Commentary

Former University of Texas stars face difficult transition to NFL

It's a whole new world for many University of Texas players when they leave their comfort zone for the NFL, writes Jeffri Chadiha.

Originally Published: September 19, 2008
By Jeffri Chadiha | ESPN.com

Vince YoungAP Photo/Mark HumphreyVince Young was embraced and celebrated by Texas fans; his NFL experience thus far has been rocky.
Now that Tennessee Titans coach Jeff Fisher officially has handed his team over to backup quarterback Kerry Collins -- until former starter Vince Young can get his injured left knee and his head right -- it's time to ask a legitimate question: What is it with former stars from the University of Texas?

After all, Young was the third overall pick in the 2006 draft and now he seems to have a fragile psyche. Former Chicago Bears running back Cedric Benson was the fourth overall pick in the 2005 draft and he's not even employed at the moment. Throw in names like Cleveland nose tackle Shaun Rogers (chronic laziness), former Buffalo offensive tackle Mike Williams (chronic weight problems) and Miami running back Ricky Williams (chronic smoking of chronic) and, well, you get the picture.

There has to be some common link here so I'm going to pose one today: Being a former star at Texas means having a much harder transition into life as a pro football player. This isn't a shot in the dark, either. I've had more than one NFL executive tell me that players who spend their college days in Austin get quite accustomed to being treated like gods. And once those same players leave college and enter the NFL, they quickly discover that success is much harder to find when the world isn't colored in shades of burnt orange.

By the way, some players who've competed at Texas share the same belief.

"We definitely have a comfort zone at Texas," said Detroit Lions defensive tackle Cory Redding. "We get used to winning and as far as fans booing or negative press, those things really don't happen down there. When you get into the NFL, it can be really hard to adjust if you're not ready for a different kind of atmosphere."

Redding is quick to point out that he has no idea how Young, or any other former Longhorn for that matter, wound up facing his current problems. But it's hard to think that a quarterback who was continually mobbed by fans while taking classes in Austin this offseason could be helped by a lack of exposure to scrutiny. Let's face it: If you live like a king long enough, you lose touch with what it takes to actually get to the top. In the case of Young, who led the Longhorns to the 2005 national championship, he obviously embraced an environment where so many people were enthralled by his sheer presence.

That type of life experience is one reason why so many big-name players spend all four years at Texas in the first place.

[+] EnlargeRoy Williams
AP Photo/Carlos OsorioAfter getting first-class treatment from Texas fans in college, Lions receiver Roy Williams said he was baffled when he first heard Detroit fans booing the team at a home game during his rookie season.

"You can look at guys like me, Ricky Williams, [San Diego Chargers cornerback] Quentin Jammer and [Detroit Lions wide receiver] Roy Williams," said Kansas City Chiefs outside linebacker Derrick Johnson. "We all could've left school after our junior years but we all wound up coming back for our senior years. That's how much we liked it in Austin. There wasn't really a good reason to leave."

So just what is it that makes Texas so unforgettable that some players actually get wistful when talking about it? Redding put it this way: "It's a football paradise. The school is great. The campus is great. The women are great. The city of Austin is great. And if you keep your nose clean and you play ball in Texas, it's like having a key to the city. If you get the job done on the field, you can have whatever you want."

Now I realize there are fans at places like USC or Florida who think their own high-profile stars receive similar treatment in college before heading to the NFL. But one AFC North executive said it's not even close.

"They get treated so well at Texas that certain individuals can't handle the demands that come with being in the NFL," the executive said. "It happens at other schools but Texas players really get used to a different level of first-class treatment."

Johnson agreed: "It can handicap you. It can be harder to bounce back from [adversity] because you don't go through a lot of that down there."

For example, Roy Williams said he was baffled when he first heard Detroit Lions fans booing the team at a home game during his rookie season.

"I'm used to it now," Williams said. "But it blew me away when it happened."

Johnson added that Texas fans didn't even grumble when his Longhorns teams lost four straight games to hated rival Oklahoma during his career. They simply patted the players on the back and encouraged them to get ready for the next contest.

Johnson even said his college coaches were just as willing to treat players with a lighter touch. He said Texas coach Mack Brown had a rule that prohibited assistants from swearing at players when coaches were criticizing mistakes. So once Johnson joined the Chiefs as the 15th overall pick in the 2005 draft, he had to get accustomed to the daily arsenal of profanity that is the trademark of defensive coordinator Gunther Cunningham. Even though Johnson was a grown man, there were more than a few nights when those verbal shots bothered him as he sat at home.

The point to be made here is that all this coddling can have a negative impact. Though Brown is adamant that he's not soft on his players -- "If they screw up, they know they'll get punished but it will be in private," he said -- the fact is that Young was rattled by booing by his fans in a season-opening win over Jacksonville and Young's mother later rallied to her son's defense by claiming that all he needed was more love and support. Those moments show how little Young knows about life under a real microscope. It's also an indication of how much work he must do to harden himself for the increased scrutiny that will follow his eventual return to the lineup.

There are examples of former Texas stars who have rebounded from their issues and found their way to success in the league. Even though Ricky Williams violated the league's drug policy four times, he still has a job in Miami and has an NFL rushing title on his résumé. Dallas Cowboys Pro Bowl guard Leonard Davis, the second overall pick in the 2001 draft, was a major disappointment as an offensive tackle in Arizona until he found his way back to Texas last season.

There also are plenty of other former Longhorns who've been productive in the league, including 29 who have started as rookies in the league after leaving Brown's program.

In fact, Brown said the Longhorns have established more programs in recent years to help players transition. They have former NFL scouts and coaches talk to their players about how life will be once they leave Austin and enter the league. They interview former Longhorns to see what can be done to help future stars transition into the league. They even have pro prospects take the Wunderlic test that is required of players working out at the league's scouting combine.

"We try to tell them that it's not going to be a family setting in the NFL," Brown said.

Brown's comments underscore an important point here: This isn't an attack on Texas. It's actually a compliment to that program because so many former players enjoyed their college careers to the extent that many have made plans to live there after their NFL careers end. This column is more about what can happen to a young man who already has seen what Johnson refers to as "heaven." As he said, "In the NFL you have to earn everything you get. But at Texas, they pretty much give you everything."

And that, by the way, isn't always a good thing.

Jeffri Chadiha covers the NFL for ESPN.com.