In the National Football League, as in life, character matters. And when it comes to character matters, the NFL has its hands full.
In the five months since the Baltimore Ravens won the Super Bowl, some three dozen NFL players, coaches and executives have been arrested on charges ranging from driving under the influence to murder.
“It’s definitely a challenge, and it’s something NFL teams take seriously,” Post Falls author and minister Dr. Jim Grassi insists.
The former team chaplain to the Oakland Raiders and San Francisco 49ers now consults with three NFL teams on character issues: the Seattle Seahawks, St. Louis Rams and the Raiders. His newly released book, “Guts, Grace and Glory: A Football Devotional,” delves deeply into the issue.
“People laugh when I tell them I consult with the Oakland Raiders on character,” Grassi says with a laugh. “They think I must not be doing a very good job.”
But the Raiders, and all NFL teams for that matter, take the issue of character seriously – whether it’s the New England Patriots dealing with the arrest of tight end Aaron Hernandez on a murder charge or the Denver Broncos suspending two front office executives after each was arrested in separate drunk driving cases.
“The league has taken it seriously and it puts a special emphasis on it,” he said. “If a player gets in trouble two times in any given season, the team is penalized in its draft position. And teams take their draft position very seriously, so they now take character issues even more seriously than they ordinarily do.”
Which is not to say that it wasn’t an issue before – NFL coaching legends like Tom Landry (to whom Grassi’s latest book is dedicated) and Vince Lombardi to George Halas and Paul Brown have been quoted extensively on the subject of character.
More importantly, Grassi said, character weighs heavily on how a player is remembered in the league.
“You look at how someone is remembered and that says a lot about their character,” Grassi said. “You look at how someone like Peyton Manning will be remembered and people will point to what he did on the field and how he won championships. Fairly or unfairly, when people look at a player like (recently retired Ravens linebacker) Ray Lewis, and they may or may not remember the championships, but they will remember that he was a guy who was charged with murder.”
Character analysis now is considered as important as physical prowess as teams prepare for the annual college draft.
“I’ve had a number of coaches tell me that if they were presented with two players, one who runs a 4.1 (second) 40 (yard dash) and has character issues, and one who runs a 4.3 but has a clean character, they take the 4.3 kid every time,” he said. “You’re investing millions of dollars into that player, and if character issues come up it doesn’t just affect that player and his performance, it affects the whole team because it’s a distraction.
“I’m already hearing from coaches who say that (Heisman Trophy winner and Texas A&M sophomore quarterback) Johnny Manziel has hurt his draft status. If he doesn’t turn things around, he’s going to fall by the time he gets drafted.”
Manziel has had difficulty dealing with the spotlight of being the first freshman to win the Heisman. He most recently was asked to leave the Manning Passing Academy after he overslept and missed a session.
Even those challenges pale in comparison to such draft-day busts as Washington State’s Ryan Leaf, who was taken No. 2 by the San Diego Chargers in 1998 only to flame out of the league. He began serving a seven-year prison sentence in Montana after pleading guilty to felony burglary and drug possession.
Compared to the rest of society, Grassi insists, the NFL does a better than average job policing itself. The 35 arrests out of the 1,700 people in the NFL amounts to 2.8 percent of the league.
Grassi said the nature of the league leads to a multitude of challenges for the average NFL player. The major life shift from being a collegiate football player living on a scholarship to instant wealth brings about any number of life changes, as well as a host of life challenges.
“You would be amazed at how people come out of the woodwork around these players,” Grassi said. “Everything changes. I don’t know how they know about it, but women are everywhere around these players – and I’m not talking about prostitutes, either.”
If a player waits until they’re presented with temptation to make a moral and ethical decision, it’s too late.
“I’m a big believer in a quote from (coaching legend) John Wooden,” Grassi said. “He said ‘Sports don’t build character; they reveal it.’ I think he’s absolutely right about that.”
With the Raiders, Grassi likes to sit down and talk with players, especially the young ones just coming into the league.
“I sat down with Willie Brown, the Hall of Fame former Raiders cornerback, and we talked to them like a couple of grandfathers,” Grassi said. “When you have a former player who can sit down and talk to these guys, it carries a lot of weight.
“I don’t go in and talk to them like a preacher because they don’t need to be preached to, not in that situation. They need to hear from a grandfather. Basically, we tell them they need to do three things: hire a good attorney, hire a really good financial planner, and they need to talk to their pastor or minister.”
Too many men in today’s society grow up without strong male role models, Grassi believes. Without the moral underpinning such a role model provides, it’s too easy to give in to the kinds of temptation that lead players astray.
“I think players who come into the league with a strong Christian faith have an advantage,” Grassi said. “If you look around at the players who have established themselves over a long period of time, who are the real character leaders on teams – the guys you look up to and want to be like – they all tend to have that strong, foundation of faith.
“A lot of them are married and they have a family and they live their lives as family men and take care of that family.”
Grassi points to former Raiders running back Napolean Kaufman as an example.
“Napolean had a great career at the University of Washington – he was a little guy who probably stood 5-9 but was unbelievably fast,” Grassi said. “He suffered a pretty serious injury and was told that he would probably never play football again his junior year. Not only did he play again, he had an outstanding senior season and was drafted in the first round by the Raiders.”
Kaufman had a long history of talking smack, and he showed up at his first NFL training camp with his mouth already in overdrive.
“He was really mouthy,” Grassi said. “Jerone Davidson, who was a fullback that probably no one has ever head of, pulled him aside and told him that until he did something in the league, he needed to shut up.”
Kaufman took that message to heart and went on to have a solid career, rushing for a career-high 1,294 yards in 1997.
“He ended up walking away from the game while he was still in his prime and now he’s an ordained minister in the Bay Area,” Grassi said.
Grassi said his own upbringing gives him a unique perspective on the challenges young NFL players face.
“I grew up in the East Bay area of San Francisco during the race riots,” he said. “It doesn’t get much more challenging than that, so I think I understand a lot of what these kids face.”
A Hall of Fame fisherman himself, Grassi has written extensively on the subject of character, in particular character and the NFL, and his Men’s Ministry Catalyst helps churches develop successful men’s ministries.
“It’s a society problem,” he insists. “Character is an issue we all deal with.”