ST. LOUIS -- The assumption, back in 2010, was that the one team that couldn't -- or at least shouldn't -- draft Dez Bryant was the Dallas Cowboys, because it would place an impressionable, troubled kid too close to too many of the negative influences he grew up around in Texas. Few said the same about Aaron Hernandez, a first-round talent who plunged to the fourth round because of his own off-field missteps.
Three years later, Bryant, who indeed became a Cowboy, has blossomed into one of the game's brightest young talents. Hernandez, a New England guy drafted by the New England Patriots, is in a jail cell.
The former case shows just how hard a look clubs take at the people whom players surround themselves with. The latter illustrates the worst-case scenario. Together, they display the unpredictability involved in an inexact science.
Earlier this offseason, general manager Les Snead and director of player engagement La'Roi Glover hatched the idea to start integrating their young players into the St. Louis community, to give the kids an avenue to separate themselves from forces that can threaten a career or, worse, a professional athlete's life.
"We were sitting around one night, saying, 'If you go to an Ivy League school, and then you move into Boston, you may end up knowing there are places to go hang out with other Ivy League alums, successful people,' " Snead said. "And they get to know each other and, over the course of time, they do business with each other. Sometimes, the athlete comes here, he's used to a college campus where it's easy to maneuver and socialize, and you become a professional athlete, now you feel a little isolated."
Most prominent was a networking event on the Thursday night of the team's rookie week in June. Glover worked with 10 young-professional groups -- most of them designed to network 20-something minorities in St. Louis -- as well as top local corporations, whose CEOs were asked to invite a handful of their junior executives. The Rams rented out the Missouri History Museum, which just happened to feature a Pro Football Hall of Fame exhibit at the time. And Glover designed gimmicks -- one being a Bingo-style game in which participants were forced to get answers from others in attendance -- to prevent things from getting too cliquish.
The event was scheduled for two hours, but went later into the night, and that's just one encouraging sign in this youth initiative. In the short term, as Snead said, it can open the players' eyes to other social avenues available to them. But to Glover, who played 13 years in the NFL himself, that's just cracking the door on the benefits the Rams look to provide.
"That's one piece of it," Glover said. "The second piece of it is you never know what these relationships can bring. One individual may, hypothetically, work for a financial firm. And you have questions about finance. One individual might be a lawyer, and you may have some questions or some concerns or need some type of advice. You just never know who's gonna be in the room when you're meeting folks and grabbing business cards and doing all these types of networking."
In part because of Fisher's ability to handle a diverse array of personalities, the Rams haven't been shy about gambling on at-risk players. The current regime's first draft class included Janoris Jenkins, Trumaine Johnson and Isaiah Pead, all of whom entered the league with red flags to varying degrees. And the second group, selected this past April, included Alec Ogletree and Stedman Bailey, who both had some skeletons in their respective closets.
Thus, it's easy to surmise that part of this is probably driven by a specific need to nurture guys who have some growing up to do. But one thing that is common in so many cases where NFL players run afoul of the law is this: It's not happening with teammates or new acquaintances in the community, it's happening with people from the player's past. So the Rams' idea to align their athletes with the first group, which would give them the chance to pull away from the second, seems like it'd be applicable to the 31 other teams, too.
"When they go through high school and college, (athletes and business people) are basically on the same level -- it's just that one guy goes to the NFL, the other goes to corporate America," Glover said. "Maybe you play five or 10 years. That guy in corporate America, his circle, is those corporate America folk. Our guys, for some strange reason, in that 10-year period, go backwards, and pull up the old buddy who's really not doing much.
"They go backwards, they pull people up, and that becomes their circle outside this building. So I thought it'd be great to align that group, to put them in the same room, have a discussion and a dialogue about networking opportunities."
The club's benefits here aren't hard to identify, either.
Networking a player in the community makes him more identifiable and relatable, and could influence him to stay around the facility during the offseason, rather than spending January, February and March back home in harm's way. The more players around, the more likely they'll spend time around each other. And of course, the more time the player spends in the city he plays in, the more focused he'll be on football.
To Snead, the idea is pretty simple: Take the pro athlete and try to push him to the life that other similarly successful young people seem to slide into naturally.
"Let's say you come from a tough neighborhood, you go to Michigan, you go to med school, become a doctor, move into this neighborhood, and usually now you're hanging with other people that are successful," the second-year GM said. "So you think, Man, it's a shame that sometimes young NFL football players don't do the same thing, because they're gonna do this stuff when they leave here in the offseason. Are they gonna go hang out with their older teammates who have families? No. They'll go back to their high school buddies who maybe didn't go to college, and are five years behind.
"These guys have been evolving five years, but it's comfortable. Each year you get through -- five, six, seven -- you go to school, you go pro, and they didn't go to college and life's only getting tougher for them. It goes to the Lou Holtz quote: the people you meet, the places you go, the books you read -- those are the things that influence your life. So let's try to hang around the right people."
The Rams plan on expanding the effort next year, while acknowledging that it's way too soon to identify any tangible results. They know it'll take years to flesh out exactly what kind of impact all this has on young players and the team as a whole.
But they also know that there are plenty of trap doors, like the ones Bryant sidestepped and Hernandez fell through, around the guys they bring into their program. And this effort, at least, seems to shine the light on where those are.