CARLSBAD, Calif.-- It was hard to keep a straight face when Mike Haynes took center stage Sunday night at the NFL Rookie Symposium at La Costa Resort and Spa.
Some of the 262 draftees in the audience, as well as league staff members and support people, couldn't contain themselves and burst out laughing. And who could blame them?
Attending his first high-profile event as the NFL's new vice president for player and employee development, Haynes definitely made a one-of-a-kind fashion statement with a dark sport coat and a pair of gray khaki shorts.
The former NFL star cornerback and member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame wasn't the least bit embarrassed or offended, though. He acknowledged the response with a warm smile. He also told the players that he, too, was a rookie.
However, as he later explained, this was no rookie mistake.
"I represent both management and the players," said Haynes, who played for the New England Patriots and Oakland Raiders in a career that lasted from 1976 to 1989. "The players were dressed in shorts, so I wore shorts. And I wore a sport coat to represent the management side and not to look like I favored one over the other."
Haynes, 48, knows that, to be effective in his job, he must have the players' trust. He was an NFL rookie once, just like those attending the symposium. After injecting some humor in the air, Haynes let the rookies know why their attendance was mandatory -- why it was so important for them to hear what they would hear and see what they would see over the next three days.
"When I came into the league, in 1976, we didn't have anything like this," Haynes told the players. "And we had all kinds of problems. I was a number-one draft choice and the fifth player selected. I had a lot of ego and a lot of bravado. My senior year [at Arizona State] we were undefeated, and I walked into the National Football League feeling like I had arrived. I had set my goals to get to the NFL, because that was going to be the ticket for me and make a big difference in my life, and I was so happy to be there."
After a while, he realized there was much more to being a professional athlete than being paid to play a game. There were all sorts of business matters that required attention when he was playing, and especially afterward. As a business major, Haynes had a foundation of helpful knowledge, but there was more he needed to know. There also was so much that players who had no business background didn't know and, in some cases, didn't find out until it was too late.
"We were all in this together, but not all of us were quite prepared with having the right tools to really be successful," Haynes told the rookies. "Yeah, it's about playing your tail off on the football field. It's about getting to the Super Bowl. It's about making good decisions and going to practice on time and being a good guy in the community.
"But it's not easy. You haven't had to do it yet, really. In college, you're kind of protected. Now, the wrapping is off. You guys are out there, and if you don't have a good support system, it's not going to be a nice story. It's going to be a sad story."
Haynes is one of the happy stories. While playing for the Patriots, he spent several offseasons working as an intern for State Street Research and Management Company, a financial services firm in Boston. He then spent eight years at Callaway Golf Company as a licensing manager.
Haynes didn't have a college degree when he entered the NFL, but realizing he had no idea how long he would play, he later returned to school to complete his degree work and prepare for the future.
Last March, when Haynes accepted the league position after Lem Burnham resigned to pursue a college coaching career, he established a mandate to create more success stories for players before and after retirement.
"I want guys coming through the league having a good plan of what they want to do in their lives and to be better ambassadors for the game, for our sport, and make stronger contributions to the community," Haynes says. "Our sport is so big and has got such a great momentum. And the only thing that could really derail it from continuing to have that kind of success is really bad, negative press -- so bad that people don't want to watch our sport, they don't want their kids to play our sport, and they don't want to have anything to do with our sport.
"There are more than 1,800 players in our league, and there really aren't that many bad apples. But we still could have a lot more success stories and better stories to tell."
Haynes believes the annual symposium -- a series of lectures and seminars covering every aspect of what a player can expect to encounter on and off the field -- goes a long way toward helping rookies avoid problems that can harm or even destroy their careers and lives, and also damage the reputation of the league. Through speeches and video presentations, the rookies are bombarded with information about everything from safe sex to identity theft.
Haynes' greatest frustration is that he doesn't think enough players take full advantage of the tremendous opportunities that go with being in the NFL. The thought of helping to change that was what attracted him to his new job, which Commissioner Paul Tagliabue created in 1991.
"I don't think that enough players are aware of the opportunity that they have or the level of achievement that they've reached by getting to the National Football League," Haynes says. "They haven't put it in terms like that, and we do a really good job of showing them the numbers -- that there are million kids who play high school football and, from there, the percentage of players who make it to the NFL is so miniscule. This is a huge accomplishment whether you're a first-round draft choice or [an undrafted] free agent.
"And people are looking at your lives. People are impacted by the decisions that you make. Kids who love football, yeah, they're looking at the number-one draft choice and seeing what he does. But they're seeing what the guy on the kickoff team is doing, too. When they read a positive or negative story in the paper, they don't really care if it's a first-round draft choice or a free-agent guy. It's just another NFL player."
Besides preaching good conduct, another message that Haynes and other symposium organizers preach is to look ahead. Few rookies think beyond their first training camp, let alone their first season. They either are caught up in the hype of their newfound wealth or too concerned with trying to make the final roster to think about what they plan to do when their playing days are over.
"But that's a message that you just continually have to go give," Haynes says. "You tell them, 'Guys, your career could end anywhere along this spectrum. You could play one down, one year, or a long time. And you need to be thinking about your next career. I hate to tell you that, but let's be honest: You don't see too many guys playing football in their forties. And when you're forty, you've got a long life ahead of you. So what are you going to do? Let's start to think about it. Not so much so that it takes away from your football, but you've got an offseason that you can take time to look at other areas of interest that you have, find out what those are, and you'll have a nice, smooth transition when you leave the game.'
"I've seen a lot of guys who have come through the league, had great careers -- Hall of Famers, potential Hall of Famers -- and you would not believe what some of these guys are doing now. Homeless. Addicted to drugs. In jail. All because they really didn't know what they had when they were in the National Football League."
Haynes ended his speech to the rookies with a question: "How many guys know what they want to do after their NFL careers are over?"
About 30 hands went up. He did not seem nearly as surprised as so many of the players were when they saw him take the stage in a sport coat and shorts.
"Hopefully," Haynes said, "more of you guys will think about it while you're here."