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Old 04-01-2011, 11:02 AM   #1
mesaSteeler
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Default NFL's young players doing best to weather NFL lockout

NFL's young players doing best to weather NFL lockout
Published: Friday, April 01, 2011, 7:30 AM
Nakia Hogan, The Times-Picayune By Nakia Hogan, The Times-Picayune NOLA.com
http://www.nola.com/saints/index.ssf...oing_best.html

The warnings began years ago, as veterans and NFLPA executives told players throughout the league that a lockout could be looming. They told players to prepare their finances, to spend frugally because the Collective Bargaining Agreement between the NFLPA, the union that represented the players, and the NFL owners was set to expire in the spring of 2011.
mike_wallace2.jpgMichael DeMocker/The Times-Picayune archiveFormer O.P. Walker standout Mike Wallace was a third-round pick of the Pittsburgh Steelers in 2009. However, he has quickly outplayed the three-year contract he signed for $1.740 million, which included a $555,000 signing bonus. Wallace had 1,257 receiving yards and 10 touchdowns in helping the Steelers reach the Super Bowl last season.

"It all started my first year in the league," Chicago Bears safety Craig Steltz said. "In 2008 is when the owners opted out of it. So much is going on your rookie year, and you hear the owners have opted out of the CBA. I don't even know if I knew what CBA stood for at the time."

Steltz, a Metairie native who prepped at Rummel before starring at LSU, is one of many young NFL players who have been left in limbo by the NFL lockout that keeps players from having any contact with their teams.

The NFL players' lawsuit against the owners has been highlighted by the names of superstar quarterbacks -- Drew Brees, Peyton Manning and Tom Brady -- but perhaps the players being impacted most are younger players who haven't been fully entrenched or signed lucrative contracts.

"A lot of them were still in college when they started talking to us about a potential lockout," said San Diego Chargers receiver Buster Davis, who prepped at O.P. Walker before playing at LSU. "About my second year, they were saying there is no negotiation about the CBA, it's going to expire in about a year and a half. So guys started preparing, they started warning us.

"And this was when Gene Upshaw was still alive, and they were telling us to watch your money, protect your finances and get ready for this lockout, because it is possible."

Heeding advice

Unlike some of the big-name players who are at the forefront of the players' suit against the NFL, Pittsburgh Steelers receiver Mike Wallace, a rising star in the league, hasn't reaped a financial windfall.

Wallace, who like Davis starred at O.P. Walker, was a third-round pick of the Steelers in 2009. However, he has quickly outplayed the three-year contract he signed for $1.740 million, which included a $555,000 signing bonus.

Wallace has become of the NFL's top playmakers. He had 1,257 receiving yards and 10 touchdowns in helping the Steelers reach the Super Bowl last season.

"By me being a young guy and being drafted in the third round, I think I can speak on it," Wallace said. "It's going to be hard. But I think I've been smart about how I spend my money. So I'll be fine -- at least for a year or so.

"That's the main thing. People have to cut back and be smart, because you can't do the things you would do if you knew there was a season coming in August for sure. You have to watch your spending, you can't be as nice to people as you once were."

Wallace said he prepared for the lockout by saving as much as he could, even banking all the extra cash he made during the Steelers' postseason run.

Wallace said he knows an extended lockout could be taxing on players with even less experience than his two years, like his old high school pal, Kendrick Lewis, who just completed his rookie season with the Kansas City Chiefs as a safety.

"In Kendrick's situation, it's not really much to save, so you have to cut back," Wallace said. "I've been in the league two years and we went to the Super Bowl, so I have a little more leeway. I just hope things don't get to that point."

'It's really tough'

The NFLPA, which dissolved as a union just before being locked out by the league March 11, has sent players e-mails letting them know that a payout from the Lockout Fund has been approved.

Each NFL player who contributed to a lockout fund, which was created through player dues and rights fees during the 2009 and 2010 seasons, according to reports, will be able to collect up to a total of about $60,000.

According to NFL.com, a player must have been on a 53-man roster for all 34 weeks of regular-season games during those two seasons to receive the maximum.

"It's really tough, because there is a sense of urgency, and guys are ready to get back out there on the field," Lewis said. "Guys don't know what's going on, what's going through the owners' heads or when a deal is going to get done. So there is just a lot of he-say, he-say stuff going on. But I'm just ready to get back to football and what I love to do.

"We are just sitting back hoping things get better. Football is important in this country. It makes us a lot of money. It's how we pay bills, so I just hope they get something done."

Others hope an agreement can be reached soon, so they won't become a burden on their parents. After being drafted in the third round, Keenan Lewis and Steltz figured their days of leaning on their parents for support were over.

However, the lockout also ended the players' medical benefits.

Under the federal law known as COBRA, players can continue existing medical coverage for themselves and their families for up to 18 months, but it's expensive. A new federal health care law allows those who are 26 years old and younger to return to their parents' health insurance.

"I'm 24, so I got lucky," Steltz said. "All this health insurance stuff came around, and I was scrambling about what to do. They sent us COBRA. And out of the blue, someone reminded me that 'Man, you are 24; you can get on your parents' insurance.'

"I said, 'Man, this is awesome. I'm a professional athlete and I am getting on my parent's insurance.' I got lucky on that, but some of the guys have families and children, and they are having to pay for their own health insurance now. It's just the little small things that you are having to pick up now in this uncertainty that you wouldn't have had to worry about before."

Added Keenan Lewis, another former Walker player: "It's scary not to have insurance."

On their own

The lockout has left many young players scurrying for advice about places to work out and how to manage their time.

There is a court hearing Wednesday, when a lawsuit filed by 10 players requesting an injunction to end the lockout will be heard in U.S. District Court in St. Paul, Minn. However, with no other potential end in sight, many players have been flocking to strength and conditioning coaches to stay in shape because they aren't allowed at their teams' training facilities.

Local fitness coach Duke Rousse said he has seen an uptick in business. Former Saints tight end Billy Miller, who owns and runs a training facility in California, tweeted earlier this spring that his place is open for players to work out.

"We have a lot of guys who are actually bringing in teammates," Rousse said. "They need a place to train, and I know they feel comfortable here.

"It's definitely picking up. Instead of me reaching out to the players, the players are the ones reaching out. They call saying, 'Coach, you have a great reputation and this is where I want to be.' "

But there is only so much Rousse and Miller, who have a who's-who lists of clients, can do for the athletes. Eventually, they'll need to get back to training with their teams, especially the younger players who are still trying to break into the lineup.

Because players can't have contact with anyone associated with the NFL, young players could struggle to master their team's system and be behind once football returns.

"The chemistry of you trying to build and get to a championship is the toughest part," Kendrick Lewis said. "Trying to get players on the same page and working out and trying to build chemistry is what the lockout is taking away."

Several young players said players who weren't drafted or aren't currently under contract will face an even more daunting task.

"I feel bad for people who are trying to make the team, people who were not drafted or are free agents," Wallace said. "It's not really about myself. ... But for guys who don't know what's going on and are just trying to make a way, it's going to be a slim chance for them. That's the only thing that's going to be bad."

Marlon Favorite, a defensive tackle who prepped at West Jefferson and played at LSU, agreed.

He was nearly in that number, but he signed a two-year contract with the New England Patriots after the 2010 season, which should allow him some degree of security.

"It would have definitely been mind-wracking (if not signed) because of the thought of not knowing," Favorite said. "At least right now I am with the Patriots, so I know I am working toward something. The thought of not being able to do that would be nerve-wracking.

"This is my eighth team in two years -- so I can say that I know what it's like not to be playing football."

Nakia Hogan can be reached at nhogan@timespicayune.com or 504.826.3405.
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