METAIRIE, La. -- It took all of 10 minutes into his visit at the Saints' facility for first-round pick Johnathan Sullivan to begin his NFL baptism. The New Orleans Saints' top pick had been on the ground just long enough to understand the Saints were not going to wait long to get their money's worth.
|Jon Stinchcomb and Johnathan Sullivan take a break with Jay Glazer. (Provided to SportsLine)|
With that, a first-rounder's honeymoon ended. For an outsider, the immediacy was shocking. Venturi played a tape of the Saints' finale vs. the Panthers and began the first lessons of a new career.
"This is called Under 89, Closed Left and we'll shade you out a little bit, put you foot-to-foot with the center, so you can really fire in there and raise some hell," the excited coach said. "You see what we want from you in there? You got that?"
"Yes, sir," said Sullivan, his catch phrase for the day. On the play, the Panther back runs right then cuts left, leaving a Saints defensive lineman stuck in his tracks.
"You see that right there? We'd expect you to make that play," the highly respected Venturi said. "We think you will make that play, that's why we are so excited about you.
"On that play we'd expect you to fire back there and make the tackle. We don't want you to worry about keeping blockers off guys. We want you to use your nastiness and your quickness and your strength and get back there and raise some hell."
There was that phrase again.
"Before I let you go, I know you have a lot of people you need to see, but I just need to go over a little more with you," the coach said as he forwarded the tape to another play. "This is our Hawk defense with an 'over' front. You'll be shading away from the close. You'd play run to the A gap but wrap him to pass."
Welcome to NFL CoachSpeak 101. Of course the kid responded with a "Yes, sir," but it was clear the light went on upstairs when the coach continued to speak the language of football.
"You see how long it's taking our guy to get around on that stunt?" he asked. "You'll learn about this package this week at minicamp. It won't take you as long, but you need to know what you've got to do out there. "We're going to have Charles Grant and Darren Howard set the table this year, and you have to work that table. We'll start shaping our 2003 defense as early as this Thursday. We need you to be one of the guys who comes together for us the quickest."
The two continued to talk in what seemed like secret codes for another five minutes before Sullivan's initiation was over.
"I would not have been surprised if we watched a little film, but I did not expect to get some game plan already," he said. "It's all really exciting. I'm at a loss for words right now."
Actually, he was at a loss for words the moment his Saints experience began. Sullivan arrived in New Orleans 30 minutes before his meeting with Venturi.
He and his University of Georgia teammate Jon Stinchcomb, who just happened to be the team's second-rounder, walked through the gate at the Louis Armstrong International Airport through a sea of people unaware they were in the presence of the Saints' newest millionaires. They greeted Saints director of PR Greg Bensel, who for the eighth consecutive year arrived via limousine to grab the team's top pick, and an accompanying reporter.
The two pillars marched toward an enormous 16-seat Cadillac Escalade limo when they were recognized by a fan of their new team. A 40ish-looking man ran up to the pair, welcomed them to the Big Easy with a handshake and pulled out the obligatory pen and pad to ask for their first autographs as NFL players.
"This is the first one," Stinchcomb muttered, as if to convince himself of this new reality. "Thank you, sir, but that's the guy you want. Make sure you get his, because he's our first-rounder."
Along with Sullivan's agent, Len Rowe, the group climbed into the car and headed nervously to meet their newest employers. During the short ride to the team's facility, the two talked as if they were going to swear off telephones for good.
"I made the mistake of having three phones going yesterday after I was picked," Stinchcomb said. "It's a great feeling, but they were ringing off the hook. How many calls have I gotten? I don't know anymore. I lost count."
Their first day on the job was nothing short of insane. Crammed into a five-hour stay was an appearance at a baseball game, a radio interview with a former major-league star, tax forms, equipment fittings and introduction upon introduction to their new family members. No amount of time would be wasted. Sullivan and Stinchcomb were handed off like batons from department to department.
Their visit began with a stop into the war room to meet the Saints hierarchy. As the Bulldogs entered the Saints draft room, owner Tom Benson, general manager Mickey Loomis, director of personnel Rick Mueller, senior football administrator Russ Ball and coach Jim Haslett all rose from their seats to meet and greet.
They were then separated for the first time in their short careers -- Stinchcomb heading for a tour with offensive line coach Jack Henry and Sullivan getting the grand tour of the grounds with his new D-line teacher, Sam Clancy.
"These are the equipment guys, make sure you're good to these guys or else they'll give you somebody else's dirty jocks," Clancy joked, sensing the youngster's nervousness. "You're going to have a lot of fun here. I'm not saying we won't push you to the limits, but you'll want to go to the brink for us.
"You're going to love it here because we're all straight shooters," the coach continued, partly to ease Sullivan's nerves, partly to prepare him. "Mr. Benson is a great owner to work for. He gives it to you how it is, and he's fair. Nobody here lets their egos get in the way."
Sullivan was then paraded from coach to coach, beginning with Venturi's impromptu session. He was followed by linebackers coach Winston Moss, then special teams coach Al Everest.
"I'm numb right now," Sullivan said. "When I first started meeting everyone, I was really nervous, but by the time I got to the back of the room (with the Saints hierarchy), they had gotten a lot of that nervousness to leave."
The jitters might have dissipated, but their first-day grind was just beginning. The duo was asked to make decision upon decision, including some of the same predicaments the average U.S. citizen grapples with.
"Hey, guys, I need two forms of ID, I need you to fill out the W-4 basic tax form and I need you to fill out the I-9 citizenship papers," Debbie Gallagher in the personnel office said.
In the first hour on the new job, Sullivan had already been schooled by Venturi, introduced to countless faces, fitted for helmets, asked to choose from about 50 facemasks and now required to actually concentrate and fill out forms?
"Ma'am, neither one of us have any idea how to fill out a W-4 form," said Stinchcomb, making perfectly good sense since college players are prevented from working. "Do I really need to do this now? I'll call my agent and ask him what he recommends I claim."
|Johnathan Sullivan is fitted for his new headgear. (AP)|
"There was a lot of stuff that we had to do that I probably didn't expect," Stinchcomb said. "Things that you would not think about, but I guess they have to be done at some point. It's been pretty intense so far."
Following their real world experience, the two were finally led to the first step in the fantasy world of being a pro athlete. The Bulldogs were chauffeured to the New Orleans Zephyrs Triple-A baseball game, where they threw out the first pitch and received a standing ovation from the crowd.
"I threw a 93-mile-per-hour knuckleball straight down the middle," joked Sullivan.
The two were then whisked to the press box for a radio interview with former New York Mets star Ron Swoboda before heading back to the Saints complex to finalize their minicamp uniforms and say their goodbyes.
They were nearly out the door, their nervous ordeal minutes from ending, when they received one final dose of reality.
"We just traded Norman Hand," Bensel told Sullivan. "That is who played your position here last year. Have you heard the news yet? No? Well, we just sent him to Seattle for a sixth-round pick."
"That means you can't let your agent hold you out of camp, Johnathan," bellowed Clancy, who actually towered over the massive Sullivan. "Don't let me hear that you won't be in camp on time. You have to be here. We're counting on you."
Day 1 of his new life had ended. He and Stinchcomb headed back to the limo with a handful of parting gifts and tried to digest the experience in their new home city.
"It's a different career, because most people when they get jobs they aren't told they have to go live somewhere," Stinchcomb said. "Most other people get a choice, but we don't. I got lucky, because I really like it down here. There were some other places I would have been disappointed to have to go live. But not New Orleans. This has all worked out really well for us."
At least until they get stuck in those film rooms again or asked to fill out tax returns.