletes to prepare for life without football while suggesting that those who feel they have a chance at the NFL had best tend to details every day. If the NFL does come looking, they’re going to turn over every stone to learn about a potential player.

“You don’t know who the league talks to. The NFL scouts might talk to the cafeteria lady, school administrators, coaches . . . they’re going to say, `Hey, have you run into this guy? What’s he like?'” Farmer explained. “Maybe the answer is, `Yeah, he’s in here all the time and he always puts his tray up.’

“Or, it might be, `He’s always loud and standing on tables.’ If I’m in the NFL, I don’t need to talk to your mom and dad to find out about you. I don’t want bias.”

Mike Huff, Tech’s director of football operations, brought Farmer to speak to the Jackets to reinforce what head coach Paul Johnson says to players all the way from when he and his staff begin recruiting them through their time as student-athletes.

“The NFL has an outreach program, and they offer a variety of topics . . . They reached out via e-mail. I got with Coach on it to see if it was something he wanted to do,” Huff said. “Coach always preaches that there’s more to life than just football. [Coming to Georgia Tech] is a 40-year deal rather than a four-year deal.

“We thought it would be good to have somebody come in and preach Coach’s message, somebody who’s directly involved. Ray was able to do just that. He explained, `Here’s why it’s important to get your education, think about what you’re doing every day and how it impacts your future.'”

Tech players have heard much of what Farmer had to say plenty of times, yet junior guard Parker Braun feels that coming from a former ACC and NFL player who went on to become a scout and then an NFL executive makes it all resonate more.

“He reiterated things that we have been told. He definitely was able to give a lot of specific information about what they look for and the interview process,” Braun said. “The weirdest thing he probably said was that some [teams] film your interview and send it to a psychologists for review.”

The student-athletes that Farmer speaks to about six or seven times a month break into three categories: those who are convinced they’re going to get a shot at playing in the NFL, those who would like a chance and those with no intention of going pro.

“I think at Tech we have a lot more people in the second and third categories who are more minded on getting their degrees and starting their careers,” Braun said. “I think it’s helpful to hear what he’s saying from the standpoint.”

At Tech, Farmer found smart student-athletes.

“Everywhere I go I ask `Who wants to play in the NFL?’ and usually every guy in the room puts his hand up,” he said “There was some hesitation at Georgia Tech and I gave them kudos . . . It’s art and science combined.

“I say there are two things in life: choices and options. It’s all about telling them that the decisions they make now can create more options later. You always want more options . . . It’s not just about numbers. It’s not just about checking boxes, it’s about work ethic and more.”

After speaking to the team for about an hour, Farmer took questions and later met with individuals who asked more questions in private. He also gave out his contact information.

Huff called the visit a smashing success.

“We’ve had some guys come from the NFLPA about various things, but we’ve never had a former scout, general manager talk to us. Ray is a guy who has done it,” he said. “He didn’t sugar coat anything: `This is how it is, and this is how it’s going to be.’ I was just amazed at how in line it was with Coach Johnson’s message.

“In the long run, the message really applies to everybody. They’re not [just] looking at the statistics.”

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